August 25, 2014

America and Italy and their fading national pastimes

You may be under the impression that only American opera companies (such as New York City Opera, San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan Opera) suffer economic hardships in our modern world while their European counterparts, thanks to greater government subsidies, roll along like Ol' Man River.
Baseball: has its day come and gone?

You'd be wrong. Check out this article about the closing of Italy's fourth-largest opera house. Go ahead and read it; I'll wait.

(Dum-de-dum dum dum, tra la la)

You're back! Sad for that community, right?

How could this happen in ITALY, of all places?! I mean, it's the birthplace of opera! Every cab driver from Milan to Messina can sing "La donna è mobile", right? It's their national pastime, right? It's ITALY, for Pete's sake!

Well, let's talk about national pastimes. They aren't what they used to be.

Take the United States. Our national pastime has been said to be baseball ever since Honus Wagner was in diapers. But be honest when was the last time that YOU, Faithful Reader, actually watched a nine-inning game on TV from start to finish? How many managers of major-league teams can you name? Who's the best player on the Kansas City Royals or the Milwaukee Brewers?


The truth is that pro football has largely supplanted baseball as the game Americans obsess over. Football and basketball are what young boys want to play. Look over baseball rosters and you'll see that many of the names are Latino and Asian. African-American players are increasingly rare; where are the Hank Aarons, Willie Mays and Bob Gibsons?

Major-league baseball continues to prosper and will never go away completely. For one thing, the experience of physically going to a ballpark to see a game in person is still a relaxing and wonderful way to spend an afternoon or evening. The food is better than ever, baseball fields are beautiful, and the people-watching is great. I, your Humble Blogger went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field just four days ago as I write this, and while the game was so dull (Oh, Cubs....) that my mind wandered a lot, I was still glad I went.

So attendance tends, I think, to outstrip TV ratings. Yet the TV revenue is stupendous and helps keep small-market teams like Kansas City and Milwaukee in business.

But overall the luster of baseball has drained away as our collective passion has been transferred to Peyton Manning, and even the NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

This strikes me as an amazingly equivalent parallel to the decline of opera in Italy.  We Americans invented baseball and exported it to the world even as we played it less and less. Italians invented opera around 1597 and developed it into a viable and internationally-loved art form as the decades passed into centuries.

But Italian composers producing great operas in modern times are as uncommon as African-American players wearing a catcher's mask behind the plate.

Quick: name the ten greatest Italian operas composed following the death of Puccini. No fair using Google.

Yeah, that's a tough one. What happened there? Why has the 21st century produced no Bellini, Verdi or Rossini? You do realize, don't you, that (and this is so ironic) it's the Americans who have made recent generations a "Golden Age of New Opera"? Carlisle Floyd, Douglas Moore, Philip Glass, Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, John Adams, Andr√© Previn, William Bolcolm and too many others to list make this a fact and not an opinion. 

Here's what I bet: I bet that cab drivers in Rome are far more likely to sing Lady Gaga's latest than anything from an opera.

And now the government funding is drying up, which is hardly shocking given the continual crisis-point of the Italian economy. When those who control the purse-strings no longer value the art form, we're entering a ZONE OF UNCERTAINTY. 

I guess the lesson here is: "Don't cling". Don't cling to the past, because society and culture are always changing. Nothing is permanent. Language changes, industries change, technology changes, media change all the time, and on and on. Why shouldn't national pastimes follow suit? Baseball and opera: still regarded with affection in their homelands, but no longer "the big thing".

1 comment:

  1. For lots more about connections between baseball & opera, check out this National Opera Week talk:

    And, if you like that, there's more background here::