THE BLOG
03/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Fright At The Opera

"Of all the noises known to man," Moliere is alleged to have observed, "opera is the most expensive." Although this statement could only have been made by a man whose wife never knew from Bloomingdale's, it is well to keep it in mind at this time when the nation's opera companies seem to be in need of financial hospice care.

The news from America's opera companies is very grim. Virtually every opera company seems to be taking a budgetary hit, from the entertainment colossus that is the Metropolitan Opera in New York to the resident opera company in Orlando, Florida. We have not seen retrenchment like this since the darkest days of the Great Depression. The only real surprise is that anyone is surprised.

The Los Angeles Opera has announced that it is laying off seventeen employees, that it is reducing its budget by ten million dollars and that it is shrinking the number of its performances from sixty-four this season to forty-eight next. The Metropolitan Opera has seen a stupendous drop in the value of its endowment, donations are off about ten million dollars from last year, and pay cuts have been ordered across the board. The Met is said to have expressed the hope that with prudent financial crisis management it can keep its deficit to roughly two million dollars this year. As of Groundhog Day we have heard nothing of a reliable nature from Chicago, San Francisco or Houston, but the fiscal facts in those companies cannot be in the least bit rosy. In short, the Big Boys are hurting, and they are hurting badly.

The situation has gotten so bad that the Seattle Opera felt the need to put its General Director before a video camera to convey the news that the company is actually doing rather well financially and that every possible prudent step to keep it that way has been and will be undertaken.

Although Thomas Jefferson told us that all men are created equal, all opera companies assuredly are not. Some companies will survive the current economic catastrophe and others will not. Some have been the victims of bad planning, and some have finally fallen victim to funding paradigms that could survive the worst case scenario. Those companies in the latter group have found to their woe that what they had thought to be the worst case scenario turned out to be a good deal worse than that.

The Baltimore Opera has filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, and the odds heavily favor the proposition that Detroit is going to be without an opera company in the very near future. The Virginia Opera has announced cuts, and the Connecticut Opera has taken the drastic step of canceling the remaining two performances this season, and when an opera company concludes (as the Connecticut Opera has) that it cannot make money presenting La Boheme and The Daughter of the Regiment, the world has turned upside down.

There is not, and there never has been, a "one size fits all" solution to the fiscal woes facing the nation's opera companies, and it is useless to assume that what may help save The Metropolitan Opera is going to have the slightest applicability to the folks in Hartford or Orlando or Detroit.

Opera is expensive. It is expensive to attend, and it is expensive to produce. For most opera companies, ticket sales generate less than fifty percent of revenue even with full houses. The difference gets made up by individual contributions, corporate support, foundation grants and in small measure, government assistance. Individual donors, many of whom (like most of us) have seen their 401(k)s look more like 501(c)(3)s, have cut back on giving. Corporations have a difficult time justifying donations at a time when they are laying off employees and cutting back on expenditures everywhere. Foundations that have seen their corpus of cash dwindle alarmingly cannot give what they don't have, and governments that believe that raising taxes will result in sudden changes of administration at the next election have shut the spigot tight, despite the fact that the trickle that came from that spigot before was embarrassingly small.

The companies that are in the most dire straits right now are those that managed to accumulate operating deficits back when times were flush. They neglected to heed what has become known as The First Rule of Holes ("When you find yourself in one, stop digging.") The operating deficits that through the wonders of accounting looked "manageable" two years ago are now a millstone around the collective necks of these companies. And the water is rising.

What has been given insufficient attention amidst the paroxysm of hand-wringing and wailing is the fact that whole business model for the small opera company has now been rendered obsolete. Simply put, a company such as the Connecticut Opera cannot survive in the current economic climate by doing what it did in the past only "smarter" or "in a more fiscally conservative manner." Such companies are in a hole and they need to stop digging at once.

Well over a decade ago, the Shubert Theater in New Haven reopened after having been shut down for a number of years. Among the ambitious plans announced at that time was the creation of the "Shubert Opera" which was planned as a company designed to perform "semi-staged" opera. This perfectly sensible approach was quickly jettisoned in favor of performing opera as it is usually performed in smaller towns: With an undersized orchestra, tatty sets, inadequate production and an assortment of singers who were too old or too young. The effort collapsed in reasonably short order, and the lesson, which was never properly learned, was promptly forgotten even by those who understood it.

Very few organizations that view themselves as opera companies have the financial resources to mount a fully staged, credibly produced series of opera performances, full stop. For example, La Boheme performed by an orchestra half the necessary size begins by announcing its inadequacy and immediately makes the production hostage to the conductor who owns the arrangement for the reduction. The singers are asked to move about on a stage littered with cheap props and painted backdrops rented from some company that has owned them for fifty years and last "refreshed" them in the first Nixon Administration. A woman who sang Mercedes or Frasquita or some other bit part in a production of Carmen in Graz is brought in and billed as a "European opera star." And this is supposed to compete with a Boheme from a company like The Met or the Chicago Lyric Opera or the San Francisco Opera? Three decades ago I remarked that "I have not yet seen an operatic score marked 'May be performed badly in the provinces'" and I still haven't.

So is there anything that these small companies can do other than throw in the towel, close the doors and blame everyone and their cousin for the failure? Of course. These companies, it seems to me, have one chance for survival and one chance only: Announce that for the 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 seasons at the very least they will perform "concert opera" only. No sets, no production. The money will be spent on the singers and on the orchestra. And the repertoire will not mirror that of places like The Met or La Scala. We might actually get to hear operas that have not been performed in decades or, gasp, perhaps newly written works that no regional company could afford to stage but which could be done in concert version. The marketing of such efforts requires honesty: We think this is a reasonable stop gap measure. We do not intend to do this forever unless you really like it. It is a compromise that will allow us to give you real music, and we understand that it is not the full operatic experience that you might wish. The good news is that you will hear music you likely would never hear live if it had to be fully (badly) staged.

And it is portable. When you need not be concerned with the existence of an orchestra pit or its size or the ability to move sets and props, a number of performance venues previously unsuited to opera become available. Without sets or costumes or wigs, you can take the show quite literally on the road -- which comes under the heading "audience generation and development." And who knows? The response may be so overwhelming that these companies will find a benefit to getting rid of the inadequately staged productions forever more. For if nothing else, the ready availability of grand opera grandly produced and shown in movie theaters throughout the world has shown the folks in places like Hartford, Richmond, Orlando and Detroit that what the Big Boys deliver is a far cry from what their local companies have on offer.

Moliere was pretty clearly right. He merely did not go far enough, as opera performed inexpensively is weak beer indeed and simply not worth the effort.