When I was a senior in college, I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the economics of opera production. I focused my work on regional opera companies, many of which were, in 1975, much smaller and less supported than they are today.
The central thesis of my project was that regional opera companies were of great benefit to their communities but that providing additional programming, while maintaining fiscal stability, would require reducing expenses for new productions. I proposed that one approach to lowering costs would be to share productions among a group of companies, a practice not common at that time.
There was irrefutable economic logic to this idea and, no thanks to anything I wrote or did, sharing productions has become commonplace in the world of opera.
35 years later, I wonder whether I was right after all, or whether I was too willing to trade economic benefit for artistic initiative. There is no doubt that sharing productions allows an opera company to show more new works than when every company builds each of its own productions. And, particularly for new operas or those not in the standard repertory, there is a clear benefit from sharing the costs of mounting a work that otherwise may never be seen.
But these days I observe productions of La Bohème, Carmen, Tristan und Isolde and other masterworks shared not only among smaller regional companies but also the largest, best-funded opera companies in the world.
Is something lost in this endeavor? I think so. I can remember a time when the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and the other great houses in the world had their own productions of La forza del destino, Le nozze di Figaro and Die Meistersinger. These productions were flagships for these great organizations. True, the productions didn't change very often but there was comfort and enjoyment in seeing the Franco Zeffirelli production of Tosca again in London and the Eugene Berman Don Giovanni for the seventh time, but with new singers in the leading roles.
Now, when one hears that your favorite company is mounting a new production of a beloved opera, one doesn't really know whose artistic vision has inspired the production and whether the artistic leadership of your company was involved at all.
I must sound both curmudgeonly and also like I am unhappy with new productions and directorial approaches to standard repertory. I am sure I am guilty of the first charge, but certainly not of the second. I love new approaches to opera. I see enough performances that I know that if I don't particularly agree with one concept for Aida I will live to see another more satisfactory production.
But I think that productions, along with the orchestra and chorus, are what define an opera company, and when I travel abroad and see the same production I have seen at home, I somehow feel like I haven't truly experienced a new opera company at all.