Opera at the Bus Station
Transit stations across the country, including Eugene’s own LTD, are turning to classical music to deter loitering and crime.
“I kinda like it,” says LTD rider Kylea Phillips. “I take this route all the time, you know, to get to work,” and the music is “relaxing, even though I don’t know anything about opera!” Plus, she says, the music filters out some of the station’s noise. There are a lot of “grungy people smoking, yelling and swearing” in this part of the station, and it “makes them harder to hear.”
When you walk through the bus station, there are plenty of things you expect to hear: engines. Traffic. Loud swearing. What you probably don’t expect to hear: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser, et c’est bien en vain qu’on l’appelle, s’il lui convient de refuser. Recognize that? It’s a famous aria called “Habanera,” and you’ll hear it at LTD. It’s true. At LTD’s Eugene Station, there is a mounted speaker that plays, on a loop, selections from various classical pieces, including the Bizet opera, Carmen. All day, every day.
The music is rather hard to find. It isn’t throughout the entire station. You can only hear it in a few specific areas. The northeast corner, near the McDonald Theater. There are often large groups of young people, hanging out and/or smoking in this corner. The same corner with the classical music. Though they now stand further away than they used to.
Brett Caldwell is another LTD rider. “I don’t care about it much,” he says. “I mean, yeah, they play it, but who cares?” Caldwell hangs out at this corner frequently with his friends before and after classes, despite the music. “Maybe they think it will make us like opera shit… I’m not allergic to bad music. I’m not going to stop hanging out downtown because they try to force me to listen to it. I just move a little bit away, no big deal.”
“The EmX route originally departed from the last bay in the station,” says Andy Vobora, LTD’s Director of Service Planning, Accessibility and Marketing. LTD added the speaker system at a cost of only $1,200 to the stop on 10th Avenue when the EmX was moved there. “Smokers are required to leave the station,” and this corner seemed to be “the spot where groups generally congregated.” The groups hanging out there were blocking customers’ access to the busses. “Since LTD has no jurisdiction in the public right of way, we could do little to get them to move along.” To keep these groups out of the way, the music was brought in.
It turns out, this technique isn’t so unique. All across the country, transit stations and other public areas with a lot of traffic have started to pipe in classical music and/or opera. Mozart, Handel, Bach, Beethoven, and Bizet. This is an effort to reduce crime rates in these areas, as well as discourage loiterers.
Some early documented examples of this come from Australia, albeit not with classical music. In Wollongong in 1999, songs from famous crooner Bing Crosby were used at the Warrawong Westfield Shopping Centre to drive away teenagers and loiterers. It then came to Sydney, where it became known as the “Manilow Method.” It eventually traveled to the United Kingdom, where a similar practice was already being used: a device called the Mosquito Anti-Loitering Device, billed as the “ultrasonic teenage repellent.” This device, used in schools/shops/other public areas, emits a high frequency tone (17.4 khz) that can only be heard by younger people. According to the device’s website, it “disperses groups/individuals on the basis of annoyance/irritation.” More recently, however, the device is being dropped in favor of classical music after civil rights groups have protested the Mosquito for targeting young people.
Here in Oregon, this technique almost became a law. After the city of Portland began playing classical music at Max stops, House Bill 2909 was proposed in the 76th Oregon Legislative Assembly. This bill would require that “stations identified as high-crime areas or located in high-crime areas… broadcast classical music during all hours in which light rail trains are in operation.” The bill died in committee when the legislature adjourned.
And it works. “We feel it’s been successful,” says LTD’s Vobora. “We just added one at our Willamette Street entrance to the station. Similar gathering has been occurring here.” Statistics across the country and the world have shown that playing classical music does, in fact, reduce crime rates. According to Portland mayor Sam Adams, police calls at Max stations dropped by 40 percent after the program began. In West Palm Beach, police service calls went down 30 percent, and drug-related incidents went down 80 percent. According to the Ohio State Law Journal, classical music piped into the London Underground decreased vandalism by 37 percent and robberies by 33 percent.
There are two main theories as to why classical music is so effective. Many consider classical music to have a calming influence on the brain, by reducing levels of cortisol and adrenaline.. During a study done by the Duke Cancer Institute, men who wore headphones playing Bach during a painful prostate biopsy did not report the same level as pain or have the same blood pressure spikes as the men who had no music.
This is similar to the well-known idea of the “Mozart Effect,” where classical music improves brain activity and spatial reasoning. Researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin did an experiment on rats to prove this. Rats who, in the womb, were exposed to Mozart’s Sonata K.448, performed better at navigating a maze than the rats who heard different music, or no music. Plenty of studies have been done that show music education to have cognitive benefits for school-aged children. Obviously, people who are calmer and using more of their reasoning skills are less likely to commit random crimes. But there is also a simpler reason for why the music keeps people away.
Most people, especially teenagers, don’t like classical music. “It’s fucking obnoxious,” says LTD rider Sara Dombrosky. She, like Brett Caldwell, hangs out with friends on the opposite corner of the station, near 11th and Willamette. She understands the reason that LTD is using the music. “I have a right to hang out here if I want to,” she says. “And we’re just hanging out. We’re not, like, selling drugs or anything.”
According to Vobora, plenty of people actually find the opera music annoying. “The complaints have been from regular riders,” he said. They “are not part of the problem,” but they were “getting tired of the same operas. They were happy when we figured out how to update the music!”
Carmen is the music of choice for LTD, but what’s the deal with it? First performed in Paris in 1875, Carmen is the seventh opera from French composer Georges Bizet. It tells the story of a young soldier named Don Jose who is seduced by a gypsy named Carmen, and eventually kills her out of jealousy over a boisterous bullfighter named Escamillo.
The opera is based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée. It was not initially successful during its first run of performances, and Bizet died before the opera became as famous as it is today. It has been recorded by different companies more than 40 times in its history. Eugene is no stranger to Carmen; the Eugene Opera company has put it on five times in its history.
Two of its most famous tunes (both can be heard at Eugene Station) are the “Habanera” and the “Toreador Song.” The Habanera, or “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (“Love is a rebellious bird”) is sung by Carmen as she teases the young men on a street corner. The toreador’s song, or “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” (“Your toast, I quite have the standing”) is sung for the grand entrance of the bullfighter Escamillo.
In its day, Carmen was a pretty controversial piece: there were women smoking ,an openly sexual female character, and even violence onstage! In fact, one of the directors in the company resigned because of the controversy.
The Cost of Classical Music
LTD’s Andy Vobora says that the installation of classical music at Eugene Station cost $1,200. But, where does that money go? In addition to the cost of the speakers themselves, the music itself also carries a cost… music ain’t free. There are licensing costs and royalties for playing any unoriginal music in a “public performance.”
According to Broadcast Music Incorporated, a public performance is defined in U.S. copyright law is defined as “any music played outside a normal circle of friends and family.” Obviously, a bus station doesn’t qualify as such, so someone has to be paid for it. Recording artists are represented by a company like BMI. According to their website, “one out of every two songs played on radio” is licensed by them. BMI charges license fees to restaurants, radio stations, etc. so they can play certain music, and then the artists get paid their royalties.
To give an example of how much licensing music cost, let’s look at Freeplay Music. Plenty of people use it as a source of free production music for projects, podcasts, etc. To use a song licensed by Freeplay as the opening title of a nationally-broadcast TV show, the licensing fee would be $350.
At LTD, the speakers and the music license are provided by the same company. The music that LTD added to the system comes from the public domain, which are works that are “either ineligible for copyright protection or with expired copyrights.” You don’t need permission or a license to use public domain or Creative Commons pieces of music, which explains why most of the music you’ll hear is older.