Sammy Sussman: The fading role of elitism in performance art

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - 5:33pm

Opera, ballet and classical music are frequently shrouded in auras of elitism. During the Classical period, famous composers would be commissioned by rich aristocrats to compose for private events. Opera was quite expensive — the average person could barely afford to attend more than one opera performance every year. Ballet was also associated with wealth, royalty and elitism — it was initially an art form commissioned by the royal court to display the wealth and cultural magnificence of the court.

Over time, however, these genres of performance art have become increasingly accessible to the masses. The divide between upper class performance art and popular performance art has faded. The elitist appeal of these previously upper class art forms has faded as they become increasingly accessible to all, and audiences are becoming defined not by class, but by interest and aesthetic taste.

Though these art forms are beginning to react to this change in consumption, this reaction seems to not be occuring fast enough. Modern orchestras, dance companies and opera companies are facing diminishing financial returns and diminishing attendances. Many smaller companies are being forced to close due to lack of attendance and many others are decreasing the number of performances that they give per year.

Overall, it seems as though these traditional art forms face a bleak future. This is a narrative pervasive throughout the cultural lexicon — the slow and painful demise of these “higher” art forms. The loss of many of the smaller, local performance arts institutions seems to foreshadow the loss of all performance arts institutions.

The solution to these diminishing performance attendances, however, may be the very step that many are hesitant to take. While many are tentative to embrace the loss of elitism, this may be the only means for these great art forms to support themselves. This loss of elitism need not be accepted begrudgingly — artists, genres and concepts of great artistic merit are already forming around this new intersection between the popular and the elitist.

Orchestras are increasingly turning to popular music and movie music as a means of drawing previously uninterested audiences into the concert hall. The advent of the “film in concert," for example, seems to be providing the financial returns that many orchestras need, though they go against the elitist connotation many orchestras would like to preserve.

Modern dance, in addition, is similarly changing its programmatic habits as a means of maintaining their financial well-being. Performances of modern dance forms or with modern music are slowly entering even the most conservatively programmed company seasons. These performances draw the younger and more diverse audiences that these companies know they need to sustain themselves though they challenge the sophistication traditionally associated with formal dance companies.

Opera has also seen changes geared towards attracting and engaging new audiences. Modern operas depicting contemporary events are quietly changing the subject matter of traditional opera. John Adam’s “Nixon in China” challenged a generation of composers to compose operas about current events and non-traditional stories from the Western canon. This has challenged the refined taste of many die-hard opera enthusiasts, though it has restored opera’s relevance to the larger lexicon of mass culture.

This loss of elitism is an inevitable result of the increasingly interconnected world that we live in and the gradual loss of boundaries between art forms and genres. Whether we like it or not, this process will only accelerate as time and technology progress.

Not all of these changes, furthermore, are regrettable. The growth of niche art communities has helped develop increasingly specific ensembles and companies dedicated to the performance of specific artists, time periods and other definable artistic traits. Early music has become a staple of some communities, as has specific types of opera and ballet. Increasingly specific marketing, furthermore, has allowed audiences and performers to be more specific and selective in their programming and ticket consumption. It is not uncommon to see opera companies plan whole seasons around common themes or common historical eras.

The loss of elitism in classical music, modern dance and opera seems to threaten the prevalence and dominance of specific time periods and creators within these art forms. Though these classical performance arts remain more resistant to change than most popular art forms are, all art forms must select specific creators and eras from the past to value more than others. The constant redefinition and reorganization of previous artistic periods based on current artistic trends is as inherent to performance art as is the creation of new work. The loss of elitism is most threatening in that it will upend the general aesthetic consensus that has developed around these art forms over generations.

In this new, non-elitist understanding of classical music, for example, Romantic composers could be ignored while early Baroque and Medieval composers became popular. German and Italian opera could be shunned in favor of the early British operettas. Ballet could be rejected in favor of hip hop or other modern trends. The ever-changing Western canon of performance art will by defined by audience interest and not by academic expertise.

This loss of centralized and standardized repertoires may be frightening, but it is also thrilling. It represents one of the biggest changes that these performance art forms have seen in hundreds of years — tremendous opportunities for audiences, performers and creators to pluralize and diversify these art forms.

This past weekend, for example, Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe spoke to students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance about her music and her creative process. Her recent composition “Anthracite Fields,” for example, explores the lives of early 20th-century miners. It is a composition geared towards both classical and popular audiences. Wolfe claims that this composition has garnered more mail than any other composition that she has ever written — drawing many previously uninterested music listeners into the realm of contemporary classical music.

Artists such as Julia Wolfe are redefining the divisions between classical and popular art forms. Audiences are redefining the consumption patterns and programmatic tendencies of these classical and popular art forms. Performers, in turn, are learning to execute increasingly diverse swathes of performance arts. This is nothing if not a time of change; a time of radical redefinition and drastic reevaluation. It is a loss of elitism, and a time of empowerment for the masses. The average person has more say in performance art then was ever possible before, carrying a voice that matches or even triumphs over the elitism of traditional performance arts.