The decline of interest in classical music has been a constant theme of discussion in the arts world for decades. The death of music education in schools and the chasm that now separates symphonies and operas from popular music was widely understood to have drastically narrowed the size of potential audiences. But in recent years, some bright minds thought they had found an answer. By dedicating classic arts companies to woke programming and ideology, they thought they had a path to relevance that would bring them larger and younger audiences as well as the funding they needed to continue operating.
But they were wrong. And the proof of their folly has just been delivered in the failure of Opera Philadelphia, the company that has been most invested in the concept that going woke would save classical music.
For a dozen years, Opera Philadelphia’s David Devan was the toast of the American classical music world. He took over as general director of Opera Philadelphia in 2011 and put the struggling company on the map. He was praised by leading music critics in publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post for his emphasis on innovation and new operas, with his efforts compared favorably to those of far larger and more established arts institutions.
He led the way among arts companies in the embrace of wokeness on stage and off with an emphasis on operas that appealed to gay people and with outreach to minorities. During coronavirus lockdowns, he was lauded for taking the company online with programming that reflected his belief in nontraditional forms of performance.
No other arts organization was quicker to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement and then to pledge allegiance to the woke catechism of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It spent scarce donor funds on hiring an equity commissar (a practice that quickly became standard in the arts) to police the enforcement of equity and thereby placed racial and identity politics over excellence in casting and hiring as well as over choices of repertory.
Failure to Create New Audiences
But anyone who thought this would solve the problems of an institution that aspired to be considered a top-tier arts company instead of a middling minor-league operation was wrong. Far from fueling a surge in interest, ticket sales, or funding from donors, the emphasis on wokery has done nothing to create new audiences.
This month, Opera Philadelphia announced that it had failed to raise enough money to meet its budget and was consequently making 20 percent cuts in its operations. Staff was laid off and its already meager schedule of performances was drastically abridged. It postponed by a year a highly anticipated production of an opera by Joseph Bologne, an 18th-century composer known as the “black Mozart,” which was the centerpiece of their DEI program. And, rather than staying to guide it to solvency, Devan announced he was leaving.
It was a body blow to the company, which is now scrambling not only to find someone to clean up the mess Devan will be leaving behind but also to find a way to survive, with talk of mounting an effort to merge with some other arts institution, and few candidates in evidence. For now, it will continue operations. But barring an operatic deus ex machina turnabout discovering new sources of donations, music drama in Philadelphia — a still-large metropolitan area with a sizable upscale population that, at least in theory, ought to contain at least some people who like the art form — might be headed for extinction.
Doubling Down on Woke Mistakes
Nonetheless, the company is not prepared to draw any lessons from its trials or to ponder whether a shift away from classics and the emphasis on progressive cant is hurting rather than helping its cause.
On the way out the door, Devan doubled down on his tilt away from traditional audience favorites as the path forward for the classical arts. Opera Philadelphia’s board chairman, Stephen Klasko, the CEO of Jefferson, one of the Northeast’s largest hospital and medical education conglomerates, agreed. Klasko told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the “equity piece” of the company’s mission and serving minority populations that have no discernable interest in opera was a priority even if Devan’s leftist programming was a formula for red ink.
Other Struggling Venues
Opera Philadelphia is far from the only arts company suffering in the current environment. Even the world-famous Philadelphia Orchestra, a far more prestigious and wealthier institution, has struggled to fill the seats at its concerts, especially those that reflect its own dedication to the woke DEI agenda in terms of music composed by favored minorities regardless of their intrinsic merit, especially when compared to the core repertory of classics. Budget problems there may lead to a strike by its musicians, who are tired of being forced to absorb cuts in salary and benefits after the company was rescued from bankruptcy in the last decade.
The same problems are also found in New York, a city that is home to the largest and most influential arts institutions in North America, which were once thought to be immune to the effect of the change in musical tastes. The same week that Opera Philadelphia announced its scheduled cuts, the Metropolitan Opera served notice that it was closing its support organization, the Opera Guild, and the Opera News magazine, which had served as the American bible for opera fans for nearly 90 years. And though the Met can fall back on a large endowment, it hasn’t halted the drastic decline in attendance in its landmark theater in Lincoln Center tied to a shift toward an emphasis on contemporary operas, especially those that specifically celebrate the African-American experience and require all-black casts.
These companies are suffering from problems that afflict all classical music companies in the 21st century as opera has become an increasingly marginal niche entertainment that few Americans can understand let alone enjoy.
They can no longer count on selling tickets with the mass appeal or the allure of crossover stars like the late Luciano Pavarotti or the canceled Placido Domingo (over allegations of conducting affairs with young singers over the years). The Met’s most famous star of recent years, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, was fired for being insufficiently opposed to the invasion of Ukraine, a sacred cause among the leftist-dominated American arts community, and is now suing to force the Met to pay what she is owed under her contract.
While new music should be encouraged, the single-minded focus of major arts groups and the philanthropies that fund them on works that conform to leftist orthodoxy ensures that the beautiful and the potentially popular haven’t got a chance.
As the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald wrote in her recent book, When Race Trumps Merit, the pursuit of equity hasn’t just made America less safe. It’s also “sacrificing excellence” as well as things that are beautiful in the name of a leftist cause that doesn’t value the great treasures of Western civilization, among them the great operas.
Far from saving these art forms, the embrace of the DEI agenda is hastening their demise. The remnants of the core audience for these performances are turned off by the abandonment of favored repertory and its replacement by woker fare. If there is to be any hope for classical music in America, it will have to come from a recognition that the embrace of woke values is a suicide pact for the arts.
Jonathan S. Tobin is a senior contributor to The Federalist, editor in chief of JNS.org, and a columnist for Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.