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Digital Vision
Digital Vision

Times are tough for classical-music performance groups in America.

Top orchestras struggle to meet budgets, making it all the more difficult to attract talented conductors and performers. Well-known classical musicians and household-name orchestras have lost recording contracts, and some major recording labels have nixed classical operations entirely.

But recent evidence points to the possibility that technology may help provide a new boost — and not a moment too soon.

"There's no doubt that classical music in general plays a much less important role in life of the average person today than it did just a few decades ago," says San Francisco Opera musical administrator Kip Cranna, who believes reduced funding for music education in schools is among the top reasons for decline.

"We don't pay the person who teaches our kids as much as we pay person who fixes our hair, and music is last on the list of school education priorities."

Arts and education
Recent reports from arts advocacy groups would appear to support that claim.

A 2004 survey of more than 1,000 school principals in four states conducted by the nonprofit Council for Basic Education showed that 25 percent of surveyed schools reported less instructional time for the arts. A third of participating school principals anticipated further decreases.

A September report that examined California Department of Education data, released by the nonprofit Music for All Foundation, states that participation by public-school students in music education courses plunged by half from 1999 to 2004 — a period when the state's overall public school student population rose by nearly 6 percent.

The San Francisco Opera is among classical-music performance groups attempting to pick up some of the awareness slack by offering educational programs of their own.

Other groups are trying to counter the genre's demise by marketing classical music as an approachable, less-formidable experience for would-be ticket buyers.

Arts organizations also point to the country's post-Sept. 11 economic downturn as a period of critical financial loss from which many organizations have not yet recovered.

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Modern listening
That's where technology comes in.

As classical FM radio stations sign off around the country for lack of funds, subscription-based satellite radio offerings are on the rise, by way of providers such as Sirius and XM.

And an increasing number of classical performing-arts groups are beginning to offer online Webcasts of live shows and behind-the-scenes footage to lure new fans.

"Satellite radio and the Internet represent that bright spot we're all reaching for," says Cranna. "We're counting on technology to save us, because it helps us reach larger audiences than we could accommodate in even the largest of opera houses or concert halls."

Cranna isn't alone in his belief that tech represents a potential replacement for the lucrative income sources that recording contracts, radio broadcasts and opera telecasts once were.

Performing-arts groups that traditionally relied on periodic mailings of paper promo brochures to attract would-be season subscribers are now turning to the Net to drive ticket sales.

"People don't want to commit the way they used to — asking someone to subscribe to a year-long season is a big leap of faith that less-devoted fans aren't willing to make," says Cranna, "If they don't want to make up their mind until the last minute, now we can sell them tickets online when they do decide."

A night at the opera
One of the more interesting examples of classical arts groups turning to the Net involves the 50-year-old Houston Grand Opera, which offers video streams of dress rehearsals and "behind-the-scenes" tidbits online.

Last-minute ticket buyers wondering if the performers, music or production will suit their fancy can log on for a digital sample of what's in store.

In 2000, the HGO launched an in-theater video display system called OperaVision. It began as bonus offering for attendees at live performances, but now serves a second purpose — portions of that video footage can be broadcast on the Internet as a promotional tool.

Like other venues, the HGO's theater includes some areas where sight lines are blocked, such as the typically cheaper seats in the grand tier and upper balcony — seats offered at prices likely to appeal to infrequent opera-goers.

"The plasma screens are like electronic opera glasses," says Shane Gasbarra, HGO artistic administrator. "The three-camera video component seems to appeal particularly to younger audiences, fans from the MTV generation, because they provide a vantage point you wouldn't otherwise have -- a close-up of the soprano and tenor singing into each other's eyes, for example."

The HGO is said to be talking with Apple about the possibility of selling downloads of opera season highlights via the iTunes Internet music service. But just as the HGO's move to offer online video streams first had to pass the approval of multiple performance unions, any opera's deal with iTunes — or competing digital music services like Microsoft's MSN Music — would involve a number of potentially tricky payment details.

"The idea is exciting, because it could be a new way for new audiences to get to know the art form," says Gasbarra. "Ticket sales from live performances are still the way we make money, so everything we do needs to drive that — if we don't have a committed audience, we don't have an opera."

A double-edged sword?
While some classical-music administrators may be bullish on the Net's prospects as a high-tech lifeline, others argue that same technology is part of the problem.

Online movie services like Netflix, the glut of channels on high-definition digital TV services and other high-tech entertainment offerings now compete for the same eyes and ears as symphonies, operas and local classical music groups.

But if you can't beat 'em — you may as well join 'em.

"We believe there's still something special about the live performance experience," says Gasbarra, "Nobody's going to stop new forms of entertainment technology from evolving — we'd rather explore ways the technology can remind people just how rich that live experience really is."

Xeni Jardin is a tech-culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative Weblog BoingBoing, the Bloggie-award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."


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