Performances in Print

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Audiences at the Metropolitan Opera this fall may be surprised to open their Playbills and find, in place of the usual puff pieces about the performers, articles on the most pressing issues facing the Met: opera’s role in contemporary culture and its ongoing relevance. There will be other new features, as well, including a center spread called “In Focus” — a quick summary of what the audience needs to know about the evening’s opera.

The revamped program is part of general manager Peter Gelb’s plan to make the Met a more welcoming place, according to the director of editorial and communications, Elena Park.”We want it to be a publication that gets people talking,” Ms. Park said.

The Met is not alone in using its nightly programs to meet a specific outreach goal. As arts groups fight to maintain and renew their audiences, they’ve realized that any opportunity to capture the viewer’s interest and engage them must be fully exploited. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is taking the power of the printed word even further: It has entered into an agreement with the publishing house John Wiley & Sons to publish 15 co-branded books designed to bring attention to the performing arts.

“The times are changing. Our audience used to be very devoted to the ballet and knew a lot about it,” a spokesperson for New York City Ballet, Siobhan Burns, said. “That’s not what audiences are now.”

Some arts organizations, like the New York Philharmonic, approach programs as a way to inform the audience in quick doses. The Philharmonic had long been known for its in-depth program notes, but in an effort to accommodate people with limited time or musical knowledge, the company introduced, in 2002, content packaged in small chunks— sidebars on historical context, a particular instrument, or a musical passage.

The notes used to be a single essay of about 1,500 words, the Philharmonic’s program annotator, James Keller, said. After doing some research, however, the Philharmonic realized that many audience members wanted something shorter and more approachable.

The result is a shorter and more visual layout with a central essay of 650 words. “The presentation looks more like a magazine,” Mr. Keller said, “and it makes it easy for readers to imbibe this in bits and pieces. It stopped being a situation where they had to sit there and say, ‘Okay, now I’m going to settle in and read a 1500-word essay about Tchaikovsky.’ Instead they’re reading 650 words, and then they’re reading another 150 words in a sidebar, and maybe they’re reading an analysis of a passage, or a history of a spotlighted instrument.”

The Philharmonic also makes the notes downloadable on its Web site about two weeks prior to a performance. The move has proved popular because people can read at leisure, rather than cramming before a concert.

For the American Symphony Orchestra, the resident orchestra at Bard College and a participant in the Lincoln Center Great Performers series, the goal is to offer the listener something extra. At its Lincoln Center concerts, the American Symphony has long distributed, in addition to a Playbill, a magazine called Dialogues and Extensions. Printed on heavy paper stock, the publication includes essays by the symphony’s music director, Leon Botstein, and other scholars on the theme of the evening’s concert: the influence of Mozart on Russian composers, for example, or musical adaptations of Hans Christian Anderson stories.

Giving the audience more extensive notes is particularly important because the orchestra presents rare repertoire, the executive director, Lynne Meloccaro, explained. “Mr. Botstein is very invested in teaching people about music,” she explained. “The whole thrust of what we’re doing here is trying to expand people’s awareness of all the repertoire that’s out there. Also, we wanted people to have something they could keep.”

The magazine produces a lot of audience response, Ms. Meloccaro said: “People e-mail us about reactions they’ve had to the essays. And how many people do that with Playbill?”

Because of Playbill’s contract with Lincoln Center, the American Symphony can’t sell advertising for Dialogues and Extensions. Instead, the magazine is funded by foundations and individual donors, Ms. Meloccaro said.

Lincoln Center Theater also publishes a companion booklet, the Lincoln Center Theater Review. In its three editions each year, the magazine features articles that offer a thematic look at a given play.

The Lincoln Center Theater Review is even more expansive and eclectic than Dialogues and Extensions — less performance guide, more literary magazine. The Review was the brainchild of the playwright John Guare. In 1988, when Lincoln Center Theater was renewing itself after a period of financial difficulty, it presented a festival of South African playwrights. The newspapers weren’t interested in covering it: “They said,‘We already cover South Africa. We cover Athol Fugard,'” Mr. Guare said. So Mr. Guare decided that Lincoln Center should publish its own small magazine about the festival.

“It was supposed to be just one issue, but it was so successful that it just continued,” Mr. Guare said. He, along with Lincoln Center Theater’s dramaturg, Anne Cattaneo, are the editors. The Review is underwritten by Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation and the Drue Heinz Trust. “It’s hard to raise money for,” the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, Andre Bishop, said, “which I’m told by people in the literary magazine world is normal.” The Review is available in the theater lobby, with a $1 suggested donation.

From the beginning, Mr. Guare drew on all his acquaintances, including many well-known writers from fields other than theater. Writers have included Nadine Gordimer, Jonathan Lethem, George Packer, and Pete Hamill. Sometimes the topics are closely tied to the plays; other times, the play’s theme becomes simply the prompt for an entertaining essay.

Mr. Guare said he wants the magazine to address all the issues, from the most mundane to the loftiest, that a play brings up. “For example, in ‘Dinner at Eight,'” — which Lincoln Center staged in 2002 — “the big plot point was they were having lobster aspic for dinner, and then it failed and everything was a disaster,” Mr. Guare explained. “We said, what is lobster aspic? Why would that be such a disaster? So Korby Cummer from the Atlantic Monthly did a history about how hard it was to make lobster aspic before there was gelatin — how many people it took to make it, the amount of money you spent to make this one dish.”

The purpose, as Mr. Guare explained, is partly to demonstrate that theater does not exist in isolation, but as part of a larger cultural conversation. Mr. Guare wants, he said, “to show that a play is just not an isolated event, in a vacuum, but a manifestation of society in that moment.”

Of all these efforts, the new Met program may go the furthest in bidding for attention by imitating the magazines of popular and celebrity culture. Ms. Park said she looked at “beautifully designed” magazines like Vanity Fair and O — “magazines that grab people’s attention on the newsstand.” Whether they will grab people’s attention in the opera house remains to be seen.

The New York Sun

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