By Jeremy Osborne
It’s been fascinating to watch the social upheaval in the US spill over into the world of arts and culture. Institutions like the Metropolitan Opera have made some respectable (if largely symbolic) strides regarding sexism, sexual orientation, and racism. The Met has even employed a new “Diversity Officer.” But when it comes to addressing the inherent classism (inextricably bound to racism) that permeates the industry—classical musicians can be astonishingly tone-deaf.
For example, in a recent online interview, two prominent sopranos were asked by a young artist about financing a singing career during this low-income/low-savings digital age. One responded with anecdotes about working out deals with studio spaces before mentioning that her friends had been trying out day trading. What was left unsaid is that frequently trading stocks for profit requires minimum equity of $25,000 USD. With that in mind, “be rich” seems to be the unmistakable implication of this bit of advice.
To be fair, many performing arts organizations worldwide have done an excellent job making performances readily available. The Berlin Philharmonic uploads many concerts online to their Digital Concert Hall within days after performances. In 2019, average ticket prices at Carnegie Hall and the NY Phil were cheaper than tickets to North America's top tours. (Average tickets at the Met were higher, though the opera house does have programs for affordable tickets.)
But there’s a significant caveat: affordable tickets only matter if enough people have been adequately exposed to the art form. Classical music is not the predominant form of culture, making access to arts education critical to its survival.
A recent Rolling Stone article by Juilliard alum Emma Sutton-Williams argues the conservatory must aid students in expanding their musical horizons or risk irrelevance. She contends that students should become more adept at playing other genres, including pop, and that “classical schools should teach technological advances as survival skills”, in order for graduates to become more marketable.
This narrative remains very seductive to the centers of power in classical music. Not only does it exonerate the institutions culpable for the country’s floundering cultural landscape by suggesting they merely undergo moderate reforms, it also proliferates an individualistic, up-by-your-bootstraps ideology, in which musicians themselves are blamed for their lack of skills instead of being empowered to reconsider the very conditions under which they’re toiling. The approach Sutton-Williams recommends has been prevalent for decades even though it isn’t helping young musicians find work. Student-loan debt is what’s killing careers, not a lack of versatility.
To that end, the real reason Juilliard and other top training institutions are losing relevance and legitimacy is because they’re prohibitively expensive and elitist. The costs to attend are a financial hurdle that effectively excludes people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The sticker price at Juilliard, including room and board, is around $70,000 a year. Even accounting for grants and scholarships, the net price is about $34,000, about half the median household income in the US ($69,000). Even those families earning less than $30,000 a year can expect to pay, on average net, about $24,000 a year.
If Juilliard wants to modernize, instead of Bruce Springsteen masterclasses, why doesn’t it permanently do away with the $110 application fee? Their policy on waiving it is means-based, but why not get rid of it altogether? Even Meryl Streep has said she ultimately attended Yale because she found the application fee at Juilliard too high. While they’re at it, why don’t they eliminate tuition costs? Given the school’s more than $1 billion endowment, why is anyone paying tuition there anyway, especially when fewer than 1000 students attend at a given time?
What’s ironic is that Juilliard built its reputation on legacies of artists like Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett—both of whom had middle and lower-class backgrounds because costs were much lower. This also wasn’t limited to the superstars: a voice teacher at my undergrad was able to attend by giving a benefit concert and sleeping at the YWCA upon arriving in NYC. Such a story would be impossible now because the tuition is just too damn high, and it’s totally divorced from what most people are earning.
If such a renowned arts school offered all of its students a free education and worked out ways to make its entire application process more egalitarian, it would be truly groundbreaking. Such a bold and ethical step would put the school at the forefront of a revolution with respect to equity in arts education. Moreover, if classical music is to remain vital, access to arts education can’t be limited to a pampered aristocracy. If a more diverse group of people, (and true “diversity” should also entail myriad class backgrounds), had the capability to participate in classical music that goes beyond merely attending concerts, then the respective audiences and arts institutions would reflect that.
The biggest challenge facing classical music in the US is the deeply entrenched free-market mindset that dominates the industry. In this regard, American musicians could really learn from the Germans. While German artists are also sounding the alarm about abuses of power and low pay, the basic philosophy undergirding access to classical music in Germany is superior for two critical reasons: culture is widely regarded as a right, (not a luxury), and the performing arts don't rely so heavily on wealthy donors. Berliners on unemployment can attend concerts for as little as 3€, and there’s even an effort to have access to culture enshrined in the German Constitution. Throw in free tuition, and you have a drastically different cultural landscape than the one in America, in which market-obsessed thinking remains the dominant orthodoxy.
There are around 80 full-time opera houses and 129 full-time orchestras in Germany. Yes, they’re state-funded, but so what? Maybe it’s time for classical musicians in the US to engage in an ambitious political project to fight for increased government support of cultural institutions. For the art form to thrive in the US, it needs more vital performing arts organizations, not more classically trained musicians who can play pop.
Classical music cannot rely on apologizing for itself in order to survive. And it’s never going to be able to justify itself in terms of dollars and cents. This is where these “marketability” arguments completely break down. The costs and individualized training required to put on a 19th-century opera, or a massive symphony from the standard repertoire, are simply too great in relation to the number of people who attend live performances. But many of the things that make life worth living don’t actually generate profits, so why should great music be any different?
More classical musicians need to recognize that our field exists for reasons other than financial ones, and that we’re still worthy of the basic amenities of a dignified life. Similarly, the industry’s messaging needs to be overhauled so that it’s more honest and credible. This messaging must be predicated on the principle that the music we create has intrinsic value, and that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, has the right—not the privilege—the RIGHT to create it, learn about it, and experience it performed at a high level.
Advocates for classical music must stop forcing the art form into the position of defending itself within a capitalistic framework, because that’s never going to succeed. The industry’s leading figures and gatekeeping institutions also need to develop a more compelling ethos. If that ethos doesn’t include active efforts toward economic egalitarianism, no matter how “diverse” they or their curricula otherwise might be, the field will just be ruled by a diversified plutocracy.
Schools like Juilliard have grown so accustomed to holding the keys to the kingdom that they don’t seem to have realized that the age of kings (and kingmakers) is drawing to a close. If these gatekeepers don’t begin rapidly dismantling the financial barriers that exclude classical music’s proletariat, there won’t be enough foot soldiers to go to the ramparts for the art form. In light of the devastated global arts economy, winning those battles is more crucial now than ever.
Arkansas native Jeremy Osborne is an opera singer, translator, voice-over artist, and activist who’s been based in Berlin since 2014. He’s sung in the extra choruses at the Deutsche Oper and Komische Oper in Berlin, in addition to organizing private concerts. He worked in the Juilliard Bookstore from 2011 to 2013, but completed his musical training at the (very expensive) Peabody Institute.