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On a sad note, opera's in trouble

February 06, 2009

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    February 06, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

On a sad note, opera's in trouble

RALEIGH -- Unless you're the CEO of one of the Wall Street firms that got a taxpayer-funded bailout guaranteeing you a multimillion-dollar bonus for driving your company into near-bankruptcy, these are scary economic times.

It's particularly scary for the smaller, regional opera companies in America that depend so heavily on funding from corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals. Companies such as the Raleigh-based Opera Company of North Carolina or Opera Carolina in Charlotte don't have the deep endowment pockets that sustain the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago or San Francisco Opera through rough times.

The list of opera companies canceling their seasons continues to grow. Last week, Hartford-based Connecticut Opera cancelled its remaining productions of Donizetti's "La Filles du Regiment" and Puccini's "La Boheme."

In October, Orlando Opera canceled its Grande Masque Gala, a major annual fundraiser.

In November, the Santa Ana (Calif.)-based Opera Pacific canceled its remaining productions, Ricky Ian Gordon's "The Grapes of Wrath" and Richard Strauss' "Salome" (with Deborah Voigt).

Also in November, Gerard Mortier, who was scheduled to begin his first season as general and artistic director of the New York City Opera in 2009, abruptly resigned. The company announced that, "The economic climate in which we find ourselves today has caused us both to reconsider proceeding with our plans." Mortier had reportedly been promised a $60 million annual budget, which was cut to $36 million.

In December, Baltimore Opera filed for bankruptcy and canceled the remainder of its season, Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" and Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

Two weeks ago, Reno-based Nevada Opera canceled Emmerich Kálmán's "The Circus Princess" ("Die Zirkusprinzessin").

Last week, Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra of New York canceled the remainder of its 2008-09 season, which included a concert with bass Ferrucio Furlanetto, Wagner's "Rienzi" and Cherubini's "Medea."

"OPERA IS EXPENSIVE, FOLKS," CRITIC TIMOTHY MANGAN RECENTLY WROTE IN THE ORANGE COUNTY (CALIF.) REGISTER. "We aren't talking about tickets to it here (though those can be expensive, too), but putting it on. No one makes a profit doing it. After paying for singers, orchestras, sets, costumes, directors, lighting, etc., and not to mention renting the hall, an opera company is lucky to recoup half its costs through ticket sales, even when the box office take is healthy. It's a nonprofit art form, which is to say that every opera is, in a way, a loss."

According to Frank Grebowski, general director of the Opera Company of N.C., "Without an endowment, if we tried to hold on to the season we originally designed we would be at serious risk in this economy. Our only recourse to avoid cancelations is to make clever adjustments."

Rather than risk more red ink, Grebowski postponed Verdi's "Rigoletto," originally scheduled for March, until next season. In its place, the company is collaborating with the N.C. Museum of Art to produce a family-oriented picnic concert at the museum's outdoor amphitheater in May.

"We'll play a mix of Broadway and opera favorites with top singing talent, and invite a different market to give us a try in a casual setting," Grebowski says. "Tickets will cost less, the production will cost less than an opera, and sponsors still have three productions. Everybody wins."

Opera companies aren't the only ones affected by the economic downturn. Orchestras, dance companies, theaters, public radio and television stations, museums and other fine-arts organizations depend heavily upon the largess of individual and institutional funding.

As a singer friend puts it, "The arts are what give meaning to life."

By W. Robert Chapman
(W. Robert "Bob" Chapman is host of the WCPE Opera House, heard locally at 89.7 FM on Thursday nights. He's also an operatic bass-baritone.)

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