How quickly even long-held beliefs can change! I claimed, after abandoning my SF Opera subscription and ending my donations to them (having vowed not to donate to any company performing Boheme), that I would keep on subscribing and donating to Cal Performances, mostly because of their association with Mark Morris. And yet I’m thinking that next season I will switch to individual tickets there, too, and definitely direct my donations elsewhere.
I donate not only because I believe in giving art and artists the support our society generally doesn’t, but selfishly because donors tend to get first choice of tickets. That’s all I care about: I don’t care about receptions or program listings or special rooms in which to eat cookies – just the tickets. So it was worth it to me to donate to Cal Performances (which really does present excellent programs) to get the seats I wanted, though I was already irritated that in the last few years we were expected to pony up (or “apply for membership” as they absurdly put it) before we were allowed to see the list of what exactly we were going to be hearing once we were in those seats. It seems to me you used to be able to send in a donation when you sent in your subscription, which makes sense to me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about one of their upcoming offerings, a single concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma; as a performer who combines wide popularity with great musical integrity, he’s a hot ticket, but it’s one available only to those who donate at least $1,200. I do understand that art is expensive and you need to pamper the big donors. What offends me, and what I find completely inexplicable and inexcusable, is that this concert, instead of being mentioned only in letters addressed exclusively to the exclusive, was featured in the season brochure, and Yo-Yo Ma is prominently featured on the posters in the lobby, on every program cover, and on every mailing from Cal Performances. During the no doubt lengthy design and production process for this material, did it not occur to anyone over there that this was maybe not such a great idea?
Do they seriously think that all we need in order to toss them an extra $1,200 is the right, cello-based incentive? Have they not been paying attention to America's economic situation? Did it seriously not occur to them that the only message that was really being sent was that there is absolutely no point in giving to them unless you can give at least $1,200? The opera and the symphony have their opening nights for the society swells, but you can ignore them completely, or even attend – hoi polloi are not barred at the door. There’s a long history of robber barons buying social prestige, or at least semi-acceptance, with European-based art forms. But Cal Performances, I assume, comes out of a different and more admirably democratic impetus: making high-quality performances available to university students and faculty, both traditionally not really wealthy groups. So Cal Performance’s unfortunately characteristic clumsiness seems especially offensive, given the public university setting.
And the thing is, this exclusivity, and the emphasis on the big donors, has been getting worse over the many years I’ve been subscribing and donating to Cal Performances. Every year there are more and more performances where tickets are allegedly not available in the location I want, and would I accept being shoved off to the side, or farther back? I always return my subscription within days of receiving it, since I know there's a certain amount of first-come-first-served, and this year I donated at the sponsor level, which frankly was a financial hardship for me, but I figured at least I’d get all the seats I wanted. Nope.
And the thing is, I just don’t believe the tickets aren’t available. I’ve been to too many concerts at Zellerbach and Herbst where I’m sitting right next to people who walked up to the box office half an hour before. So what’s the benefit for me? Last season I bought a ticket for Audra McDonald as soon as the concert was added. I told them to put me in the front row. When I got there, it turned out that I was six rows back, but the first six rows were not blocked off in any way, and the ushers were telling people they could sit there, so of course people who had paid less moved up. I was talking to the woman who ended up in front of me, and she said, “Boy, if I paid $65 for front row and all these people like me who paid less were ahead of me, I’d be pissed!” And you know what? She was right – I was pissed!
So what’s the point in donating to Cal Performances? My widow’s mite is clearly insignificant to them, and I don’t get much benefit from my sacrifice. If I’m going to donate, why not give it to a group that does consistently excellent work and can use the money for something other than an extra shrimp tray for the really valued donors? I can give to Mark Morris directly, or to excellent local groups like Cutting Ball Theater, Thick Description Theater, or Oakland Opera. And for a donation of only $75 to the Opera Company of Philadelphia, I didn't have to wait until December to buy tickets to next June’s performances of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia with Nathan Gunn, William Burden, and Tamara Mumford, in what I understand is the pretty small Perelman Theater. And you know what? Opera Philly gave me the seats I wanted, too, and they were generally gracious and helpful about the whole thing.