The Opera and the Symphony

Mike Snow · February 16, 2010 at 1:42 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

If this is not to your musical tastes, feel free to await your copy of the 2010 Mariner Annual so you have something else to read. But I figure holding our last event at Benaroya gives me a hook to talk about this, and anyway it’s not really about the music. Rather, I want to reflect a little bit on organizational structures and team leadership. If you follow other sports teams in town, you may have heard that this was a really big issue one of them has been sorting out recently. But in order to stay focused on baseball, I don’t want to invite people to talk about the wrong sport, so ironically the way I’m choosing to do that is to talk about something other than sports.

For the performing arts, it’s not hard to make an analogy to team sports in that it often requires assembling a talented cast of performers for a coordinated public exhibition of their skills. We don’t often dwell on the similarities since there’s considerable tension between these worlds, partly because they can come in competition, as entertainment options or for tax dollars. But one of the things arts and sports can have in common is a similar set of structural models. After all, somebody has to be responsible for putting together a team – often within the limitations of a budget – and then be accountable to the audience for the quality of the team’s performance. Both sides have even been known to use titles like “general manager” for this person.

All of this can include the theater, but I’m focusing on the musical arts because I’m more familiar with practices there. I’ll also emphasize the musical side, even though opera has a significant stage component, because opera companies and symphony orchestras provide a handy contrast to illustrate my point. (It also happens that Seattle’s two major institutions here are facing their own leadership transitions in the near future.) Either way, you have a team of players called an orchestra, each more or less specialized to a particular position like in baseball. The players also have varying levels of prominence – a bassoon gets a star turn about as often as a long reliever is your best pitcher – but all the parts contribute to the overall performance. Griffey, who once had concertmaster/diva status as the star performer, has now come back as that goofy percussion player who cracks jokes and keeps people loose. The person who coordinates all this activity on game day the night of the performance is the manager conductor. Notably in comparison to baseball managers, the conductor generally doesn’t play an instrument (though he may have played professionally earlier in his career), yet much of the attention afterward will be focused on his performance.

For a symphony orchestra, the conductor is the person who controls everything, the maestro, and for people who have issues with that, whether it’s not liking the offensive philosophy composers he favors or the third baseman lead trumpeter not getting along with him, tough luck. At the opera, though, the conductor is hired for a particular show like the singers, maybe because he’s a Mozart specialist or something, and though he directs the performance, he’s not the ultimate power in the company. The guy (and these are nearly always men) who decides what operas to put on, who the soloists will be, and makes other key decisions is the general director. But for some exceptions, and there are always exceptions, these are typical patterns for the respective leadership structures.

Over its history, baseball has fluctuated between these extremes. It has seen managers who ran the show completely, with the front office limited to administrative functions. That’s the old-school version, and you sort of get the feeling that in his more frustrated moments of wishing he had another bat, Lou Piniella would have preferred being the maestro, with the power to go get what he needed, whatever the cost. On the other hand, you have the approach where a manager is simply someone to execute in-game tactics, based on an organizational philosophy that has been determined for him. Billy Beane and the A’s have gone about the furthest in that direction in today’s environment.

As we get back into spring training and start seeing actual games again, we’ll have more opportunities to think about the leadership and decision-making of Wakamatsu as opposed to Zduriencik. Now, by contrasting these structural models I don’t mean to imply anything specific about how the Mariners have set things up or create a false tension. If anything, by most accounts things have gone well because Zduriencik includes all the key people in the process, so that everyone is on board with the overall philosophy while also understanding their individual roles. I just think it helps to understand the spectrum of possibilities as we evaluate the work being done, particularly since it’s difficult to quantify apart from performances of individual players.


20 Responses to “The Opera and the Symphony”

  1. packman498 on February 16th, 2010 2:10 pm

    This post serves as a reminder of why it sucks to be a diehard sports fan in Feb. Love the site, love your work…but the symphony analogy is a bit of a stretch. Just keep telling yourself its almost March, its almost March, its almost March……

  2. Pete Livengood on February 16th, 2010 2:20 pm

    Good thoughts, Mike. I tend to think the Mariners fall further to the Opera side of things, but still reside somewhere right in the middle. For me, the interesting thing going forward, as we see Jack re-make this team almost overnight, is whether things will shift more toward the Opera/Beane model, or will Wak begin to assert himself more and more as Maestro, as he grows into the job of Manager with more experience?

  3. robbbbbb on February 16th, 2010 2:35 pm

    or will Wak begin to assert himself more and more as Maestro, as he grows into the job of Manager with more experience?

    I don’t think so. He seems to be as self-effacing as you get in a major league manager. He talks about buying into a “belief system” and having everyone on the same page. That’s not a diva attitude.

    And while Wak’s had his “My way or the highway” moments, he can manage the situation if his dicta are subverted. (Specifically, I’m thinking of Griffey and the tie incident.)

  4. shim on February 16th, 2010 4:29 pm

    When the members of the orchestra don’t get along they put razor blades in each others mailboxes. When ball players don’t get along they get into fistfights. I’d rather the latter…more up front and honest.

  5. HoustonMarinerFan on February 16th, 2010 4:33 pm

    A lot of the difference between the Symphony and Orchestra organization examples you gave seem to be about who is making most of the decisions about player acquisition, trades, etc. – the front office or the manager.
    I think a more interesting question is: does the organization (be it front office or manager) select players to fit a specific organization/team style of play? Or does the organization select players based on some other criteria, such as value compared to cost, and then adapt the team style of play to match the strengths of their players.
    (You can really see this in other sports better than baseball – football, basketball, soccer, it’s easy to think of examples of teams that have a system they want to play and draft players to fit it vs. teams that draft the best players and mold their style of play to fit their players.)
    Re the Mariners, I think about Tony Blegino(?) saying the defense was undervalued in the current market and that was why they pursued players whose strength was defense, but that if defense stopped being undervalued, some other area of player strength would then be undervalued and the team would pursue that type of player. I see Wakamatsu as being in agreement with the front office that there is more than one way to win games, smart enough to see that the approach Blegino articulated is designed to maximize the total team strength given a fixed payroll, and a skilled enough manager to match a team’s style of play to the players strengths.
    I think the front office is responsible for getting the very best musicians (players) it can, and that the manager, Wak, is being asked to get the highest quality of music possible from those musicians.

  6. ira on February 16th, 2010 4:41 pm

    I don’t follow the symphony much. Do they have superstar trombonists who sign multiyear, millions of dollars per year contracts? Does the New York Symphony make sure that they get the talented oboeists at all costs?

  7. Mike Snow on February 16th, 2010 7:37 pm

    I think the front office is responsible for getting the very best musicians (players) it can, and that the manager, Wak, is being asked to get the highest quality of music possible from those musicians.

    That’s not a bad summary. Part of what shapes the different approaches is how you weight the relative importance of those pieces. I’d agree with Pete that the opera model is closer to how the Mariners, and modern baseball clubs in general, operate. But to truly operate effectively the major players need to be in harmony with each other, whatever the model. Right now it seems from Zduriencik to Wakamatsu and throughout the organization, things look pretty good in that sense.

    I’m amused at the notion of orchestras trading a clarinetist for a trombonist (and a 2nd violin to be named later). If you want to know where the money goes, it’s to opera stars and big-name soloists, especially with major recording careers. Think Placido Domingo or Joshua Bell. Like baseball players, musicians are unionized and frequently at odds with management, but I’d characterize their unions as more rank-and-file oriented. That gives some added resentment over athlete salary levels and fuels arts-versus-sports bad blood, maybe beyond what would be warranted if you look at costs to the public of tickets and amenities.

  8. SunDevil1 on February 16th, 2010 9:32 pm

    Ira – In a word – yes. And, as in baseball, the major market orchestras have the budgets to stack their rosters with the very best players.

    My first career was spent in orchestras, opera orchestra pits and onstage with other chamber musicians. Mike does a pretty good job describing the life. And just like baseball teams that tune out the manager, sometimes performing arts groups tune out the conductor/band leader. It’s just human nature. And when it happens, it’s time for a change. Great conductors command respect and are adept at delivering the message in a way that is heard and heeded.

    I hope Wak is a great conductor. So far it seems he’s on the path.

  9. Catherwood on February 16th, 2010 11:07 pm

    With all due respect, I think this is a cruddy comparison. Orchestras, and choruses, eschew “players above replacement” value — in fact, a chorus (and I was a professional singer at one time) really doesn’t want a standout voice. Anyone who’s been to a concert where one musician, vocal or instrumental, won’t blend into the mix, knows what I mean.

    I don’t know any conductors who want less than competent musicians on staff, but I also don’t know any who want virtuosos at every spot. That’s why you bring in touring soloists, and that’s WHY those people are soloists: they can’t, or won’t, blend in with the whole.

    In baseball, every player, in a sense, plays for himself: the other infielders don’t cover for your blown cue. In a chorus or orchestra, you’re never alone (aside from chamber groups and madrigal singers and the like): if one of the violins misses his or her entrance, the other seven will still hit it. But in baseball, in the end, each player is alone, and nobody bails him out. I really don’t see any insights illuminated by this analogy – that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means that, to me, it’s not informative.

  10. schachmatt on February 17th, 2010 12:28 am

    For me the analogy is interesting, but incomplete and inaccurate for two reasons.

    The opera conductor doesn’t function as the manager. The opera conductor has to be responsive to the needs of the singers and dancers on the stage and is relying upon them for direction as often as they are relying on the conductor. The stage performers are often dictating the flow of events to the conductor who is then directing the orchestra to mesh seamlessly. The opera conductor would be more like a pitching or batting coach.

    Also, the athletes in the symphony are the musicians while in the opera the stage performers are a better fit for the athlete role.

  11. Mike Snow on February 17th, 2010 8:06 am

    No, pitching or hitting coach doesn’t translate, they mostly work with players outside of the actual game situation. The equivalent there is singers having vocal coaches and so on. The fact that a conductor has to absorb cues from the performers as well as vice versa is not necessarily a fundamental difference from a baseball manager. You warm up a guy in the bullpen and learn he’s not sharp, you don’t use him – that’s a similar principle in action.

    Like any analogy, it’s possible to stretch it too far. You can’t map every aspect of baseball to an orchestra, I’ll grant that. The point was to talk about how the organization’s leadership is structured, and for that I think the comparison is useful.

  12. Paul B on February 17th, 2010 8:36 am

    In opera, in addition to the conductor and the general director, there is a stage director.

    I’d liken the stage director to the baseball manager, and the conductor (who coordinates between the orchestra and the singers) more to the third base coach, who coordinates the activities between the hitter and baserunners.

    I don’t know any conductors who want less than competent musicians on staff, but I also don’t know any who want virtuosos at every spot.

    For singers, though, we do want great performers at every spot. Although, if they have a prima donna personality, maybe not because no one wants to work with them.

    Jack Z reminds me a little of Speight Jenkins (general director, Seattle Opera). For example, in a Q&A session Speight was asked about getting a specific soprano (who sings at the Met sometimes) to perform in Seattle. In response, Speight said, “I can get any singer I want for Seattle, and I have never asked her”.

    That is SO much like how Jack sometimes answers questions at our Q&A events.

  13. Paul B on February 17th, 2010 8:47 am

    One other comment… I’m a big opera fan. I recall one of the talking heads in Ken Burns’ Baseball making a comparison between baseball and opera, explaining to his friends why he thinks that they are exactly alike.

    It seems odd at first, but I agree with him. My attraction to baseball is very much like my attraction to opera (well, except we don’t have detailed stats on opera performers. If we did, oh that would be heaven!)

    Hello, my name is Paul and I’m a geek.

  14. kill55 on February 17th, 2010 9:47 am

    For what it’s worth, the Phoenix Symphony will perform the Mozart Requiem when I’m down in Arizona for Spring Training.

  15. davepaisley on February 17th, 2010 2:00 pm

    And of course, in baseball, the fat lady doesn’t wait until the end to sing…

  16. Mike Snow on February 17th, 2010 2:39 pm

    Well, that depends, sometimes they have her doing the national anthem, which comes at the beginning. I’d like to see her do “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” though. It’s got to be better than Harry Caray.

  17. ira on February 17th, 2010 8:43 pm

    Somebody’s got to come out with opera cards. I don’t what kind of stats you’d put on the back of the card. Dude, I’ve got a Placido Domingo rookie card. Shortstop? No, baritone.

  18. Paul B on February 18th, 2010 7:37 am

    Actually, he was a shortstop (err, tenor) and as he got old he had to shift to first base (err, baritone).

  19. Mike Snow on February 18th, 2010 8:01 am

    I don’t what kind of stats you’d put on the back of the card.

    Number of times sung at the Met, Covent Garden, La Scala, that sort of thing. Signature roles and debuts in them.

  20. Paul B on February 18th, 2010 8:42 am

    And there’d be a hall of fame, that would have sections for composers, conductors, as well as performers.

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