Lorely Zgonc, concertmaster of the Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre orchestras, passed away July 11 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. David Stabler has a lovely tribute article here.
Sam Bergman over at the Minnesota Orchestra has a great post about the apparent double standard between opera companies and symphony orchestras. In brief: orchestras are constantly being berated for having structural deficits and are forced to produce more and more for-profit-like business models, while opera companies lose tremendous amounts of money on high-tech experiments and new opera commissions that run once and are never seen or heard again.
But from a fiscal perspective, it’s been written that the Met is actually losing untold millions on these simulcasts, and doesn’t really have a plan for making them financially sustainable in the future. Now, imagine that this were a symphony orchestra doing this – beaming their concerts all over creation and charging $25 a head for people packed into a theater in Las Vegas or Paris to watch us play. Then imagine that the New York Times found out that said orchestra was going to run a multi-million dollar deficit this season because of the cost of production. Can you imagine what the reaction would be?
I can. The orchestra would be roundly blasted by everyone from critics to consultants to its own board members for behaving as if money grows on trees, the simulcasts would most certainly be canceled immediately, a feeble plea for funding to save them would go out to the usual corporations and foundations, and in all likelihood, would fall on deaf ears because there’s a massive recession going on, donchaknow. And I can’t really say that this wouldn’t be a defensible reaction from all involved.
But because we’re talking about the opera world, none of this seems to happen. Opera (at least grand opera presented by large companies) seems to get a near-total pass from the folks who are constantly harping on orchestras for being clueless, elitist organizations who pay their musicians and conductors too much and can’t seem to make a budget sheet balance. Maybe it’s that our vision of opera is so bound up with images of opulence and wretched excess that it somehow seems okay for opera companies to shoot for the stars even when it’s dangerous from a bottom-line perspective.
There was an orchestral audition that took place this weekend at the local opera company. It was an audition for nine violin positions. There were twelve applicants. Of these twelve, two were advanced out of the preliminary round to the finals. It isn’t clear if anyone was offered a position at the time this was being written. This is inexcusable.
I know many of those violinists who took this audition, and they are all superb musicians, and a good number of them are the best violinists in the city, freelance or otherwise. How is it that so few managed to meet the obviously high bar that the committee set for these auditions? I find it hard to believe that out of such a high quality field that only two were found worthy – and with NINE open positions to fill!
It also galls me because elitism-by-committee at any level of ensemble is deeply abhorrent to me. Auditions that result in no-hires, with some exceptions, occur because a committee is run by (or bullied by) one or more musicians who think that only they know what quality is, and are of the opinion that, if you aren’t inhumanly tough, you’re lowering your standards, and that’s just not acceptable within the hallowed halls of insert-orchestra-name-here. Please! Give me a break!
Also likely in mid-level and lower ensembles is the situation in which the committee is cowed by the level of auditioning talent. They are intimidated, and don’t pass people out of fear. It’s hard to be top dog if the new dog in the pack can eat your lunch for breakfast. They’ll find idiotic excuses like “they didn’t play double stops in the overture” or other such nonsense. And maybe that’s all well and good when you’re in the final round, but I’ve heard many an audition that had nearly as many candidates in the finals as this opera orchestra committee heard in their entire preliminary round. Is it that hard to listen? Is their time that important? Are they that superior?
So now you’ve got pretty much every freelance violinist who isn’t in the orchestra already hopping mad about what a travesty this audition was, and how will that play out when it comes time to fill those 7, 8, or 9 open spots during the season? How many takers will they have from the top ranks of the available freelance violinists? How many will take the next (and inevitable) round of auditions? I’m not sure what the answers to those questions are, but I do know that there are some musicians in Portland who have lost my respect, and they aren’t the violinists who took this audition.