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Why Digital Music Looks Set to Replace Live Performances

A scuffle at a Connecticut opera reveals the bleak future of the orchestra pit



Edel Rodriguez

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This August's production of Richard Wagner's four-opera Ring cycle in Hartford, Conn., has been postponed.

Rather than hiring pit musicians, producer Charles M. Goldstein had intended to accompany the singers with sampled instrument sounds, played by a computer. Not a CD, not a synthesizer; the computer triggers the playback of individual notes (“samples”) originally recorded from real instruments.

The reaction of professional musicians—and, of course, the musicians' union—was swift and furious. New York City's Local 802 president called it operatic karaoke. Hate mail poured in. In the end, the opera's music director, as well as two of the stars, withdrew from the production.

I know exactly what Goldstein must be feeling right about now. For my first 10 years out of college, I worked on Broadway shows as a musical director and arranger. In 1993 the group now called the Broadway League (of theater owners) contacted me. They wanted me to demonstrate how well computers and samplers could serve a live performance.

I was flattered that powerful producers were seeking the advice of little 30-year-old me. I was all set to help out—until I started getting anonymous threats on my answering machine.

It turns out, the Broadway League and Local 802 were at the bargaining table, and the league wanted to use technology as leverage. The unspoken message: “If we can't reach an agreement, our shows will go on—without live music.”

I bowed out. I was a Local 802 member and employed by a Broadway producer; I was in no position to choose a side. Even today, though, I'm deeply empathetic to both parties.

Musicians and music lovers argue that live orchestras are essential. Nobody buys a ticket to listen to a CD; there's something thrilling about musicians working as a unified artistic element. Of course, the musicians' unions also have a less noble interest: keeping their dwindling ranks employed.

For their part, producers often argue that there might be no show at all without a digital orchestra; live musical theater is expensive. Just look at the list of U.S. opera companies that have closed in the past few years: Opera Cleveland, Opera Pacific, San Antonio Opera and, shockingly, New York City Opera.

Do we really want to eliminate opera altogether or watch it with a piano accompaniment—a live player, yes, but a puny sound? Those outcomes serve nobody, including the public.

As technology has marched on, the musicians have lost two additional arguments: that fake music doesn't sound as good as real players and that audiences demand live players.

These days you can't tell a live but amplified orchestra from a high-end sampled one. And—tragically, to me—it doesn't seem as though, in the end, showgoers care much. During a 1993 musicians' strike, management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., announced that its production of The Phantom of the Opera would use taped accompaniment. About 90 percent of ticket holders attended anyway.

It's likely Goldstein is correct that a full live orchestra would make his Ring cycle too expensive to produce. But if we let him proceed, what's to stop producers from running with that argument, eventually replacing all live players to save money? It's a fraught situation, rife with potential for abuse on both sides.

History is not on live music's side. Canned music has largely replaced live players at dance performances, restaurants, school plays and community theaters. Nobody seems to bat an eye.

Further, the efficiencies and economies of digital technology have destroyed the old models in other creative industries: book publishing, moviemaking, pop music recording, and so on.

The battle between technology and live music will rage on for years, with passion on both sides. But as a musician and a live music fan, it's painful for me to say it: the long-term future of live pit musicians doesn't look especially upbeat.

This article was originally published with the title "Unsettled Score."

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