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The bizarre paradox: love for art, contempt for artists

It's not exactly a new concept that with today's easy access to performances on the Internet, not to mention freedom to comment on every article and issue, everybody's an expert and everybody, it seems, feels free to contribute their opinion on any and every subject. (And hey, look, I'm about to do the same).

Take this guy, a self-employed online investment researcher who in the same breath decries the striking San Francisco Orchestra members as "union thugs" who should be satisfied with their salaries because they're already "far above the San Francisco household median" and claims that they are compromising "the reputation of one of the world's greatest performing ensembles" with their greed when they should be grateful to make "over $85K per year to do something a talented high school musician can do for free".  Please note that he's disabled comments to his post, as his opinion is apparently the only one that matters. I was about to go out on a limb and speculate that his own salary was probably far above the San Francisco household median as well, but then I actually looked through his website and realized that he's basically a day trader, aggrandizing himself by referring to himself as CEO of his one-person company,  and hoping to convince others to throw in with him.  This does not, however, prevent his personal arrogance and contempt for the work of others from oozing from every word his (fantasized) executive assistant typed for him; and  his ignorance is both cacophonous and willful.  He even admits he doesn't know the first thing about music, but he doesn't think it can be that hard to play at the level of a musician in one of the world's greatest performing arts ensembles. I don't know anything about investing, either, but anybody in a bathrobe and bunny slippers armed with an Internet connection can be a day trader. Transfer a few million into my credit union account, will ya? I'm pretty sure I can do your job, too. Can I borrow your copy of Investing for Dummies?

Then there's Manuela Hoelterhoff, a lady with some genuine musical street cred. A Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, journalist, and Guggenheim Award winner, she is the former Books and Arts editor of the Wall Street Journal, the author of Cinderella & Company: Backstage at the Opera with Cecilia Bartoli, and is currently the executive editor of Bloomberg Muse. And yet in her recent editorial about the San Francisco strike, she writes so contemptuously of the musicians and their work. The musicians are "sulky". They want a "free vacation". They are striking because they  "don’t like doing what they are meant to be doing". All they have to do, after all, is "rehearse, play and go home".  And like the arrogant businessman above, Ms. Hoelterhoff doesn't understand all this hoopla over salary and thinks the musicians should be grateful for the nice living they're already making. After all, once upon a time, she was a high school bassoonist and she knows what it's like to play "oompah-oompah". She doesn't begrudge them getting paid for that; she just thinks they need to stop whining and instead "slobber" all over the executive director for the deal he's brokered, and they have (so far) rejected. Like her businessman compatriot, she thinks management is where the REAL work is taking place, and despite her obvious affection for the arts, now that these uppity musicians have gotten too big for their britches, they must be "ridiculed" and accused of childish, selfish motives for wanting a better deal. Can an intelligent person really believe that highly trained and dedicated musicians --- who do a hell of a lot more than play "oompah-oompah" --- are striking because they don't LIKE the jobs they've worked all their lives to attain, because they're lazy and want a vacation, or because they're sulking? Apparently so. Thankfully, Classical KUSC radio host Brian Lauriztson refutes Ms. Hoelterhoff's misguided diatribe much better than I could, here.

Contrary to appearances, I'm not really here to write about the San Francisco Orchestra strike, or labor disputes in general, or the troubled state of many of our great orchestras and opera companies and other arts organizations  throughout the country, though as a professional musician and union member, my heart goes out to my colleagues in their struggles and I fully support them in their efforts to be treated and compensated fairly. FWIW, I don't have a horse in the labor dispute race; opera singers' career paths and salaries are completely different than orchestral musicians'.

No, what fascinates me  about all this is how people are so eager to attack musicians and other artists. They're happy enough to have the music and to support the arts --- up to a point. And that point is usually whenever an artist is arrogant enough to speak out: about compensation, about  working conditions, about the difficulties of building a career, about ... well, about anything at all, really, other than actually making art. Nobody wants to have their illusions about the glamourous life shattered by really getting to understand the dirty undercarriage.

A few more cases in point:

- In a comment thread about singers paying auditions fees (see my own post on this subject), a poster with the handle  HasBeen, who Mr. Lebrecht subsequently identifies as a "successful agent", criticizes singers for "moaning" and postulates that "charging is one way of filtering out the many hopefuls and dreamers". First, merely being opposed to and discussing a common business practice does not in an of itself constitute "moaning". Is any dissension to be thus characterized? So it would seem. Second, this is an argument I've heard many times, although I've yet to hear anyone elaborate on how this is supposed to work. There are plenty of hopefuls and dreamers who have loads of talent and a log of hard work to back up their pursuit of a career, but little cash to bankroll it; and plenty more who lack either the talent or the discipline but DO have funding. I suppose the sentiment is that artists are supposed to sacrifice to attain their careers, and every successful artist I know (as well as a  great number of unsuccessful ones) have indeed sacrificed; but for all of us there comes a point at which there is just no more blood to be squeezed from the stone.

- Maestro Anthony Pappano, conductor at the Royal Opera, recently fomented something of a brouhaha with his harsh opinion of today's young singers, who, he said, canceled at the slightest excuse and seemed "weaker in body", or perhaps uncaring. Ironically, a few days after this pronouncement, he himself withdrew from an engagement due to a flareup of tendonitis in his elbow.

- A few years back, Joe Muench, a reporter for the El Paso Times, got his panties in a wad over the city council giving $50,000 to help the opera out.  In the resulting diatribe, while fully admitting he'd never been to an opera and didn't particularly want to go, he proceeded to haul out every dogeared operatic stereotype, complaining about how much opera costs, including "all that meat, cakes, and pies for the diva. And her travel expenses, geesh! ... You have to call Union Pacific and book a flatcar." Classy, yes? He also mourned the idea that schoolchildren might be subjected to opera in the classroom instead of much more enlightening monster truck rallies, apparently unaware of El Paso Opera's popular outreach efforts.   Happily, this infantile and unresearched rant received a record number of responses from opera singers around the country, eager to set the record straight ... I confess to being one of them. ;) I can't locate the link to the original article, but you can find a copy of it as well as much discussion here.

- On a more personal level, I've had a recent exchange with a fellow who claims to be a retired professional percussionist, and who now sings chorus in community musicals (he doesn't really want to, but his wife makes him). He is absolutely convinced, based on his experience playing for regional opera orchestras and a quick perusal of my performance schedule, that I am lying about being a fulltime singer; and has been extremely vocal in his contempt towards any singer who is not making  a salary equivalent of a professional, tenured orchestral musician employed by a major orchestra (even though he doesn't really have any idea of what a working regional singer does make). It's quite fascinating to me that this person and others like him are so very invested in making a very specific effort to find and bash singers, based on ... what? Envy, perhaps?

The love/hate relationship with artists is really nothing new. In 1600s  and well into the 19th century, a patronage system was in place and artists of all disciplines, including music --- even those we now most highly respect and revere, such as Mozart and Bach --- were servants of wealthy nobles, and very much subject to their whims. These nobles valued their servants' creativity and artistry, and these composers, artists, and writers were awarded privileges and a certain amount of respect --- but they were still very much subject to the whims of their masters, and very much of a lower class, to be put in their places when they overstepped their bounds.

Artists at the top of their profession --- i.e., famous people --- are frequently subjected to both fawning idol worship and harshest criticism over every speck of minutia from their hairstyle and fashion sense to choice of phrasing in a famous aria. This attention, and even controversy, actually can play in the artist's favor --- who cares what they're saying about you as long as they're talking, right? Interestingly,the rules are a little different for those whose careers play out in the trenches, so to speak. I personally --- and I'd venture to guess, most singers --- have repeatedly encountered an attitude of dismissal, condescension, and sometimes outright contempt from so-called fans who believe that if you ain't famous, you ain't nothin'. And even if you are famous, sometimes there is still a sense of ownership, as if by purchasing a ticket to one of your performances, a fan has purchased access to your personal life, and/or the right to say whatever he pleases.

I remember one incident, years ago, when I was singing in the ensemble of Phantom of the Opera in LA. POTO was a HUGE deal back then, and every night there were fans crowded around the stage door waiting for the artists to exit. The big stars usually went out a different way, expressly to avoid the autograph gauntlet, but we plebes preferred it as the shortest route to the parking lot; we chatted with the regulars who knew all our names, and  it wasn't unusual to be asked for autographs and photos as well. On this particular night, there was a well-dressed family: dad, mom, couple of excited little girls. The dad accosted me as I was exiting the theater. "Are you  in the show?" he asked excitedly. I said yes, and told him which characters I played. "Yeah, whatever," he said dismissively. "Is the girl gonna come out?" "The girl?" I asked, somewhat less congenially. "Yeah, the girl. You know, the lead girl." I gave him a cold smile and said, "I assume you're referring to Dale Kristien, who plays Christine? Is that the 'girl' you're asking about?" "Yeah!" he said impatiently. "The lead girl!"

If that jerk hadn't had his two cute little girls standing there in the cold, I would have sweetly informed him that if he waited until about ten minutes after eeeevvvvverybody else had left, Miss Kristien would be coming out that stage door and he'd have her all to himself. As it was, I simply said, "No" and continued to walk away. He didn't thank me.

BTW, we have a rude name for people like that in the business. I won't repeat it here, but I'll note that they are universally despised, especially by the stars.

Now, for every self-important, self-appointed expert and rude jerk I've met in my life as a singer, I've met many, many more kind and lovely people who are genuine fans and genuinely interested in the art form and, sometimes, even in me personally. And I am thrilled to share my love for this genre with them. I'm thrilled to hear their stories and pass on a few of mine, and answer their questions about what it's really like to be an opera singer. (I especially love to answer those questions, because the general public often has very odd ideas indeed about how opera singers live and how the career works. The other day, I was at one of those walk-in health clinics, and when I told the nurse practitioner that I was an opera singer, she was stunned. "I would NEVER have figured you for an opera singer,"she said. "You're so personable. I thought maybe you were in sales.").

But there are those souls, such as our self-aggrandizing "CEO",  former US Attorney General John Ashcroft (a country western fan who famously hated on the NEA for supporting "elitist" art forms such as opera and other classical genres ), and yes, all those inevitable sourpuss Internet experts who remark on every Youtube video and thread who have it in for artists. And my admittedly unscientific theory on "why" is this: they're jealous.

They're jealous because artists are making a living at doing something fun, something they enjoy, something that other people go to see for fun. Often artists are making a living doing something that others may enjoy as a hobby, and if they can do it as a hobby, why should someone else get paid to do it? Artists are often seen as being hedonists (and hey --- it's often true, and so what?). Their lives, seen from the outside, seem ridiculously glamourous: Travel! Playing music! Dressing up in pretty clothes! Having whole staffs of people fussing over you! Getting written up in the press! Fancy parties! You're not tied down to some humdrum 9 to 5 job.  YOU GET PAID TO PLAY.

(When you add singing into the mix, people are even weirder about it, because technically at least, singing is something any healthy person can do, and they don't understand the level of training it takes to achieve a high level classical technique. That, and they're in love with the myth of the Overnight Success, fed by shows like American Idol and its ilk).

Very few people see, or really understand, what it takes to build a successful career in the arts, whether it's as an orchestral musician, an opera soloist, a conductor, a composer, or for that matter, a writer, a painter, a dancer. There's a LOT of boring, repetitive, unglamourous work. Travel is really, really not glamourous, at least not the way most musicians do it. The business side of it frequently and quite tremendously sucks. And as a rule, we don't really expect, or need, for the general public or even our fan base to understand the grimey bits of what we do. We understand that we're providing entertainment, and seeing the cogs and grease, interesting as it might be, can detract from the pretty picture.

What would be nice, however, is to have some respect. Respect that we know what we're doing, and we might have some insights into the business that a dilettante or casual observer doesn't. Respect that our work is worthy of fair renumeration. Respect that even those of us who never achieve fame are still doing worthy and valuable work, just like any other honest laborer.

I don't come from money. My dad was an accountant and my mom was a homemaker and writer. They taught me to respect hard work, and to respect hard workers. They always told me, "It doesn't matter what you do for a living as long as you are putting in an honest day's work. The guy who puts in a full day digging ditches deserves as much respect as the man who runs a bank." And maybe that's the root of the problem --- deep down, a lot of people don't see artists as putting in an honest day's work.

All I have left to say about that is, if you really think that's true, buy yourself a Peter Grimes  or a Rake's Progress score and get to it. We'll go easy on you. You don't even have to learn it in a foreign language, your first time out.