In Lean Times, Fat Lady Sings For Some Operas

Marc Scorca i i

Marc Scorca, the president and CEO of OPERA America, says many opera companies made cuts as early as October. OPERA America hide caption

itoggle caption OPERA America
Marc Scorca

Marc Scorca, the president and CEO of OPERA America, says many opera companies made cuts as early as October.

OPERA America
Peter Gelb i i

Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, has searched for ways to trim the company's annual budget. Dario Acosta/The Metropolitan Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Dario Acosta/The Metropolitan Opera
Peter Gelb

Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, has searched for ways to trim the company's annual budget.

Dario Acosta/The Metropolitan Opera

Arts institutions around the country are struggling in this bad economy. And as one of the most expensive forms of performing arts, opera has had an especially difficult time weathering the downturn.

"I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said that opera was 'the most expensive invention of man, second only to war,' " says Marc Scorca, the president of OPERA America, a service organization made up of 110 opera companies across the US.

"If you look at the number of people in the orchestra pit, onstage, in the chorus, the number of soloists, the number of technicians who are backstage, and the costumers and the wigs and makeup people, it is absolutely the most expensive of the performing arts."

Even the country's oldest, biggest and richest opera company — New York's Metropolitan Opera — isn't immune to economic troubles. The Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, is finding ways of cutting fat from an annual budget that's well over $280 million.

"We've been trimming wherever we can," Gelb says. "But we're determined not to sacrifice the artistic course that we have placed ourselves on."

Most opera companies still envy the Met's endowment, which recently topped $300 million. But since that high, the endowment's worth has plunged with the stock market. To cut costs next season, the Met postponed a couple of expensive high-profile revivals and trimmed rehearsal and production costs. The staff took pay cuts across the board — including Gelb, whose salary is over $1 million a year.

Gelb hopes the company's unionized corps of musicians and backstage workers will be open to concessions, as well.

"We're having private conversations with our unions, and I'm not in a position to disclose what we're talking about," Gelb says, "except for the fact that it's important that they understand the position that we're in, and we're working cooperatively together."

While no other opera company operates on the scale of the Met, Opera America's Scorca says the same kind of cost-cutting is happening everywhere.

"The minute that we saw the significant change of the market in October, our opera companies began making reductions," Scorca says. "No one has waited to see how bad it's gonna get."

The Los Angeles Opera has cut 17 staff members and pared its budget by 25 percent. This season, the company is presenting 64 performances; for the 2009-2010 season, it will present only 48. Chief Operating Officer Stephen Rountree says that while ticket sales have declined slightly this year, the L.A. Opera has been bracing for a backslide in donations, which help bridge the gap between ticket income and production costs.

"There has to be some impact on donations when individuals are seeing their net worth decline and their 401(k)s decline and house values decline," Rountree says.

"We are seeing some evidence that donors are delaying donation — in other words, donors who had previously indicated that they would make a donation or a pledge payment by the end of 2008 have pushed it into 2009 or deferred somewhat."

The L.A. Opera, like the Met, is in a strong position to continue, even as operations are scaled back. That's not true for all opera companies. Scorca says some weaker institutions have struggled to weather previous recessions.

"Now that the downturn is so severe, some of those companies that have been fragile over the last five or 10 years are having a particularly hard time," Scorca explains.

One of those struggling companies is the Baltimore Opera. With debts of over $1 million, the 59-year-old institution declared bankruptcy last December and cancelled the final two productions of the season. Tim Smith, the music critic for the Baltimore Sun, says the Baltimore Opera is making an effort to stay open:

"There is still a board, there is still talk of trying to raise money, there's even some talk of trying to put some kind of a performance in the fall as an indication that they mean business to come back," Smith says. But he admits the odds are long.

"Enterprises like airlines ... operate under bankruptcy for years ... and they sort of can work their way back," Smith says. "For a nonprofit, I'm not really sure how you do it, short of finding the thing that you couldn't find already, which was lots of money."

The Baltimore Opera won't reimburse ticket holders for the cost of tickets already purchased, but Smith says several other arts institutions in the area have offered vouchers for performances this spring.

"There was at least an attempt to do something for them in the short term," Smith says. "But I think, in the long term, what people just want is, they want their opera back."

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