Criticism on Fridays: Empowering Each Other

The World of Institutionalism Proves its Inadequacy (Again)

By Polina Lyapustina

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

“Real music is right in the heart of what we struggle. Our task is not to be a leisure activity, but to go the places where no political or economic will to go. We need to be there with full hearts, not just ‘Please, listen to us’ but ‘How can we listen?’ Can we create a new structure of listening, a new way of hearing really deeply? In ways in making sure the microphone gets passed around and shared.”
— Director Peter Sellars

When I heard Peter Sellars’ words at the ‘Next Normal,’ Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University conference this Wednesday, I wanted to write them down immediately. They resonated so powerfully with the industry state at any scale. 

And the more I reviewed different topics for this week’s column the more I saw (and got depressed) about how the institutions, majors organizations, and even committees ruin the industry. All the stories lead to the same upshot — loud reasonable voices of real people are buried under conventions and rules of the game. Rules, I might add, that we have never accepted. 

What was the most horrible moment of this week? One and a half hours of the UK Parlament debates on a powerful petition set by a single person — Tim Brennan, empowered by another 284K musicians. 

The new ‘Carry on Touring’ campaign was launched ahead of the Parliamentary debate with the only goal to make government go back to the negotiation table and secure reciprocal arrangements between the EU and the UK. The campaigners think that a system similar to ETIAS could be established. They also call for Government to ensure that complicated and costly Carnets will not be required for portable musical instruments.

One hour and 15 minutes of passionate speeches of cross-party MPs, Peers, and campaigners were devalued by a short 13-minute reply from the Digital and Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage, who seemed to hold the same answer for months. And to hear it was simply humiliating for all who watched that.

Tim Brennan, the petition’s creator said: 

“I cannot say how very disappointed I am that the Minister’s words were so hollow and that she repeated the same old lines which we have heard time and time again.

It is time for the Government to recognize the increasing support and traction the ‘Carry on Touring’ campaign is getting from Parliamentarians, industry professionals and the public, and realize they need to go back to negotiate with the EU and give us the clarity we need to be able to carry on touring.”

A different story is developing now in France but so far we see the same pattern emerging. Alexander Neef took up his duties as General Director of Opera de Paris on 1 September 2020 and started to develop a new strategy for the theatre almost immediately, launching a drive towards greater diversity for the ballet company, orchestra, and dance school. 

This first (in years!) people-oriented decision made by the Opéra de Paris’ management is being actively criticized by right-wingers, who in fact are trying to fight any and every choice made by the progressive director, who supports liberal French President Macron. 

Meanwhile, the good shake that awaits Parisian opera, looks exactly like the result of listening to the people. And it suddenly makes the Opéra de Paris, which I reviewed many times raising the questions of morality, a promising major scene for the new opera world.

But to make this happen, Neef will fight against pressure from the authorities in France, and hopefully not alone. And so what should we do to get out of this rotten institutionalism of the music industry?

It’s time to understand that we are enough. And that we can reinforce each other if we simply speak up and listen to one another. And not always loudly. Sometimes, it’s even more important to hear the humble voices. But we got used to thinking that we need some major artists or organizations to help us feel empowered. 

At “The Next Normal: Arts Innovation and Resilience in a Post-Covid World,” a symposium hosted by the Peabody Institute, I (as an experienced Product designer) tried to guide my group of 10 music professionals to create a bold new product for the industry, but they all leaned toward smaller, safer, and more comfortable ideas to be implemented. No matter how hard I tried to push the innovations or to use the existing possibilities of the industry, they all came together (without knowing each other) and continued to coalesce around the safer intentions.

But once I gave up on only focusing on a design-driven approach and helped them to combine our ideas, we suddenly got a very solid product. And even if it wasn’t revolutionary, it was that the most needed idea for the music industry — local, inclusive, independent, and diverse in every way. And if my group, united, was able to subjugate the will of design, then we can join forces to change the giant industry. 

But more often, the opposite happens — small voices and needs disappear when they put their fate in the hands of institutions.  Something that is, unfortunately, happening with the Met Orchestra Musicians.

I kept this idea to myself for quite a long time, hoping the situation would resolve itself as I was repeatedly told personally. So I said nothing. But a recent development made it impossible to ignore. 

Have you read Peter Gelb’s and the Met orchestra committee’s exchange? I do not support Gelb’s offer in any way, but do you still think the lack of resolution to the situation is still only Gelb’s fault? 

In 10 paragraphs, we see the Local 802 representative accepting nothing but the own committee’s proposal. This cannot be called a negotiation. The words get personal and show the state of affairs clearly — Local 802 doesn’t want to come to an agreement with Gelb either and clearly play their own role in the prolongation of this conflict. Ultimately, this doesn’t do any good for the orchestra musicians. At the end of the day, this back and forth turns into theater played out for the public, while real people are struggling financially.

And it sure doesn’t sound inspiring. But as Peter Sellars has also noted, we were dealing with hundreds of years of neglect, and maybe this crisis will finally push us to fight and overcome it. 

And maybe all these institutions that lost their human faces and ears really are going to hell. The fact is that we don’t need to follow them.