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The Opera Industry’s Struggle to Remain Relevant
Before the New York City Opera became a major opera house in the industry, it started out with a simple and clear vision: to make opera accessible to everyone. To this end, the NYCO kept admission tickets at reasonably low prices which, in turn, created some collateral and perhaps unforeseen benefits. The company was the first to feature a black performer with an otherwise white cast and to offer a regular contract to an African-American (Todd Duncan and Camilla Williams, respectively, both of Porgy and Bess fame); it advanced the American opera industry by producing works in English by American composers, including premieres by the likes of Thomas Pasatieri; and it helped boost the careers of many performers, such as Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo, among others. Within a few years since its founding in 1943, the NYCO had become a relevant and important addition to the international opera repertoire.
In the fall of 2013, the NYCO filed for bankruptcy.
The demise of this major opera company has prompted a series of questions regarding the status of opera as an art form within the modern community, its relevancy, and contributions to society. While there seems to be a general consensus that opera is struggling, there is discord as to what the industry can do to salvage its future, or if there is anything it can do to begin with.
Funding is a major contributor to the struggles opera is facing. In the past few years, several opera companies throughout the nation, including Baltimore Opera, Mercury Opera, Connecticut Opera, Cleveland Opera and the above-mentioned New York City Opera, have shut down due to financial difficulties. Both American and European opera houses are fighting to secure government and private funding, and the American opera industry has perhaps suffered the worst slump in financial donations.
European opera houses (and almost every other art form, in fact) rely partly on private funding and majorly on government funding. With the European financial crisis in full swing, opera has had to deal with dwindling funding and falling attendance due, in part, to the continent’s economic predicament. The diminishing funding was a major concern earlier this year for Italy’s beloved landmark Teatro Petruzzelli in the city of Bari, the nation’s fourth largest theatre, which canceled its two final productions of the season by two famed Italian composers, the first time a cancellation of this nature occurred in the theatre’s century long history.
The Petruzzelli, famous for premiering Puccini’s I Puritani and for housing international performers from Luciano Pavarotti to Liza Minelli, stated that it had run out of money and may be forced to shut down. The industry fears that if this major theatre closes, it may start a chain reaction in decreasing funding from the Italian government that will force other performing houses in the nation to follow suit.
In the United States, opera companies rely heavily on box-office gains and large donations from wealthy patrons and foundations to fund their operations. In light of the global economic crisis, American companies have a major issue on their hands with disappearing patrons and shirking endowments.
The New York City Opera, in fact, shut down after it failed to gather enough financial support from donors. The Sacramento Opera and Philharmonic has canceled its fall season due to financial insecurity, and even though the company says that bankruptcy remains off the table, Sacramento will be the only city in the U.S. of comparable size without an active orchestra. The Sacramento Opera and Philharmonic operates with a funding similar to those of much smaller cities, such as Amarillo, Texas, and Erie, Pa.
The San Diego Opera announced several months ago that it would shut its doors because it had depleted its bank account. The announcement came amid revelations that the company had requested grants from the city boasting financial and fiscal health, though its Board of Directors knew of the actual dire situation the opera house faced. In a turn of events, the Board of Directors decided not to shut down the opera and instead hired Lyric Opera of Chicago’s former director William Mason to produce a game plan. Likewise, the Indianapolis Opera has hired Steven Stolen, an industry veteran and frequent performer, in an independent capacity to assess and strategize future planning efforts. This move was possible thanks to a $150,000 donation from the Lilly Endowment, a private philanthropic foundation.
An exception to the rule is the British opera landscape, which obtains funding from both the government and private donations. In this part of the European continent opera remains, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, in good shape. Given Britain’s lack of a native opera scene, this comparable achievement is attributed to consistent artistic success and London’s, the country’s operatic flagship, seemingly risky push for innovative productions. The UK has seven major opera houses.
Another factor that seems to be plaguing opera may be its inability to stand by sound business models, which in today’s landscape is as important as artistic visions and talent. This was true of the New York City Opera and it’s a de facto struggle in other major operas around the world, including the New York Metropolitan and even the famed Italian La Scala.
In Germany, opera houses are in increasing disarray not only because of cuts in funding but also because of their struggle to assess and sustain strong business outlooks. The capital, facing bankruptcy not long ago, has a booming cultural life and is considered an international operatic center. But Berlin’s three opera houses have struggled to reel in audiences, reporting variable and inconsistent attendance, and it is often criticized for its lack of innovative productions, preferring to mount tried-and-true classics, most notably those of one of the most renowned composers in the operatic repertoire, the Leipzig-born Richard Wagner.
Similarly, cash-strapped opera houses in Italy are taking a big blow from steep cuts in federal funding. The Italian government was highly criticized during Silvio Berlusconi’s leadership terms because of the severe reduction in funding for performing arts while more government money was allocated to the television and film industries. Further, Italian opera houses are often condemned because they approach their performers too late and pay them too much, which creates a deficit in budgets because of the lavish and expensive productions the companies are known to put up. An average production at La Scala, for example, can cost up to €2m ($2.7 million). In comparison, the cost of production in Madrid’s Teatro Real is of about €400,000. Regional opera companies in the U.S. can operate with a budget of as little as $60,000.
Cost of production is a key issue facing New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a company that has been making headline lately as it looks to wager a deal with 15 unions over proposed pay cuts, with the looming threat of locking out employees if an agreement is not reached, jeopardizing the Met’s upcoming fall season.
The Met, heralded by the controversial Peter Gelb, its general director, has stated that the company faces bankruptcy unless it finds a way to cut costs in its increasing budget. The Met’s residency theatre at New York’s Lincoln Center can house almost 4,000 patrons, and its lavish productions are horizontally marketed with the company’s biggest stars, none of which can be said, in true, to have started their careers at the Met. This is because the Met’s auditorium is too large for young or amateur performers to be able to demonstrate their abilities.
Some of the Met’s headlining stars began their careers either abroad or in smaller opera houses – Renée Fleming started off at the Houston Grand Opera and Maria Callas hailed from Chicago, for example. In all fairness, however, before the emergence of regional operas in the country, there were only three major opera houses in the U.S.: the Met, the San Francisco Opera, and the Chicago Opera. But the Met’s lack of “new talent” to boost has been a perpetually denounced practice that may contribute to the Met’s falling attendance records.
This emergence of small and large opera companies has also been a topic of discussion in regards to the failing opera industry in the country. Audiences in suburban communities may feel that a smaller opera company is irrelevant when a major house likely sits a few miles away in a large city, such as New York or Houston. Further, with the hugely successful program of live HD performances being broadcast internationally (a groundbreaking strategy heralded by the Met), the importance of smaller houses is again questioned when a quality, high-value production can be seen at the local movie theatre.
Even with revenues from its HD screenings (the broadcasts reach an estimated 2.5 million viewers each season), however, the Met still struggles to bring in new audiences and maintain a relevant repertoire. In 1995, for example, it installed the revolutionary Met subtitles, a move that has been both criticized and admired, in hopes to entice newcomers and opera amateurs onto its seats. Likewise, the Met has embraced a relatively newfound strategy to produce newer works alongside classics, with modern showcases of special effects and extravagant sets.
This approach has been mired by a series of lukewarm reviews of the Met’s productions, along with the expenses involved in mounting them. The unions, in talks with the Met over the salary cuts, for instance, point to the reported cost of $169,000 for a field of poppy flowers made of satin for a production of Borodin’s Prince Igor, which was favorably received. The Met, the unions say, should be looking to cut production rather than labor costs in order to reduce its ballooning deficit.
At least the pertinence of opera remains, for now, on the optimistic side of the argument. As a theatre form, it seems, its ability to mirror life in its distinctive way seems to be as relevant today as it was when Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered over a century and half ago. As it is, it may be that opera is simply too unique an art to completely disappear. The real concern is whether seats can be filled within the rapidly and constantly changing landscape of modern society. As opera plows along its arias, it will continue to strive to entice its audience, from modernist to traditionalists and amateurs to seasoned lovers, by keeping its fat lady singing for as long as her voice will permit.
Angelo Franco is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.