Here’s something you probably didn’t see coming: an opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she was a young woman from Mexia who went from being a model in the mid-1990s to reality show star to tabloid train wreck before dying of an overdose in 2007. Not the most obvious candidate for an opera subject, even for a genre in which plenty of tragic figures die young.

It opened last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, staged by the New York City Opera. City Opera itself could be the star of a similar production, subjected as it has been lately to the ravages of forces not entirely within its control and plagued by bad options left and right. It’s emblematic of hundreds of similar arts organizations across the country.

The company was founded in 1943 with a mission of bringing opera to more of the population. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called it “the people’s opera.” Because of financial pressures, it moved out of its home in Lincoln Center, where it used to stage 100 performances a season.

Since then it’s been a wandering company, mounting a limited number of productions throughout the city. Although that has brought opera closer to the people, it also has resulted in a steep drop-off in contributions. Its endowment has nearly collapsed.

George Steel, the company’s general manager and artistic director (who took the job in 2009 after a very short stint with the Dallas opera), has glumly announced that “Anna Nicole” will be the company’s only production of the season if it can’t raise $7 million by the end of September. Without another $13 million on top of that, there won’t be a 2014-15 season at all, he said

His dire forecast has not fallen entirely on sympathetic ears. Writing on the website, Hamilton Nolan inveighs against the public giving City Opera another dime. “In a world of limited money and resources, we must make choices,” he notes. “A dollar given to one cause is a dollar not given to another cause.”

Could the $20 million that City Opera has to raise be better spent elsewhere, he asks. “Well, if you believe that saving human lives is a better use of money than producing operas, then yes.”

He provides the example that $20 million would buy almost 7 million anti-malaria nets. So “for the cost of developing one and a half seasons of opera in NYC, more than 10,000 deaths in developing countries could be prevented.”

Is it a valid argument to say that a dollar that goes to support the local museum or arts council is misspent in the face of poverty and illness? How do we place an opportunity cost, as the economists might put it, on that which through the ages has moved us emotionally, or provided insight, inspiration or surcease from pain?

Were Solzhenitsyn’s subsequent writings worth his having been thrown into the Soviet gulag? Was the Ninth Symphony worth Beethoven’s deafness? How about “Starry Night” measured against the mental anguish that finally drove Van Gogh to suicide?

Such questions point to the impossibility of dealing with art in purely material terms. Pitting art against the practical is unproductive at best, misleading and disingenuous at worst.

In a materialistic society, however, such questions prey upon the inability to quantify precisely the contribution of the arts to life. The arts then become downgraded to something less important. This is in large part why the arts are disappearing from our schools.

David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at