In Lean Times, Fat Lady Sings For Some Operas Things are tough all over, even in the rarefied world of opera. Singers, stagehands and management are tightening their belts at companies around the country — and some ensembles are in danger.
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In Lean Times, Fat Lady Sings For Some Operas

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In Lean Times, Fat Lady Sings For Some Operas

In Lean Times, Fat Lady Sings For Some Operas

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. A lot of opera companies are singing the blues these days. In recent months, Opera Pacific in Orange County, California, and the Connecticut Opera have both gone belly-up. The Baltimore Opera has declared bankruptcy. Even the mighty Metropolitan Opera in New York has had to make serious budget cuts.

Jeff Lunden talked to some people in the opera world to find out what's going on.


NORRIS: I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said that opera was the most expensive invention of man, second only to war.

JEFF LUNDEN: Marc Scorca is president of OPERA America, a service organization made up of 110 opera companies across the U.S.

NORRIS: 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 wigs and makeup people, it is absolutely the most expensive of the performing arts.

LUNDEN: Even the country's oldest, biggest, richest opera company, New York's Metropolitan Opera, is not immune. The Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, is finding ways of cutting fat from an annual budget that's well over $280 million.

NORRIS: We've been trimming wherever we can, but we're determined not to sacrifice the artistic course that we have placed ourselves on.

LUNDEN: Most opera companies envy the Met's endowment, which until recently topped $300 million but has plunged with the stock market. So next season the Met has postponed a couple of expensive, high-profile revivals, has found ways to trim rehearsal and production costs, and the staff is taking pay cuts across the board, including Gelb, whose salary is over a million dollars a year.

The Met employs a unionized corps of musicians and backstage workers, and Gelb says he's hoping they'll be open to concessions.

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


LUNDEN: While no other opera company in the world operates on the scale of the Met, this kind of cost-cutting is happening everywhere, says OPERA America's Marc Scorca.

NORRIS: The minute that we saw the significant change in the market in October, our opera companies began making reductions immediately. No one has waited to see how bad it's going to get.

LUNDEN: Like the L.A. Opera. They've cut 17 staff members, and trimmed their budget by 25 percent. This season, they presented 60 performances. Next season, they'll present only 48. Chief operating officer Stephen Rountree says while ticket sales have declined slightly this year, the L.A. Opera's bracing for a backslide in donations, which help bridge the gap between ticket income and production costs.

NORRIS: There has to be some impact on donations when individuals are seeing their net worth decline and 401(k)s decline and house values decline and so forth.

We are seeing some evidence that donors are delaying donations. 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.


LUNDEN: 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. Marc Scorca says some weaker institutions have struggled to weather previous recessions.

NORRIS: But 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.

LUNDEN: Like the Baltimore Opera. With debts of over $1 million, the 59-year- old institution declared bankruptcy last December and canceled the final two productions of the season. Tim Smith is music critic for the Baltimore Sun.

NORRIS: They're still aboard. There is still talk of trying to raise money. There's even some talk of trying to put some kind of a performance on in the fall as an indication that they mean business to come back.

LUNDEN: But he admits the odds are long.

NORRIS: You know, enterprises like airlines or something operate under bankruptcy for years, it seems, and they sort of can work their way back. 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.

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

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

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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