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Disney and the Arts

Ya-Ting and I have visited Disney World for Christmas this year and had a fantastic time. In addition to exhilarating shows, flavorful food, imaginative rides and whimsical surroundings, I came back with a new appreciation for the level of coordination and complexity required to deliver high quality experience to so many people consistently. While being a business selling products and services, Disney has to rise above just those functions to offer a unique and multifaceted experience in order to justify the cost of visiting its parks for people who travel from all over the world. As a professional musician, educator and arts administrator I was especially impressed by the quality of musical and dance presentations. Many classical composers, musicians, ballet dancers and opera singers dismiss Disney as commercial art. When I consider Disney live performances I experienced from a perspective of general public, the impact is obvious and not surprising. There is a tremendous power in offering clarity of storytelling combined with a remarkable balance between communicating to children and adults. Every tool in artistic arsenal is used to offer a vivid and memorable story to children and enough additional layers of complexity for adults.

The solid grounding of stories in ethically sound universal themes also helps. There is a balance in mixing new ideas with classics, clearly a result of a rigorous editing process which makes surprising mixture of fireworks and mashup of classical orchestral pieces justifiable and effective. I am not sure how much of this is a result of commercial pressures to reach a vast global audience and how much is simply following Walt Disney’s initial vision, but the spectacular effectiveness in communication achieved by Disney reminded me how important it is for all of us in the arts to consider our audience. When I think of contemporary audience, unfamiliar with majority of the great traditions of Western European instrumental music, opera and ballet, some questions come to mind immediately. Would investing resources in high quality contemporary translations of operas into English be a more effective strategy in pursuit of new audiences than updating sets? Would marketing concerts focused on just one large scale work as a musical narrative with a theme make them more appealing? Would taking an unflinchingly honest look at the Western classical music canon considering what is still effective and what is hopelessly dated help solidify audience following by increasing intensity of experience through more compact and impactful performances? Would making conservatory students produce and perform short programs for children teach them to be more effective communicators? Would presenting artistic events as a multigenerational learning/exploratory experiences rather than simply shows help distinguish live performances as uniquely worthy of time and attention? Whether we like it or not, contemporary professional artists are competing for attention of individuals with access to historically unprecedented material resources and entertainment options far exceeding their available leisure time. There is a little room or patience for ambiguity. Clarity of narrative delivered through powerful vivid and memorable communication is a new standard set in large measure by an incredible concentration of artistic talent in organizations like Disney.


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