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Classical 101

A Controversy in Chicago Opera Over a Filthy Word

The only constant is change.

When I was growing up, growing your hair out was a harmless form of rebellion designed to irritate the adults in our lives. Slang had the same effect. And music? "Noise" was what most over 30 would call Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, AC/DC. It changes as you get older and have to work in the very society whose nose you wanted to tweak. Question authority became push the envelope, think outside the box - but within some pretty well-defined borders. One of the main changes has been language. In my business, George Carlin's Filthy Words, which is better known as "7 Words You Can't Say on the Air" still, for the most part, aren't used in broadcast television or the mainstream press.

While many of those expressions may turn up in conversation in the office or be overheard on the street, we are still expected to use discretion when using certain language. One does not just "drop the 'F' bomb" while having lunch with your Mom or Mother-in-law (Though I suppose the rules change if she uses it first, but still). A controversy is brewing in Chicago over the use of the word onstage - a lot - in a new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage called Greek. The brouhaha began when one of the sponsors of the production by Chicago Opera Vanguard chose to pull their sponsorship because of the prolific use of "the word." One reviewer pointed out that "opera isn’t always the most decorous of art forms, with adultery, betrayal, and vengeance often common themes." That's true. And maybe in context, the language serves a purpose and makes a point.

However, it was a comment in a blog by Brian Dickie, General Director of Chicago Opera Vanguard, which really made me think. Dickie said, "Come on Chicago, you are bigger than that. It is embarrassing to think that a sponsor would blink on this account. Eric Reda's energy and vision deserves better." Really? It seems to me that the sponsor deserves better than to be slammed publicly for what is, at its core, a business decision. It seems to me that they must be sensitive to the potential reaction by their customers or clients and react appropriately.

Artists, writers, and composers have always used their talents to make a point, to speak to an issue, to tweak the noses of government/royalty/the wealthy/etc. But to publicly dress down a sponsor who, in difficult economic times still chooses to support the arts, because they do not want their name connected to a work which, while edgy, "hot," "a landmark piece," uses language that still makes many uncomfortable (no matter how cool we like to think we are) is, in my opinion, simply wrongheaded.

The first amendment gives us many freedoms, speech among them. Chicago Opera Vanguard and Brian Dickie, are certainly free to express themselves however they wish. The sponsors, it seems, have decided to express themselves as well.