The live loses out to the electronic in performance

December 14, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Why did the Baltimore Opera declare bankruptcy? Lots of reasons, starting with the global recession, but not ending there. Certainly endowments have lost value, and certainly modern opera productions are expensive to mount and there's little room for the kind of loss in revenue - ticket sales and underwriting - that the Baltimore Opera experienced this fall, even as it prepared to stage the always-popular Aida.

But there's something else going on, and it has been going on for a long time, and it starts with way too many people staying home and watching television. But it does not end there. People like to stay home and hang on their PC and do Facebook or Google their way through the world. Or they play video games. Or they watch movies on large-screens, doing that as much as possible to justify the investment in their home-entertainment centers.

We keep ourselves busy with all kinds of other distractions that do not require dressing like an adult, purchasing a ticket, driving from suburb to city and finding a place to park. We are busier than ever - and not because the booming economy has us working overtime, but because the Internet and the digital age have sucked us into a whole new environment for work, play and civic engagement.

The world changed, right before our eyes.

Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Once upon a time, the only way to be entertained was to go out and get it. You had to buy a ticket to hear a concert or an opera, or see a play or musical. You had to hitch up the horses and take a ride to the opera house. And this sort of quaint thing - actually sitting in a theater or grand hall, watching live actors and listening to live musicians, laughing at live vaudevillians and stand-up comics - continued well into the 20th century. I know - I saw it with my own eyes.

You can still do that sort of thing today.

But it's long gone as the only option for entertainment. Many people have dropped it altogether, preferring televised or cyber-entertainment to anything actually alive.

Still, it's not the expense and the trouble that keep more Americans from venturing out for the truly life-affirming experiences that come from the performing arts, or even visits to museums. It's that there is so much else to do, and from the comfort of our modern, wired caves.

Studies have shown for several years now that the percentage of adults patronizing arts events has either been static or falling, particularly for plays, opera and the ballet.

But I don't think we're losing interest in the arts. Americans still love music, drama and comedy. It's the form those things take that matters. We're still in the shock-and-awe stage of new technology, and it's winning. The Baltimore Opera's Web page announces the company's Chapter 11 filing and its cancellation of the second half of its 2008-2009 season. Yet it still advertises a high-definition simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera on a big screen at the Lyric stage, ironically promoted as "the ultimate stage spectacle."

The bankruptcy of Baltimore Opera is a sad development and a terrible loss for the city. We have seen outstanding and memorable productions over the years that Michael Harrison ran the show, with the company's repertoire expanding and major American and international artists being hired. (A Flying Dutchman with James Morris, Paul Plishka and Christopher Merritt; a Tannhauser directed by Werner Herzog - it's hard to imagine anything better in New York or Chicago.)

But if the Baltimore Opera emerges again from bankruptcy, those who run it will have to figure some way of appealing to a rising generation of adults wired for digital experiences. I hope I'm around to see the Baltimore Opera emerge from these ashes, artistically superb again but hip to the new world.

Maybe, in the future, all operas will be performed on massive sound stages, with the images sent to our homes via the Internet or sent anywhere via mobile phone. Maybe the elephant in Aida will be a hologram - not because an elephant isn't available but because a hologram is cooler.

Live drama is wonderful, and I would never want to give it up, but it may not be the experience future audiences desire. They may want something far more interactive. Maybe they'd like to be able to stop the action and get director's notes, or listen to a podcast interview with the playwright. Maybe Center Stage will have to send text messages to audience members who want obscure references in dialogue explained or who lost track of the plot.

I don't know. I'm speculating. But it's the kind of speculation that excites people - where the technology of communication becomes part of performance, and the experience is wholly interactive. (Irene Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director, noted that young people in some recent audiences sent text-messages about performances as they were watching them, and she's not sure she thinks that's a bad thing.)

Baby boomers, and I am one, have an interesting view of things.

We can see a past when television was new and we can see a present with all kinds of toys and tools that increase the speed of life and make the world smaller. We've gone from three channels in black-and-white and rotary phones to HDTV and cell phones.

We've lived to see almost any snippet of a symphony or opera on YouTube, almost any good drama on television or DVD.

Where all this goes from here will be fascinating. Does the world of entertainment become wholly digitized? Does the virtual audience replace the live one?

I hope I'm around to see what happens.

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