Opinions vary, but some details emerge.
By Peter Alexander
Anyone who follows the world of opera has noticed the news.
First, the San Diego Opera was going to close. Then it was saved by a public groundswell, and the longtime artistic director, Ian Campbell, was gone (and his massive salary as well). The company has announced a three-opera season for 2014–15.
Here in Colorado, Denver’s Opera Colorado had to cancel the anticipated premiere of Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter. The company was left with a two-opera “season,” including a bare-bones presentation of Carmen with the orchestra on stage and tickets prices up to $167.60. In case you have missed this saga, the various missteps by the company have been dissected by the Denver Post music critic, Ray Mark Rinaldi.
The troubles these two companies find themselves in are clearly financial. Unlike Broadway, where only most investments fail, opera has never been a money-making proposition; it has always depended upon financial support way beyond the cost of tickets, either from the court (early opera in Italy, 18th-century Versailles or Mozart’s Vienna, for example), or wealthy aristocrats (18th-century London), or the government (all across Europe today), or private donors (in the United States). To music historians, the financial ups and downs of opera in London are famously convoluted, with one scheme appearing after another, and all of them failing eventually. Handel, after all, turned to oratorios like Messiah because they were essentially opera on the cheap—all the singing, fewer singers and none of the sets and costumes. Similar histories crop up over and over again, wherever opera is produced. The culprits are usually the salaries of super-star singers, or the cost of fantastic productions, or sometimes the ineptitude of the management. Or all three. But the result is always, and always will be, the same: Opera costs way more to put on than any business can sustain without massive subsidies.
Here in the U.S., we like to imagine that our leading cultural institutions are rock solid. They have a dependable donor base and they are well run within a reasonable budget.
There is no larger or more established or more revered cultural institution in the country than the Metropolitan Opera, but its history is not one of outstanding management. (If you want details, read this fascinating, and disheartening, account by Johanna Fiedler.) And now Peter Gelb, the current general manager, says the company stands “on the edge of a precipice.” This comes after several massively expensive new productions mounted by the company, including one that required a $1.4 million investment just to reinforce the Met stage so it could support the set (Robert LePage’s Ring cycle; the cost of the reinforcement has been variously reported, up to $5 million), and another that included a $169,000 poppy field (Prince Igor). But amid criticism of his spending on those productions, Gelb says it is the labor costs that are out of control. They may or may not be, depending on your perspective, but it seems that is not the only problem.
It is no accident that Gelb is raising the alarm just when the Met is in negotiations with unions whose members make the company go, most notably the musicians’ union. This being New York, it is hard to separate facts from negotiating tactics, but a new analysis of the Met’s finances by the Wall St. Journal brings a few facts and some clarity to the issue. For one thing, we can learn that some of Gelb’s expensive and highly promoted new productions have not done well after their first year. But read the whole article to get the full meaning.
Another analysis can be found in The Guardian.
And just to put all of this in an even more interesting light, two of the world’s other major opera companies—the Chicago Lyric and Vienna State Opera—have recently announced that they have completed very successful, even record-breaking, seasons. The timing is at least inconvenient for Gelb and the Met management.
I will have more to say about the current condition of opera in a future article on the announcement of Central City Opera‘s 2015 season, which is going in an interesting new direction. In the meantime, for some perspective on the San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan’s various concerns, I recommend this article written by Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed. Google searches on the principals and the organizations involved will turn up many more.