The Royal Opera House recently announced it would soon begin beaming performances to American movie theaters, mimicking the broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. We have also seen several high profile theater productions transmitted in a similar manner. The rationale given for the value of these broadcasts is that they build new audiences, although the jury is still out on this. From my unscientific observation, it seems we are merely substituting one source of entertainment for another for the same, traditional audience.
This trend to broadcast performances raises several questions:
1. Are we witnessing a major transition in the arts from regional organizations to fewer mega-organizations with the sophistication to mount large scale productions, to market them well and to raise large sums of money?
Technology has certainly made it easier for consumers to access the best in culture - if not live than via their personal computers and mobile devices.
And as the cost of a ticket to a regional symphony or opera company has risen dramatically, is it now preferable to many consumers to watch name-brand singers, dancers and musicians at home, or a local movie theater at a far lower cost than going to a live performance at a regional venue?
2. Does this spell the end of the mid-sized regional arts organization? Will it be increasingly difficult to build an audience and a donor base for a $10 million arts organization? Will boards simply give up trying to fund ever-increasing budgets? Will many of these organizations shrink, or disappear entirely?
3. Is this the real lesson of the problems faced by the New York City Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, and all the other arts organizations that are closing or facing huge turmoil? Is it now simply too difficult to convince local donors that it is worth supporting a regional arts organization when one has access to the most famous in the world without making a significant investment?
4. Was the regional arts movement of the second half of the twentieth century just a transition phase for the arts in America? Will the Baby Boom generation be the last one to routinely attend live, fully professional performances? Will the only access to live arts for many Americans be school plays and recitals?
5. Are the pop-up opera and random acts of culture movements really about finding cheaper methods for producing live performances as a substitute for larger scale efforts rather than as a complement to them? Are they the only performances many cities will host in twenty years?
6. Will there soon be enough competition between performing arts behemoths that ticket prices for these broadcasts will fall and profits be squeezed? Will Der Rosenkavalier from the Royal Opera House be viewed any differently than from the Metropolitan Opera? This is the way most industries mature and I would not be surprised to see it happen in the arts as well.
7. And will the pressure to create work that sells to hundreds of thousands of people reduce the willingness of mega-organizations to take artistic risk?
The future of the live performing arts will be determined by the answers to these questions.