When Belts Are Tightened (Part Three): Long-Term Planning and Last-Minute Decisions

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In the first two posts of this series -- about keeping opera vibrant when times are tough and identifying productions in the Metropolitan’s warehouse that are still viable and don’t need replacing -- I tried to encourage positive thought about supporting all opera companies (not just the Met) in their time of need. 

I had planned to give my thoughts here about when an opera production has to go, and will get into that to some extent today. But a couple of important things have transpired that do relate to the topic at hand, so I will address those now and save for next week my views about which specific productions I think don’t deserve to be on the Met stage again.

The 75/25 rule

Anyone fortunate to have known the kind but tough Ardis Krainik (1929-1997, pictured below), who spent 15 years as general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, knew her philosophy of 75/25. By this, she meant that if you plan to do eight operas in a season, three-quarters of them should be “bread-and-butter” works with stars who are congenial to particular roles. The other quarter would be rare works from the fringes of the repertory and, more than in most theaters, a healthy diet of new commissions.

Among Krainik’s many achievements was pulling the Lyric out of financial mismanagement and setting it on a more stable course. When she proved that she was watchful about every nickel, donors became more willing to make larger contributions. Her staff was adept at developing and selling subscriptions because she inspired faith among the public that the “25” might be challenging artistically but was worth supporting, for the good of the art form and of Chicago. 

Ardis knew how to arouse civic pride in her company among Chicagoans perhaps more interested in the Cubs, Bears and Bulls or even the excellent Chicago Symphony Orchestra a few blocks away. And, of course, when she made it desirable, even necessary, to subscribe to attend the “75” operas at the Lyric, tickets to the “25” operas were sold because they were part of the subscription package.

Nowadays, operagoers in many cities feel they can pick and choose which operas to see because there is less sense of urgency about securing single (non-subscription) tickets closer to performance time. If ticket sales are not solid, or happen closer to performance time, an opera company cannot plan financially with the same confidence as a company such as the Lyric under Krainik, which had money in the bank from subscriptions sold well ahead of time.

When times are tough, many companies famously play it safe, presenting innumerable Bohémes and Traviatas rather than trying to present a diversified program that will appeal to traditionalists as well as those who seek variety to spice up their operatic life. Even a company presenting four operas in a season can use the 75/25 approach, as does the excellent Cincinnati Opera, America’s second-oldest opera company. It is smartly-run and has, in Evans Mirageas, a talented, creative and realistic man in charge of everything artistic (just today, Mirageas was named vice president for artistic planning at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, though he’ll continue his post in Cincinnati).

Daring to Think Big

Despite the rocky economic climate, Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera has famously dared to push forward on all fronts, counting on creating a critical mass of productions, publicity and buzz that would see it through the rough times both artistically and financially. Since I wrote my second post in this “belt-tightening” series, a front-page article appeared in The New York Times about a surge in fund-raising at the Met. This is heartening news, of course, but comes with abundant caveats, many of which are found in the following paragraph:

“But even Mr. Gelb’s enthusiasm cannot erase the significant financial problems that remain. The Met is carrying $41 million in debt. Ticket sales declined last year. The endowment remains damaged by the recession. At last count, its pension accounts were seriously underfinanced. And no one, not even Mr. Gelb, suggests that it will be easy to repeat the fund-raising success of the past year.”

According to the article, the Met’s annual budget is about $325 million while its endowment stands at $253 million. It is a commonly accepted idea in arts management that a company’s endowment should be at least equal to its annual budget. 

Another essential issue was mentioned in the article: 

“Mr. Gelb acknowledged for the first time that competition from the HD transmissions may have cannibalized box office sales, particularly from people in nearby cities like Boston, who might have traveled to New York before. But the financial loss was offset, he argued, by donor contributions from across the country that were generated by the excitement surrounding the broadcasts.”

In other words, if people think they can pay $25 to see an opera in HD on a Saturday afternoon, many of them will buy tickets to live opera performances less often. The HD transmissions have many virtues that are well known, but no video of any art form (in which the broadcast director decides what you see and the music is electronically transmitted) can replace the absolute thrill of hearing voices and instruments live in an acoustically vibrant room, looking at what you choose to look at, and sharing the experience with 4000 people. 

The many issues raised in this important article can be discussed in depth in other posts, but its contents suggest that the Met still needs to mind its expenditures.

A New Production

As it happens, the Met is unveiling a new production this evening, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. For many people, this is the greatest opera of all, and I would not argue strenuously with that assessment, even if I give a slight edge to Don Carlo. What is indisputable is that it is among the most difficult to stage successfully. There are 17 scenes but the music does not give time to create all of these settings. The Met used its 1957 Herbert Graf/Eugene Berman version for 33 years, one of the longest runs for any production, but especially an opera that is so popular [the Zeffirelli Bohéme turns 30 in December]. That is because it worked well, accommodated the special needs of this opera, and was economical without seeming threadbare.

The 1990 Zeffirelli Don Giovanni was, I felt, very fine and not weighted with his customary excess. It sought to be faithful to the scenography of Mozart’s time, and that was its undoing: so much manual labor was required to move everything that it became too expensive to keep. Operation costs are an important consideration when a production is conceived, but I doubt Zeffirelli wanted to know about that.

A 2004 Don Giovanni was planned with a producer who exited due to “creative differences,” as the euphemism has it, and Swiss actress and director Marthe Keller was asked to make her debut with not much time. The economical sets by Michael Yeargan contained lots of moving brick walls and a staircase. It did have an excellent playing space and, while not visually compelling in the Zeffirellian sense, the direction and exploration of the music and character’s inner lives made for a winning interpretation of this work. While most productions in recent years tend to emphasize Donna Elvira’s relationship with the Don, this one focused on Donna Anna and Anja Harteros made the most of that role.  

If one thinks in strictly financial terms, the Met does not need a new Don Giovanni so soon. But opera companies have other considerations, including the desire to please treasured artists. Sadly, the best-laid plans can go awry. James Levine’s recurrent medical problems forced him to withdraw from conducting this opera so dear to him. His replacement is Fabio Luisi. 

A further blow came three days ago when baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, around whom this production was built and who was looking forward to an international HD transmission on October 29, injured disks in his back during the final dress rehearsal and underwent surgery the following day. Apart from the human element of these occurrences, which is the most important, such changes cost lots of money. 

Peter Mattei (who is scheduled to open La Scala’s season as the Don on December 7), agreed to leave his starring role in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and step in for tonight. If my sources are correct, Dwayne Croft completed the final dress rehearsal. No doubt, Mattei is working hard to learn the new production and his new cast-mates will certainly respond to and support him.

If you ran an opera company, how much risk would you take?

Photo: A scene from the Met's new production of Don Giovanni (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)