Placido Domingo thinks the future of music lies with the Internet. Norman Lebrecht reports
The new season is upon us, sparkling with excitements. A champagne brunch at the Barbican announces an effervescent schedule. Across London, the South Bank Centre issues a champagne-maker`s gold-paged guide to the year`s classical concerts - just what is needed to attract a young audience and dispel whiffs of elitism.
Radio 3 and Classic FM are promising to bring home all the best sounds. The record industry is gearing up for its black-tie awards night, and Covent Garden is packaging tickets with overnight stays at the Savoy. At a time when the art of communication is changing faster than the mind can grasp, the communication of arts is stuck in a rut of fluted glasses and wishful snobbery.
Even as the South Bank brags of `excellence` and `innovation`, quality and novelty are soaring beyond its reach. Live music on the Internet has become a booming reality and, as of this month, a potent threat.
In a move that will send tremors through terrestial outlets, the tenor Placido Domingo has joined the board of the web-broadcaster Global Music Network. At his first board meeting in Los Angeles, Domingo pledged to make `a major commitment` to Internet broadcasting, and to work exclusively with GMN on educational programming.
He was unable to tell me more when I rang, as he was about to open the Met season for the 18th time, beating Caruso`s 80-year record, and was then whisked off by Mayor Giuliani to inaugurate New York`s Placido Domingo Day.
But his Los Angeles lawyer Don Franzen, who negotiated the GMN deal, was eager to elaborate. Apart from live concert and opera relays, Domingo will be making records for sale on the Internet on a `joint venture` basis with GMN.
Not that anyone expects to make money for at least five years, by which time its is expected that eight per cent of classical commerce will be conducted on the Internet, 20 per cent by 2010. Even if e-biz turns out to be the biggest musical bubble since quadrophonics, the clock cannot be turned back, and earthbound providers will have their work cut out to hang on to a fragile audience base.
In a mere nine months, with low-resolution video, GMN has attracted 300,000 monthly users. By the time cable-modems improve the video reception and other stars follow in Domingo`s footsteps - a matter of weeks, I suspect, rather than months - turning to the Internet for a musical fix will become as natural as twiddling a radio dial, inserting a disc or going out to a concert.
GMN, with 40 staff and a $16 million war chest is not alone in the field. A $100 million company called Centerseat was offering deals to European orchestras earlier this year, but now appears to have centred on rock and general entertainment, with a leavening of live operas from Prague.
GMN`s strength is its total commitment to classics and jazz, delivering an advertising profile of educated high-achievers and an ever-growing browsing pasture. Its Valery Gergiev relays from St Petersburg, for example, are constantly accessible from a 200-hour recorded database.
The significance of Domingo`s accession is greater than the sum of his parts. If Luciano Pavarotti were to link up with an e-pioneer, not much ink would be spilled, as Big Luce is nearing the day when he can lie back and enjoy his Monaco tax haven. Domingo, however, goes on and on. At 58, he is singing 50 nights a year while running the Washington Opera, and is about to take over at Los Angeles as well. He is a major player in our operatic future.
Part of his interest in GMN is in getting an outlet for his two opera houses, provided the unions play along. He is particularly keen to put his Operalia singing contest on air, and may consider moving it to Britain, where new union rules favour e-relays.
All of a sudden, arts venues are having to think fast. In London, the Wigmore Hall has become a GMN partner. Covent Garden is talking to Microsoft, and ENO very nearly went live with Salome in June, stalled only by a soprano`s recalcitrance. The Barbican has installed robot cameras in its concert hall - albeit in alliance with the BBC, which never relays concerts.
The South Bank, so far, has appointed to its board the BBC`s Director of Television, Alan Yentob - the man who presided over the elimination of classical music from terrestial television.
One way or other, the tempo is quickening and Domingo, for all his record feats, may enter posterity primarily as the first opera singer to step into cyberspace.