The Pittburgh Opera's ice cream headache

11.16.07

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For those who have't caught the opera yet or our coverage, the Pittsburgh Opera made a little history this week with some product placement on stage of its production of "The Elixir of Love." Please read my article about it. It is important again to state off the top that the Pittsburgh Opera did not pay Bruster's Ice Cream to place its sign on stage, but did get in-kind services.

The more I think about this affair, the less I like it. Do what you want to the time before and after a concert or opera, but the actual performance should be kept clean of anything that isn't artistically motivated. This was an idea that originated as a brainstorm in the marketing department and not by artistic.

And the crazy thing is, I think the Bruster's promotion could have worked just as effectively with a presence in the Benedum Center lobby and with the coupons in the program, the e-mail promotions and the free ice cream. In short, the inclusion on stage wasn't even necessary to make a presence and get the point across. Bruster's told me that they didn't ask for it and would have been more than happy with the rest of the offer.

It's not that I worry about the slippery slope (though some great suggestions to me include Mimi's Yankee Candles and Papageno sponsored by Petsmart! In fact, if you want to e-mail me more funny humorous product placements in classical music, do at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com and I will post). But I question its artistic value.

While I understand the Pittsburgh Opera's point that Donizetti's "Elixir" is a comic opera and the Bruster's sign was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it was the only such element in the production. Had there been multiple examples of wit reaching out of the context like that, I would buy it. This was isolated. And, while it was funny, it wasn't THAT funny. Certainly not enough to warrant the price that was paid, metaphorically speaking.

Actually, the biggest problem for me was that it just distracted from the story, in the way a cameo by a superstar actor does in a film. It drew me out of the staging, keeping me from the fantasy unfolding.

Also, the Pittsburgh Opera doesn't entirely make sense when it says it wanted to localize the production with Bruster's since it is an nostalgic Americana production. The setting in this updated production of "Elixir" is 1910 America, but Bruster's wasn't even founded until 1989! If the company really wanted to create nostalgia for its patrons, it could have chosen Reinhold Ice Cream, which has a history in the area, I am told, since the 1890s.

So it is clear that this was more of an opportunity to cross market than it was to add to the ambiance on stage, even if only slightly so. Pittsburgh Opera is to be commended for trying novel ways to to get new patrons or get the word out, but it shouldn't happen with the real "product" on stage. Again, I think all the positive elements in this experiment could have been achieved without putting the sign on stage.

It's not a huge deal, I suppose. It certainly would have been worse had the company taken money, had a true ad on stage or done it in a tragic opera. But there is something special about that time on stage. Even if opera has a history of questionable means by which some singers get into productions or that repertoire is chosen, that shouldn't be used as reasons to mess with the music. There is so little in the music industry that can even claim to be remotely unsullied by commercialism, so little that can purport to be pure without being laughed at. I would like to keep those moments as free as possible.

You still have two chances to make up your own mind about the sign, at 8 p.m. tonight (Nov. 16) and 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 18), at the Benedum Center, Downtown.



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