Soaped-Up Arts Advertising Just Won't Wash

I'm incensed.

Somewhere along Orange County's new trek toward high art, a few members of our cultural wagon train would take us on a detour down the low road of the hard sell.

I'm referring to recent attention-grabbing ads and fund-raising appeals that contain inflated claims and exaggerated facts more befitting burlesque-show hawkers than the "world-class" organizations these arts groups aspire to be.

The most flagrant is Opera Pacific's new campaign for its 1987-88 season, which features one grand opera--Verdi's "Aida"--and Johann Strauss' comic opera "Die Fledermaus" and the Robert Wright-George Forrest Broadway musical "Kismet."

Not an inaccessibly high-brow lineup by any means. But here's how Opera Pacific describes the plot of "Aida":

"She wants him desperately. And he would forfeit an empire to have her. Feel their forbidden passion as the mystery of ancient Egypt comes alive for an evening."

Here's "Die Fledermaus":

"Before the night is over, their secrets will be revealed--it is all planned. No one will escape the truth. Become entwined in a spirited evening of mistaken identity and sweet revenge in old Vienna."

Opera as soap opera.

The way the "Aida" cast is listed is at best confusing; at worst, misleading: "Starring Metropolitan Opera artists Leona Mitchell/Carol Neblett, Ruben Dominguez/Stefano Algieri, Andrew Smith, Eric Halfvarson and Dolora Zajic."

To those of us who don't have the current Met roster tattooed on our wrists, that implies an entire cast of singers from the New York-based opera company, right? (I got five-for-five agreement in a quick check of some arts-aware folks around the newsroom.) It turns out, however, that only Mitchell and Neblett, alternating in the title role, are Met stalwarts.

I suppose we should be grateful for getting Mitchell and Neblett. From the tone of the ads, I would expect a cast more along the lines of Joan Collins and Morgan Fairchild.

But Opera Pacific isn't alone. The Master Chorale of Orange County is trying to drum up some quick donations with a press release that declares:

"The Master Chorale of Orange County is for sale.... You may purchase a bullish basso, a sparkling soprano, an awesome alto or a tremendous tenor for $1,000 each."

Yes, but are they housebroken?

In a couple of telling factual blunders, Luciano Pavarotti's management boasted that the famed tenor's Jan. 4 fund-raising concert for Opera Pacific would be "the first time that West Coast audiences will enjoy this legendary voice in an intimate Concert Hall," and the Pacific Symphony advertised pianist Claudio Arrau's forthcoming date with the symphony as "His 1st Southland concert performances since 1979."

Neither claim is true, indicating that those who create the ads are either ignorant, forgetful or unconcerned about the facts. Or that they believe the county's audiences are. (Pacific Symphony subsequently amended its ad, and Opera Pacific has eliminated the Pavarotti gaffe in its ad for the concert.)

Even the venerable American Ballet Theatre, which plasters a photo of director/superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov at the top of all its otherwise-businesslike ads, pirouetted over the edge of reason with its description of Antony Tudor's "Pillar of Fire":

" ( A ) beautifully and intensely dramatic ballet of tangled love in a small town at the turn of the century."

Who writes this stuff? Judith Krantz?

More frustrating than the sheer drippiness of these synopses is that they aren't even particularly accurate. In "Aida," the Ethiopian slave girl/princess of the title does love the hero, Radames, but if anybody is desperate it's the other woman, Amneris, who precipitates the opera's tragedy. And maybe Radames would choose to forfeit an empire to have Aida, but he never gets the chance.

"Pillar of Fire" is certainly a tale of unrequited love, but to describe it as "tangled love in a small town" makes it sound like "Peyton Place," not a wrenching psychological ballet by a great choreographer.

Individually, these may seem like small errors or merely silly marketing campaigns. Together, though, they add up to an attitude that the county must be connived into supporting the arts.

If that's true, why bother, unless the quick kill is the only goal? Certainly it's a worthwhile endeavor to bring opera, ballet and symphony to as wide an audience as possible, but I wouldn't count on getting many subscribers from people who go into "Aida" expecting "Dynasty."

"It seems to me that the people who run those ads don't themselves know what it's all about," said Burton Karson, professor of music at Cal State Fullerton and director of the annual Corona del Mar Baroque Music Festival. "I worry about those running the productions and what kind of taste they might inflict on us. . . .

"As an enthusiast," Karson added, "I welcome as much growth as possible in all the arts here. It does us all good. I want people to go and become enthusiastic about everything. But personally, I'm offended."

There seem to be two philosophies, even among those that aren't indulging in the "wow-wee" brand of advertising.

"The arts are now treated as a marketable item like toothpaste, underarm deodorant or anything else," said Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society. "If that's what it takes to keep organizations alive, let's do it. If not, we may all find ourselves looking for other jobs."

But Bonnie McClain, development director at Pacific Chorale, said: "I understand the need to sell tickets, . . . and they may really get a fabulous audience out of it. But my basic thought is that I would not like to see the people of Orange County underestimated. I would really hope people wouldn't try to get too cliched or cutesy (in their ads). I wouldn't want to see any loss of dignity in selling fine arts."

I'm no big arts expert by a long shot. The number of staged operas I've attended E.T. could count on both hands. As a pop music critic, the opera I'm most familiar with is The Who's "Tommy."

I used to be as hesitant as anyone at the thought of sitting through all that foreign-language singing and what I imagined to be dated, stilted drama. But the first time I saw Mozart's delightful "Abduction From the Seraglio," I was hooked.

The same with ballet. Before attending New York City Ballet's remarkable performances last year at the Performing Arts Center, my notion of ballet was little more than big-legged men in tights and dainty women in tutus running around on their toes.

The lesson I learned: Put on a good performance and I'll be back for more.

Like many other people in this county, I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person who is interested in learning more and who doesn't need--or desire--to be enticed with sensationalistic ads.

So, guys: Give us some credit, will ya?

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