21 August 2011

Clashing Elites

This has been an exceptional weekend in the annals of classical music in Singapore.  Friday saw the opening night of Singapore Lyric Opera's production of Salome, which runs until Tuesday.  It also saw the opening of Singapore's first ever Lieder Festival which concentrated on Schubert this weekend and will continue with Schumann in September.  Friday also saw the first of two concerts (the second was on Sunday) in which members of the SSO performed Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.  And there was more which was largely denied me because of my professional involvement in the above.

A full weekend of classical music is one thing, but how sustainable is it?  Put bluntly, does Singapore have the audience for such riches? Salome sold out, I attended Saturday night's Lieder concert and the Arts House Living Room was jam packed for that (although Pianist Shane Thio told me Friday night's had been poorly attended) and the two Brandenburg concerts attracted a very good crowd.

On the surface, then, it seems Singapore can support such an active classical music scene. When it comes to the basic business of bums on seats, there seems to be no shortage of bums even if, at both the Lieder concert and my pre-concert talks for the Brandenburgs, there simply weren't enough seats for the bums.  And all these people came despite little obvious effort put into marketing; Singapore still cannot coordinate its arts publicity and you have to root around to find out what's going on from individual (and not always conventional) venues or from the website of the company which sells tickets for some - but by no means all - of the events in Singapore.

Why did they come? 

For all the years I worked at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur I tried to find out what it was that encouraged people to attend in a society where there was no tradition of concert-going.  Sending out questionnaires was pointless, so over a decade I mingled with the audience, getting to know the regulars and identifying the new-comers, and by casual conversation and blatant eavesdropping, I began to gain some insight into what attracted them.  Certainly it wasn't the music – that became very obvious early on.  There was a multitude of reasons, one of the most interesting being the hall's stipulation that the audience should dress up for the occasion.  Long castigated as a turn-off by the minority who attend primarily to hear the music, it seemed others relish the suggestion of social respectability and special occasion status the dress code implied. 

That's not an issue with Singaporeans who, as I've written many times before, regard classical music concerts as dress-down occasions and vie with each other to look the most unkempt (Salome had the ridiculous spectacle of a local choreographer appearing for the curtain call dressed in school uniform complete with short trousers, striped blazer and cap – I suspect he'd been reading his Idiot's Guide to Looking Artistic).  It will be years – if ever – before I can get to grips with what draws the Singapore audience, but again it seems pretty obvious that it's not the music.

The trouble is, with their determination to look yobbish, audiences feel moved to behave like yobs and, not for the first time, I felt utterly alien in an environment which for decades has been my second home.  Unable to concentrate on the music because of the appalling behaviour of the audience, I was left to ponder over the value of craving for bums on seats when the quality of those bums is so bad (or good, depending on your interpretation of the word bum).  If this influx of numbers drives away the long-term supporters, how sustainable is the live classical music scene here?

Of course, a great many commentators will go on about shedding the elitist image of classical music and not putting up barriers to discourage potential audience members.  Let us, they say, allow everyone in regardless, and show them how classical music is so accessible.  I get very worried whenever people go on in this vein, simply because by creating mass accessibility, you risk destroying the product.  I sat in on a lecture to conservatory students recently in which the lecturer pressed home the point that music was not for an elite.  How wrong she was.  She, like so many others, fundamentally misunderstood the word "elite". 

Take these two real examples.  My elder brother is appallingly, disgustingly rich (before he retired he helped run one of Europe's major oil companies) and received a better education than I ever had (even if his talents were such that he was poached by a leading employer before he could embark on any post-graduate study). In many people's eyes being rich and well educated puts him in an elite.  Those same people then make the quantum leap into linking that elite with all others.  Rich and well educated, they say, equals the key to the door of the clique which enjoys classical music.  Not a bit of it.  For my brother, classical music is a closed book and although he went through piano lessons he escaped as quickly as possible and has only darkened a concert since when obliged to out of familial duties.

Then there was my old friend Arthur (affectionately known to all and sundry as Arffer).  He left school at 14, got a job in a brewery and, when I first met him, was working as a cellarman (he wasn't up to dealing with customers) in a busy town pub.  He loved the job because the barrels were marked X, XX and XXX, which equated with his level of literacy.  One day he wandered up into the bar – where I was doing a vacation job – and, as it was quiet, got into conversation.  Out of courtesy rather than real interest, he asked what it was I studied at university.  When I told him it was music his eyes brightened.  "You mean, like, Schoenberg and that mob".  It turned out that Arffer not only adored classical music – and was obsessively passionate about the Second Viennese School – but on his day off, invariably took the train into London to attend a concert.  I went with him as often as possible and still to this day blush with shame as, while he sat mesmerised in some freezing hall while a few individuals did their plinkety plonk stuff in the name of cutting edge avant-garde, I sat and fidgeted and wished to God I was back in the bar.  People wouldn't associate Arffer with any elite, yet he belonged to a tiny one from which even I, as a music student, was excluded.

Classical music, be it 17th or 21st century, is appreciated by an elite, but an elite which is based not on wealth, class or education, but on something much more profound and individual; personal taste.  I am not a member of the elite that likes taking drugs or rioting in the streets, nor of the elite whose members can earn vast sums of money through dabbling on the stock exchanges of the world. I am not even a member of that seemingly large elite which can, of an evening, sit down and vegetate in front of the television in the comfortable knowledge that another day's work has been successfully done.  These are all elites; groups of people with a shared interest.  I belong to an elite which adores classical music, and while it is open to anyone regardless of background, not everyone has the emotional, intellectual or spiritual qualities to belong.  We are living in a fools' paradise if we fail to recognise that basic truth.

I'd love everyone to belong to my elite, but when it is gate-crashed by those who accidentally or deliberately disrupt it, I am profoundly hurt.  Too many in this weekend's audiences in Singapore were clearly out of their usual elite and, rather than (as I had done with Arffer's crowd) sit and try to appreciate, they brought their own agenda into the hall with the result that those of us there knowing what we were in for and looking forward to it, had our enjoyment ruined.

My good friend Chang Tou Liang has more than once condemned yobbish behaviour at concerts in Singapore, but what I experienced, while equally disruptive, was altogether more subtle.  Misled into believing opera to be a musical rather than a dramatic medium by mass-appeal CDs of star divas churning out popular operatic arias, by the antics of the Three Tenors, and by a myriad ersatz-opera singers who wouldn't last five minutes on a real opera stage, many in Friday's Salome audience sought in vain for a memorable aria or even a recognisable tune.  Puzzled by this, they failed to notice that Janice Watson gave a virtuoso display of operatic technique second to none.  As a result the performance was met, not with the eruption of adulation it deserved but by generally polite but uneasy applause.  There were those, however, who decided this was too tame and, for no obvious reason, occasionally burst out with animal whoops, screams and frenzied howling more suited to an African township singing contest than a western opera house.  What's happened to the good old habit of calling out "Bravo"?  Why do these people want to make an exhibition of themselves?  It left a very nasty taste in the mouth.

That was nothing to what the audience got up to at the Lieder Festival.  I don't think I've ever seen so many mobile phones and hand-held devices in one place at the same time other than in a mobile phone shop.  Little blue screens flashed continually, while the excellent singing of Daniel Fong was accompanied not so much by Shane Thio on the piano as by a constant clicking of texting fingers, sounding for all the world like a nest of mice at a hunk of cheese.  When, out of sheer frustration at the kid next to me who hadn't stopped texting in the half hour since the performance started, I nudged him and asked him to desist, I was met with an astonishing outburst.  "Fxxx you!", said the yob in a violent whisper, "Mind your fxxxing business".  He did have the good grace to stop and after the interval, by which time, I imagine, his friend (who seemed to be connected with the performers) had tipped him off that I was the reviewer for the Straits Times, apologised.  But you don't go to lieder recitals to be abused and sworn at, and I am inclined to give September's concerts a miss as I don't want my evening spoilt by uncouth swearing and loutish behaviour. 

And it didn't stop there.  Along the row in which I sat a couple of females, clearly using the occasion as a precursor to a night on the town, were stuffing into a couple of Big Macs and soft drinks.  They didn't make a noise but it jarred with the elegance one expects at a Lieder recital. 

All these people may have been enjoying the music in their own way, but it ruined my enjoyment.  Is that selfish of me?  All I can say is that I am careful when I enjoy music to remain conscious of others in the audience.  We have obligations as audience members to the music, the performers, but perhaps most of all to each other, and if that gets forgotten, one elite will quickly be driven out by another.


  1. Dr Marc,

    Another thought provoking posting. While I also get annoyed by misbehaving audiences, I was struck by your comments on how to interpret the word “elite”. So, for once, I have to take issue with you on a technicality.

    The word “Elite”, (according to my Shorter Oxford and other dictionaries) refers to the most select part, or the cream of society; it is from the Latin and Middle French terms for those who put themselves forward and are elected by society. The implication is that they are widely acknowledged as superior. This is rather narrower than your interpretation of elite as “a group of people with a shared interest”, which I would say is an “interest group” or a “niche”. So, as well as having a common interest, (and for the sake of an argument let us assume that they are a minority), being an elite requires two other criteria:
    1) They see themselves as superior to others, and
    2) Society in general sees them as superior.

    I would argue that some of the interest groups you mention, the drug-takers and street-rioters, as well as the stock market investors are not really elites, but merely interest groups.

    At the risk of digressing, it is entertaining to apply the two criteria above to segregate various interest groups, including music lovers and musicians. Using the hackneyed method of many business analysis, a two-by-two grid, we can identify and name four categories:
    a) Groups who see themselves as superior, and are seen as superior by society in general (the “elite”);
    b) Groups who see themselves as superior, but society in general does not (the “deluded”);
    c) Groups who do not see themselves as superior, but society in general does (the “modest”);
    d) Groups who no-one sees as superior (“Joe public”).
    We could of course go further and create more criteria and categories, for instance on whether society sees people as undesirables, but let’s not go there.

    My own view is that the interest groups of rioters, drug-takers, glue-sniffers, perhaps even viola payers, all fall within “Joe Public” , and are joined by many others. In many countries, all but the most outstanding stock-market investors, bankers, and businessmen would generally be either be “Joe public” or (if they take themselves too seriously) the “deluded”. But in Singapore, and in other places where society judges people essentially by their wealth and appearances, many of these people would indeed be seen as the elite. But musicians and music lovers are hard to place. Music lovers as a group, and many of the individuals that I know well, would not fit as “elite”, simply because they do not view their love of music or ability to perform music as making them superior to others. But, indeed, society does see (classical) musicians and music lovers as superior in some way. It perceives them as an elite, sometimes grudgingly so. So ironically – using the definitions above, I would place them as the “modest”. And in this group maybe they probably join academics, writers, artists, and humble PhD holders.

    You make the further point that many of the people attending the concerts did not appear to be there because of a love of, or even an interest in, the music being played; thus their disruptive behavior. So perhaps what we see is concerts being attended by two categories of people: 1) the genuine music lovers and musicians, and 2) those who want to be seen mixing with the percieved elie, because they think that it would raise their status in society (the “deluded”). There is not much new about this; would opera, or whole swathes of classical music in general, have ever have developed or survived if not to entertain the fashionable but often clueless patrons ? So, as a modest music lover, my advice would be to tolerate some misbehavior by the bums on the seats nearby. Without them there would be fewer ticket sales, and the number of concerts would decline.

    Dr Peter

  2. Hi, just to clarify, Salome wasn't sold out on Friday. Due to less than ideal ticket sales,all the ticket-holders for Circle 2 and 3 were allocated seats in the Stalls. I was in Circle 1, which was about 50% filled. You were right about the audience though - a girl next to me was chatting to her friend about having seen Don Giovanni and when the show ended, she complained that Salome had no arias; it was all recitative! The elderly lady on my other side looked stoned-face throughout the curtain calls - must have been too decadent for her.