Last week I kept noticing articles about Lorin Maazel's opera '1984'. They bring up a number of interesting questions regarding the role of the artist in so-called "vanity" productions. I can't help but feel confused about the whole notion of vanity performances and recordings these days. As a composer from a family of modest means, I suppose I should be in the 'camp' opposed to such projects. It seems to me, though, that almost any event in the world of concert music - not to mention popular music - can be viewed as a vanity if one traces its financial roots back far enough. In the U.S., donations from private patrons account for a large percentage of the money which funds commissions, performances, and recordings. What is the difference if the composer 'raises' thousands of tax-deductible dollars (or pays for it out of his/her own pocket) or the performing organization does it? Since long before the days of Madame von Meck and Prince Lichnowsky, composers have been relying on wealthy individuals to subsidize their latest experiments. Gesualdo was rich and funded all his own performances; Monteverdi was indebted to the Gonzagas for years, and later became 'Maestro di capella' at St. Mark's in Venice. In the larger scope of history, does it matter?
Part of the problem seems to be that Covent Garden is government subsidized (something we luckily don't have to worry about here in the good ol' U.S. of A.), and therefore some folks understandably feel that Maazel's largely self-funded work compromises the usual process of commissioning, which is designed - one hopes - to ensure artistic quality/integrity. But if we subscribe to that philosophy, then we have to tackle the prickly question: what do those words - quality and integrity - really mean, and what do they mean specifically in the U.K.? In recent seasons, the London Sinfonietta has commissioned Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead and Moby curated the 'Meltdown' at the South Bank Centre. Is it a sellout or a branching out? Who's to know? What does Ollie think? What does the audience think? What does the London Times think? And, more importantly, what does the Queen think?
Yesterday I read another article in the New York Times, entitled 'A City Opera Conductor with Connections', about Atsushi Yamada, the conductor whose close connections with Sony helped fuel a City Opera tour to Japan. Hell, We're living in a town where the mayor bought himself into office, in a country where the president bought himself into office. Why can't a conductor? At least he hasn't started any wars (except in the press).
The question is often posed: has Maazel 'paid his dues' as a composer? I am not sure this is a particularly relevant issue vis a vis the quality of the work. Who, for example, can say that Maazel's expertise as a conductor does not adequately prepare him for composing an opera? I'm not sure that writing artsongs would have necessarily prepared him any better. Ives wrote lots of those; would he have written a good opera?
Another question, potentially more troublesome, at least for appearances' sake, is: how much additional money did Covent Garden (and City Opera, etc etc) put into this production? And, by extension, were other composers (or conductors or performers, depending on the situation) denied opportunities as a result of this project? Herein lie, perhaps, the roots of most objections to 'vanity' projects. Because, as anyone in this non-for-profit 'business' knows, an arts organization's financial commitment doesn't end with the commission, nor with the rehearsals, nor the performance. A large amount of money goes into operating expenses, salaries, and P.R. One might legitimately ask: are the resources of this organization being squandered on a project which has being presented only because money was thrown at the company? And does the organization reap any particular benefits from this production, or will it merely spend time deflecting criticism? And where is the responsibility to serving the public good in all this?
Quality control is a tricky issue. Standards are tricky too, as anyone who has attempted to pore over the minutae of 'No Child Left Behind' can confirm. It'll be interesting to observe whether such 'vanity' events become more common as our we scrap the estate tax and our government cedes more and more responsibility for arts initiatives, preservation, and funding to the private sector.