Darker Nights at the Opera

Lights dimming as weakened companies succumb to the downturn in the economy

March 08, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Many an opera plot is set in motion by a wicked curse that generates terrible heartache and loss. These days, it looks as if the real world of opera has been hit with a curse every bit as pernicious.

Although orchestras, art museums, theater troupes and dance companies have certainly been buffeted by the economy's precipitous decline that started last fall, opera is being hard-hit.

The Baltimore Opera Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, shortly after presenting a vividly sung production of Bellini's Norma that made it to the stage only after a longtime donor guaranteed the salaries for the cast. The cash-short company, incorporated in 1950, canceled the remainder of the season, leaving ticket-holders to take their place in the line of creditors.

Last month, Connecticut Opera in Hartford abruptly shut its doors for good after nearly seven decades - filing for bankruptcy was considered too costly. That was essentially the same decision reached by Opera Pacific in Orange County, south of Los Angeles; that company closed in November. The Los Angeles Opera laid off 17 staffers.

And just last week, New York's Metropolitan Opera, the epicenter of operatic art, revealed more signs of the toll that the sinking economy is taking. The company put up the giant, beloved Marc Chagall paintings that adorn the opera house at Lincoln Center as collateral for an existing line of credit to help with cash-flow issues. Met staffers are taking a 10 percent pay cut; singers are being asked to do the same next season, a season already affected by cost-cutting measures.

This is clearly no ordinary recession.

"I've never seen anything like it, even going back to 1980," says Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, a New York-based service organization representing more than 100 professional companies in 43 states. "It has had an unprecedented impact."

Even fundamentally healthy companies are scaling back on the number of productions or performances. Washington National Opera, for example, which has enjoyed steady ticket sales and contributions this season, had to postpone next season's scheduled presentation of the four-part Ring Cycle by Wagner; the company was unable to raise the millions needed for the project.

The flip side is that opera remains popular. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts reveal that opera audiences grew 35 percent between 1982 and 1992, and another eight percent the decade after that - the largest increase in any of the arts disciplines. In 2002, more than 25 percent of operagoers were under the age of 35, rebutting the stereotype of an exclusively older crowd.

The Met's extraordinary success with high-def simulcasts beamed into movie theaters around the country and beyond also underlines the appeal of opera - as of last month, a little more than a million tickets have been sold this season.

And many companies are busily plunging ahead with their seasons, having already whittled expenses and doubled fundraising efforts as best they can. Baltimore's Opera Vivente, for example, a chamber-sized company accustomed to pinching pennies, opened a production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea this weekend and has one more work slated for May.

Washington National starts its spring season in two weeks, right on schedule with Britten's Peter Grimes; similarly large-scale pieces by Wagner and Puccini are to follow.

But the reassuring, business-as-usual news continues to be dwarfed by the bad. "When a city loses an opera company, it is not usually one of many in that city, so it is more likely to make headlines," Scorca says. "And when the Met makes some cutbacks, it makes headlines."

More downer news stories are likely. One reason is that many opera companies are not well-positioned to withstand steep recessions. More than half of American opera companies were founded since 1970, a quarter of them since 1980, so their roots are not as deep as many orchestras and other institutions.

"Fewer than 50 percent of the companies have significant endowments," Scorca says, "and most of those endowments are relatively new. They have not had a chance to grow over decades."

With so much focus on just getting each opera onto the stage - raising the money to pay for soloists, choristers, orchestra personnel, stage crew, scenery, costumes, etc. - many companies put off the substantial effort required to establish an endowment. Baltimore Opera never built up a significant one.

Other companies have seen once-healthy endowment funds lose 30 or more percent of their value with the market plunge, adding to budget pressures. (Nonprofits rely on drawing a small percentage annually from endowment funds to help with operating expenses.)

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