Letter from the Provinces: The End of Music Spells the End of Us All

Ethelbert Nevin

[December 2003.]

What prompts such a fatalistic letter? Why, nothing short of the end of the music we know and love. You’re probably not surprised by my characteristically pessimistic tenor. Allow me to relate a pair of alarming news items.

First a digression: My earliest experiences with classical music were via the radio. Back in the heyday of adventurous programming, Friday’s dinner was choreographed around an extraordinarily difficult music quiz which yielded a treasured first exposure to Messiaen. Equally formative were the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, especially during my own radio days when I had to “fill the window,” taking over the reins from Peter Allen to announce station breaks.

The conglomerate now known as ChevronTexaco has announced that after 64 seasons, they’re pulling out, leaving the annual $7 million tab to someone else. They claim it’s time to focus their community efforts elsewhere and that opera doesn’t sell gas. Passing through strange towns, I’ve chosen Texaco over unknowns purely because of their opera sponsorship. Well, now I’ll take a chance on Ed’s Filling Station instead.

The $7 million covers operating expenses such as broadcast equipment, salaries, royalties, publicity, et al. This isn’t a big sum in entertainment land: Find a good starting pitcher or cast a movie with a leading actor for just that much. Of course we’re all chipping in for that $87 billion to put Iraq back together.

No new sponsor has been announced yet, no Parsifal has appeared on the horizon. There are fears that the treasured Saturday afternoon tradition will go the way of 78s.

The loss will be huge. The Metropolitan Opera calculates a reach of 11 million radio listeners across dozens of countries. Fans as far away as New Zealand will be inconsolable. Folks all across the globe, especially young ones, will lose a valued chance to tune into opera at its best. Without curious young audiences, overall listenership declines. Without an audience so goes the music. It’s not just about maintaining traditions. Exposure to great art isn’t something you can grow numb to, especially if you never get the chance in the first place.

The other story? A regional holiday tradition and the arts organization that creates it are in jeopardy. Boston’s Wang Center for the Performing Arts does not want the Boston Ballet’s acclaimed production of The Nutcracker to return to its stage next holiday season, preferring instead a potentially more lucrative, definitely less imaginative appearance by the touring “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” (which does its thing to canned music and not a live orchestra). The local press is in an uproar: columnists damning the Wang’s decision, panning the Radio City show, predicting the end of the Boston Ballet itself. The city’s mayor has offered the town’s convention center, a generous gesture; however, ingenious staging, costumes and lighting are not a good fit for a gymnasium with roll-up carpeting.

The Ballet’s budget leans on Tchaikovsky’s seasonal classic for approximately 30% of its $20 million. Last year’s production failed to fill the Wang and the Ballet promptly pruned $3.5 million from its operating expenses, dropping 11 jobs and four performances each of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker. Word on the street is that without a suitable venue for Clara and the Mouse King, there will be no run at all. Consequently, no more Ballet. Ironically, sales this season are extraordinarily brisk, soccer moms in red sweaters fearing sugar plums dancing in shoe boxes.

It all comes down to money. Everyone hates the filthy lucre’s power, yet we all want more. In a soured economy, return on investment trumps altruism. Fears of war, terrorism and flu compel decamping to basics. But the arts are what make us human, strengthen our memories and build character. Except for the Spartans, civilizations are remembered by their culture, and we’re on track to becoming extinct.