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Opera: the meme

One of the latest wave of so-called Internet memes -- trends that spread rapidly to millions of Internet viewers, generally through links to YouTube -- involves making music in public spaces. You’ve seen them: the moments when train stations full of people break into song and dance; the musicals in the food court or grocery store. They're monuments of artificial spontaneity, framed by cell-phone and video cameras pulled out to document a moment created solely for the purpose of being documented.

A lot of these memes are advertisements (T-Mobile was responsible for the one in Liverpool Station). Yesterday, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra got in on the act. To spread the word about its upcoming performances involving members of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program (March 25-28) they costumed the young artists as grocery-store workers and set them loose in a Whole Foods to wreak the “Brindisi” from Verdi's "La Traviata" on an unsuspecting populace.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's the link to the official BSO/WNO version.

Classical music has a particularly uneasy relationship to public spaces these days. It’s so far outside of the public eye, so artificial, that it attracts attention but has a hard time rousing a participatory spark. In fact, it’s increasingly accepted that a lot of people actively don’t like it. Classical music played in public spaces means, these days, not a calming influence but a way to discourage loiterers, particularly teens, everywhere from 7-11 stores to transit hubs like the London Underground.
(read more after the jump)

At the same time, classical music is actively seeking new contexts, and trying to break down barriers with a determination that at times borders on the manic. The Zurich Opera House did an entire production of “La traviata” in the train station a couple of years ago (here’s their version of the "Brindisi" with Vittorio Grigolo, known at the Washington National Opera for his appearances in “Bohème” and “Lucrezia Borgia”). Doing a whole opera production like this, in a city in which opera still plays a considerable role, helps to mitigate one of the key factors in this kind of public performance: its discomfort. Part of the energy fueling the grocery-store musical, or the WNO young artists’ “Brindisi,” derives from the embarrassment of people exposing themselves in unexpected ways, doing things that may or may not be seen as stupid.

The issue of context is particularly important for classical music because out of context, much of the general public has no idea how to deal with it. The same person who is able to sit in silence in a darkened concert hall while a symphony orchestra plays or clap along when a bunch of people start dancing to “Shout” in a train station may be at a loss when presented with classical music in the absence of any markers indicating what he or she is supposed to make of it. (One notorious recent illustration is the story of Joshua Bell playing in a Metro station in Washington without attracting any notice at all. Some suggested afterwards that eye contact, establishing even a minimal connection with his audience -- as most performers naturally do -- might have made a difference.)

Indeed, the Whole Foods video represents, unintentionally, something quite subversive. It’s clear that no one involved is quite sure what to make of it: the singers, the other employees, the few shoppers captured in this particular version of the event (and there will be other documentations of it), or those of us watching on their computers. Is it cute? Funny? Weird? Well-done? Cheesy? Is the disconnect between the content of the music and the setting of the performance too great to make any sense, or will that become part of the video’s wacky charm? The measure of success, in this medium, is the number of hits a video gets, regardless of whether people are laughing at or with it. It’s an ad, after all. The unknown quantity is whether classical music in this context, stripped of its conventions, without any clear markers, is going to make people want to come back for more, or drive them away.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 25, 2010; 6:38 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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“Classical music has a particularly uneasy relationship to public spaces these days. It’s so far outside of the public eye.” (Anne Midgette, Washington Post, March 25, 2010)


The National Symphony Orchestra performs, in dry weather, three times a year for free on our National Mall – on Memorial Day, on Independence Day, and on Labor Day.
Other orchestras, from the New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Symphony, also offer free outdoors performances in public spaces.

The Washington National Opera has also performed on the National Mall, in the autumn – although I believe that it has now found reasons to produce its annual mass outreach opera performance only at the Washington Nationals Ballpark.

The Vocal Arts Society of Washington has joined in to produce major outdoor concerts of classical music – in their case, American classical music. This took place at the same time that the Washington National Opera was abandoning its promise to Congress and to the American people to stage an annual American classical opera.

Classical music is also often represented as part of the free Millennium Stage programming each day at the very public space of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts.

Classical music also fills the public spaces and outdoor steps of such public Washington, D.C. institutions as the National Gallery of Art – West and East Buildings, the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum, the Freer-Sackler Museums, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Martin Luther King Memorial Public Library. Given street noise, public atrium are perhaps to be preferred to public steps.

In winter months, recorded classical music is represented at the National Ice-Skating Rink, inside the National Sculpture Garden, next to the National Gallery of Art.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 25, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Classical music is also again – thankfully – on the Washington Educational Television Association FM Radio affiliate (and now also the digital radio affiliate). The mission of the Washington Educational Television Association is to produce and broadcast programs of intellectual integrity and cultural merit that recognize viewers’ AND LISTENERS’ intelligence, curiosity and interest in the world around them (including the United States of America)?

Rather, I would say that the German Bayreuth Festival has historically had a particularly uneasy – and in fact DEEPLY TROUBLED– relationship to public spaces. The pre-curtain brass flourishes are not enough to address this deep problem. (In contrast, the Bavarian State Opera broadcasts some performances to the public square on which it stands.)

What more could be done?

Perhaps classical music could be featured more often on the Washington Educational Television Associations “Around Town” program, which is now slightly biased toward the visual arts and theater – and against classical music, especially American classical music.

And perhaps the Washington National Opera could honor its promise to Congress and to the American people to stage an American classical opera every season, and that seasonal American classical opera could -- in many autumns and springs -- be shared for free on the National Mall or the Washington Nationals Ballpark.

What do others recommend?

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 25, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

That’s a whole lot of intellectual horsepower spent on something that was clearly designed as a clever publicity stunt. Can it not be enjoyed for what it is – a creative way to draw attention to a concert featuring WNO’s Domingo Cafritz Young Artists with the BSO and maybe, just possibly, sell a few more tickets?

Sometimes, I think it’s OK to take things at face value. And, you have to give those involved credit. With coverage in the papers, on TV, on the Web and, now, even in your humble blog, they clearly accomplished their goal.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | March 25, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I agree with newcriticalcritic and snaketime, Anne, you may be over-thinking this one (of course, that's your job!). Watching the video, I don't see what you see when you comment "it's clear no one knows what to make of it." The singers appear to be having a great time, and although some of the listeners appear slightly nonplussed, others are clearly delighted.

Of course it was slightly silly, but most publicity stunts are, and good for the BSO and the young singers for being able to laugh at themselves in order to get the word out. I doubt anybody who heard them in the grocery store is going to run out and buy tickets, but that wasn't the point of the whole exercise. The point of publicity is to create "buzz," pure and simple, that helps raise the organization's visibility in its community. They did that quite successfully.

Posted by: abuelow | March 25, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

It was cute, but too elaborate and staged to be a true "flash mob" event.

I had to turn it off at about 1:20 when the soprano caterwauling started.

Posted by: brichapman | March 26, 2010 12:05 AM | Report abuse

This looks like a direct copy of something done much better at a public market in Valencia, Spain -- more people, better reaction, really well done. For the amount of work that must have gone into this, it should have been done outside in a bigger crowd. Watch this one:

Posted by: bayareaoperalover | March 26, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

C'mon guys, lighten up. It's pure fun and it is so rare to snatch a few moments of joy in our daily routines. Sorry I wasn't there to see it. Sorry I wasn't in Valencia as well (though there did appear to be a few grumps in the crowd.) Sorry I missed Joshua Bell at the metro stop.

And I will confess that whenever I'm feeling down, a reviewing of the Antwerp train station version of Do-Re-Mi always cheers me up.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | March 30, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Count me among those who find this really tacky. Midgette might be on to something in her reference that the measure of success is not how many Whole Foods customers come to an opera, rather how many hits it gets on YouTube. So is WNO using the customers then? Midgette, are you suggesting that had videos not been there, it wouldn't have been done at all?

Posted by: geddaisgod | March 30, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

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