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Is “the New” Helpful or Harmful?

Teatro alla Scala (Photo:iStock/jericho667)

I spent much of last summer engrossed in the new biography of Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor, which was reviewed in the New York Times last June. At over 900 pages, the biography by Harvey Sachs has represented quite an investment of my time — but it has been worthwhile simply to gain historical perspective on the fields of opera and symphonic music in the 20th century. In the early years, people like Toscanini were bigger than today’s rock stars. In Italy, when Toscanini led La Scala, opera was the dominant form of popular entertainment and operas had to be performed many times to accommodate demand. What changed, according to Sachs, was in part the coming of cinema – certainly not a surprise. What was a surprise (at least to me) was the fact that Sachs believes that opera’s decline in Italy was also influenced by its transition from an art form constantly rejuvenated by new work to a form consisting primarily of repeat classics. In Toscanini’s day, fully half the productions at La Scala featured new compositions. Many, if not most, of the operas that were presented there are forgotten today just as the majority of this year’s new movies will be forgotten a decade hence. But the medium was constantly being refreshed and there was always a reason to attend.

So I have been puzzling out the whole question of whether “the new” is helpful or harmful in opera and symphonic music. With “the new” of technology, it has been a mixed bag. Cinema helped kill much of Italian opera’s popularity but around the same time, recordings became a boon to symphony orchestras, contributing millions of dollars to their bottom lines with Toscanini being one of the biggest sellers. On the other hand, more recently, the coming of the internet has led to the collapse of that same recording industry, contributing to the woes of orchestras. With opera, the advent of High Definition (HD) has led to millions of new opera goers enjoying extraordinary Metropolitan Opera productions at local movie theatres for a fraction of what it would cost to see the same productions live. But it has also cannibalized the Met’s own live audiences and been a disaster for many local opera companies that cannot possibly compete with the high production values of the Met. And while new work made Italian opera a popular art form for decades, if not centuries, it was a difficult slog for symphony orchestras over the last half century where ticket-buyers and donors have demanded the same old classics.

The lesson may be so obvious as to seem trite. Only organizations and art forms that are able to adapt can flourish in the long run.

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