Month: May 2008


Today’s opera news:

The Metropolitan Opera is infested with mice.

During an April 9 restaurant inspection at the Met, the department found “evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or nonfood areas,” according to reports on the department’s Web site…. The nation’s largest musical organization also was cited for “food not protected from potential source of contamination during storage, preparation, transportation, display or service.”

La Scala has commissioned an operatic adaptation of An Inconvenient Truth. (Hasn’t this been done before?)

Why is opera so effective, anyway? Turns out that, on some level, we think it’s trying to kill us.

According to musicologist David Huron, … opera singers produce the bulk of their sound energy in the 3- to 4-kilohertz range. Humans are quite sensitive to this range, probably because it is also the range of a human scream.

According to Huron, researchers have discovered that several of the frisson’s acoustic correlates—things that seem to induce the sensation in listeners—are fear-related. These correlates include rapidly large increases in the loudness of music, abrupt changes in tempo and rhythm, a broadening of frequencies and an increase in the number of sound sources, among other factors.

These are all “low-probability musical events” that surprise and startle us, Huron said. The factors that evoke a frisson are, in his mind, “suspiciously similar” to those that evoke fear.

To be fair, more often than not, the lady’s got a knife.


The gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline here at Soho the Dog HQ lit up this morning with Geoff Edgers providing detailed background on the continuing dispute over Oskar Kokoschka’s 1913 painting “Two Nudes.” Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has filed suit in US District Court to establish ownership of the work over the claims of Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, the Austrian heir of Jewish art collector Oskar Reichel, whose 1939 sale of the painting may or may not have been the result of Nazi pressure.

An intriguing story, both for considering the problematic nature of drawing a nuanced line between personal exigency and external duress in situations of organized cruelty, and, it must be said, for how fast any nuance whatsoever flies out the window once attorneys start talking to the press. But what’s the classical music angle? Naked pictures of Alma Mahler.

That’s her on the right, with Oskar next to her, displaying just the sort of wistful apprehension I imagine most of her lovers displayed when she would insist on going “off the trail” during their walks through the woods. The historians Geoff interviewed are of the opinion that the MFA doth protest too much, but regardless of the outcome, there’s a certain ad rem poetry in Alma’s affairs necessitating a legal untangling. (Incidentally: does every single piece of Nazi-looted art have some connection with Alma Mahler? It is not outside the realm of possibility.)

Update (5/28): Geoff passes along further adventures of Alma and Oskar. John Waters should totally get his hands on this story.

High Flying, Adored

It’s been a week for awards—you probably heard about this year’s Polar Music Prize going to Renee Fleming and Pink Floyd; or perhaps Amy Winehouse showing up late to pick up an Ivor Novello Award, a situation Ivor Novello probably would have turned into a wry, bittersweet song; or perhaps my own favorite, Jazzie B, OBE.

But have any of them been “examining the historical background and long-term implications of important public policy issues”? Andrew Lloyd Webber (don’t make any jokes until you listen to Evita again—OK, go ahead and make jokes, but do listen to Evita again, it’s better than you remember) is the latest recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service. Presented by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (named for the most insufferable academic snob we ever stuck in the White House), the award is given “to individuals who have served with distinction in public life and have shown a special commitment to seeking out informed opinions and thoughtful views.” (Although they did give the award to Dick Cheney a couple years ago—there’s obviously some wiggle room in the criteria.) Musical types are rare on the honor roll, which is dominated by politicians and world leaders, but Lloyd Webber does follow in the footsteps of Wayne Newton (huh?—hey, he works like a dog for the USO) and Dolly Parton (no explanation necessary, really.)

Long Day’s Journey

Economists Nauro Campos and Renata Leite have been analyzing seven years worth of data from the Latin American art market.

Our results suggest that: (i) the reputation of an artist and the provenance of the artwork, often omitted variables in previous studies, seem to be more important determinants of the sale price of a painting than more standard factors, such as medium and size, (ii) the opinion of art experts seems to be of limited use in predicting whether or not an artwork sells at auction, (iii) there is little supporting evidence for the widespread notion that the best or more expensive artworks tend to generate above average returns (the “masterpiece effect”), although (iv) there is strong evidence in our data for the declining price anomaly or “afternoon effect” (that is, when heterogeneous products sold sequentially follow a decreasing pattern of prices.)

(Summary here; working paper here; via.) Today’s assignment: consider the implications, if any, for the business of classical music presentation, in currencies both real and curious.

Bread and Roses

This year’s orchestra crisis (there always seems to be one), the will-they-shut-down-or-won’t-they Columbus Symphony, is in a grassroots community fundraising phase, as the board and the musicians wait for someone to blink or possible arbitration. The mayor of Columbus prefers the former:

A spokesman for Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman urged the sides to get together quickly but said Coleman would not mediate the dispute.

“The mayor is a fan personally of the symphony, but we have made our position clear: The board and the musicians need to take the next steps,” spokesman Mike Brown said.

Coleman, whose mayoralty has been marked by fiscal discipline, probably doesn’t want to be seen as spending political capital on a dispute within an “elitist” organization. But I’m guessing he isn’t thinking about monopsony power.

Monopsony is the flip side of monopoly—unlike the latter, in which a market is dominated by one seller, in monopsony, a market is dominated by one buyer. “Pure” monopsonies are pretty rare—in economics, the term is usually used in talking about inefficiencies in the labor market.

Classical economics assumes that the labor market operates under pure competition—employers are forced to adopt wage rates set by the market as a whole, aiming for an equilibrium where available work and available workers are in balance. The classical model implies that, as soon as an employer drops wages, even a little bit, all that employer’s workers will bolt, since other employers in the market would presumably respect the prevailing market-rate wage. But that happens so rarely that the idea of monopsony power was invented (by the British post-Keynesian Joan Robinson) to try and come up with a more realistic model of the labor market.

Think about it—if your employer cut your wages by a few cents, you’d probably grumble, but not necessarily leave your job. That’s because there’s other factors keeping you there—location, schedule convenience, the fact that you may enjoy what you do, the fact that switching jobs is an economic risk or hit that it’s just not a good time to take. That whole laundry list, and more besides, adds to the employers’ market power—their ability to offer a wage lower than what pure competition would dictate, yet still fill their available positions.

The classic example of a monopsonistic labor market is Major League Baseball under the reserve clause; the explosion of player salaries following the introduction of free agency is an indication of how artificially depressed those salaries were under the extreme monopsony that previously prevailed. A quick JSTOR search didn’t turn up any studies of it in the literature, but it seems to me that a symphony orchestra is a classic monopsonistic employer: there’s an extremely limited number (often only one) within a given labor market, and the employees—musicians—are liable to put up with an awful lot of crap in order to make any money doing what they love to do. The Columbus musicians, in fact, took a 20 percent pay cut three years ago rather than give up their orchestra jobs. (And reportedly offered to take another 6.5 percent cut to resolve the current impasse.)

The Columbus Symphony situation is particularly intractable because it would seem that the board has done a less-than-stellar job increasing philanthropic revenue, but is trying to make up that deficit with musician salary cuts. (All this at a time when ticket sales are actually up—so much for the Flanagan report.) In fact, the board—proposing both pay cuts and a reduction in personnel—is attempting to exercise classic monopsonistic power, which usually manifests itself in keeping wages and employment rates lower than an unfettered market would produce. (And in an unfairly ultimatumish way—it is not churlish at all to point out that the entire board membership will suffer no economic ill-effects from a shutdown.)

Even fairly libertarian types think that the government should regulate an inefficient market, and I would think that the labor market for orchestral musicians is about as inefficient as they come. One might think that, if the musicians feel their city’s philanthropic capacity has gone untapped, a competing orchestra might find some traction—but keep in mind that the effort and risk in finding the credit or the cash to start up their own ensemble is another way the current organization increases its market value at the workers’ expense. (And also keep in mind that such a move would fundamentally change, or at least add to, the workers’ actual occupations.) This is not to say that forming their own orchestra wouldn’t be a smart or even desirable move, but it is putting more of the onus for the board’s possible mismanagement on the musicians, not the board.

That happens all the time, of course—over the past decade, far too many employees have been left holding the bag for executive misbehavior. (Enron, anyone? WorldCom?) But given the combination of orchestras’ obvious monopsonistic power with their quasi-civic status, some sort of government intervention—even as simple as mediation—would be entirely appropriate in Columbus-type situations. Otherwise, the calculus is so skewed that brinkmanship is almost inevitable; boards have little financial incentive to avoid shutdowns, musicians have little recourse short of a strike. All that dramatic and emotional energy would be better off on-stage.

Update (5/16): The administrative slapstick continues.