What to expect when you partner with the government

I once watched Luciano Pavarotti nearly blow himself up.  We were both on stage at the San Francisco Opera House. He was the main attraction, I but a lowly member of the opera???s boys??? chorus. It was the first dress rehearsal of Ponchielli???s La Gioconda and at one point Enzo (Pavarotti) is to set fire to his ship. It???s quite dramatic. Pavarotti was not expecting the ship to actually catch fire and explode. But that was precisely what the stage manager had prepared???and what happened. We had a good laugh watching a 300-pound Italian opera singer go screaming off to Stage Right.

Clearly this was a dangerous moment, but was there ever any doubt that the show would go on? Of course not. And let???s be honest, opera is already a genre that lacks any basis in reality. (Seriously, do you know how long it takes for a soprano to die after repeatedly stabbing herself in the third act?) Which makes what happened two weeks ago simply jaw-dropping. The Western Australian Opera (WAO) cancelled its production of Carmen because its namesake works in a (gasp!) tobacco factory, an ???unhealthy??? image the opera company considered inappropriate to promote.

Even more ridiculous, the WAO made the decision after securing a $400,000 grant from Healthway, the Australian governing body that sponsors arts and community organizations to promote health messages. Initially, Healthway denied it influenced the decision, but leaked board meeting minutes put the lie to that denial.

Carolyn Chard, General Manager of the WAO, said, ???Carmen is an opera that is actually set in a tobacco factory, so that does present some difficulties if you???re promoting non-smoking and healthy work environments. I think we were very respectful of the partnership and forward-thinking about recognizing it would be in direct conflict with the aims of the Heathway support. I think sponsorship is so vitally important to arts companies and this is significant support and you need to deliver benefits.???

Stop the presses. Danger, danger Will Robinson! What did you expect when you partner with the government? Freedom of expression?

The English-speaking-peoples have a visceral reaction to book-burning and censorship???for good reason. In the U.S. it is the arts community for which expression is paramount, especially when public funds are included. And while social conservatives will occasionally remind us of Robert Mapplethorpe and friends, the debate in the U.S. over public funding of the arts is not as politicized as it once was.  (For an interesting take on this see Tyler Cowen???s Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding). It???s simply not on the same scale as it is in Europe or the United Kingdom.

So we can debate whether there should be a public role in the arts to kingdom come. But the WAO???s decision poses a different problem???the tradeoff that comes from private entities allowing public political correctness to dictate the market. It sets a very dangerous precedent. Government using its position to override clear market forces???the fact that Carmen is an important cultural marker with great staying power and influence attests to consumers??? enduring demand for it???to say, prevent the ???glamorization??? of smoking, undermines our autonomy as adults. It is insulting, to boot.

Far from ???protecting??? taxpayer dollars, such farcical censorship races us down to the lowest denominator, and in doing so, denies and opportunity for new generations to develop an appreciation for music, story, dance, and other art forms, as their creators intended.

What about Shakespeare? Will arts grants require a performance of Hamlet not to show a mentally ill person in an unfavorable light? Or pressure a theater to rid Macbeth of naked witches and murder most foul? Don???t tell the bureaucrats, but opera (and literature and music and dance and musicals and plays and poetry) are replete with inappropriate, immoral, and violent behavior. Australian radio host Phillip Sametz put it best: ???In Wagner???s Ring Cycle, Siegmund falls in love with his sister. We???re not talking about an art form that takes necessarily the high moral ground.??? And don???t tell them that Siegmund???s creator, Richard Wagner, was also Adolf Hitler???s favorite composer???that???ll be the end of the Ring Cycle.

But the WAO dug its own grave when it held out its hand begging to the powers that be.

Clearly ill-prepared for hullabaloo over its decision, the WAO has since reversed it. Carmen will now be ???allowed??? to use second-hand smoke to dance and bellow her infamous Habanera. But sadly, the damage is done.

Throughout Judith Viorst???s classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Alexander repeats his desire to move to Australia, presumably because he thinks it is better there.

He may have second thoughts.