What's Ailing Opera in America?

Monday, December 05, 2011 - 05:16 PM

A few days ago, a reporter from a regional newspaper got in touch with me to find out why the opera company in his community might have failed. He did not know opera well, and asked me questions that many people do. Here, then, are some of his questions and part of my answers:

Q: In the past few years, several opera companies -- the Connecticut Opera, Baltimore Opera, Cleveland Opera (below), Mercury Opera, Opera Pacific, Spokane Opera -- have shut their doors, seemingly due to a lack of funding. Do you think this is a bump due to the Great Recession, or is this part of a larger trend?

A: There are numerous reasons why some opera companies have closed. Opera, as an art form, appeals to all generations, but only about five percent of the population knows it and attends it in one form or another. To meet the costs of staging opera, companies rely on a combination of box office receipts, corporate funding and donations from individuals who feel a connection to the art form and their local company.

Some opera companies in some states are fortunate to receive funds from government grants, but these are a small percentage of the total. If one or more sources of income declines, this has an impact on the overall budgets of the companies. These organizations must do a fair amount of future planning in deciding what operas their seasons should include, who will be asked to sing, and what productions (the scenery, lighting, costumes and stage direction) should be used. This requires having some money in the bank and the optimism that most or all tickets to these performances will be sold.

I think there are other reasons as well why many companies are struggling that I will address shortly. One thing I can tell you for certain is that there is no lack of fine singers. And I see wonderful young singers all the time. I would suggest to companies that are struggling that they cast operas with a combination of veteran artists who might not be big stars but are excellent singers with young singers just starting their careers.


Q: If the closures are part of a larger trend, what can/should be done to save the opera community?

A: The opera community is a combination of people who work in opera and the audience members who love it. I think that some of the companies that face challenges do so because of bad management while others have different problems. It might be they are in areas facing a real economic downturn. Or they might be audiences that are largely suburban (Connecticut Opera; Opera Pacific) that no longer want to support their local companies when there are famous companies in nearby urban centers such as New York or LA. Many suburbanites are also abandoning the urban companies, preferring the HD (high definition) transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera and other big companies that arrive in local movie theaters.


Q: A guy told me his theory about a Metropolitan Opera program where it broadcasts onto movie screens around the country. He thought this could hurt local and regional opera companies because for the cost of a movie ticket you could watch high-quality opera. Do you think there's any truth to this?

A: I think there are many wonderful things about the HD transmissions. They bring performances from the Met stage to people all around the world. You see big stars and also get some sense of what happens behind the scenes at a performance. But it is important to underline that you are not seeing an opera. Think of it like a sports event: you are watching the images that the director has chosen for you to see. You see words on the screen that you read while watching the performance. You see images in close-up detail rather than the whole stage setting. Above all, you are hearing sound that is transmitted electronically, but probably not listening as much as watching. Though opera is a theatrical event too, it is first and foremost a musical experience. The HD can be thought of as a “report” from the stage of an opera house, but it is not the same as attending an opera.

When you attend an opera, you have the amazing experience of hearing gorgeous unamplified human voices sailing over 50 to 100 instruments in the orchestra, which is also producing beautiful music that tells the real story of an opera more than any words can.

There was an article recently in the New York Times in which Met General Manager Peter Gelb -- who pioneered the modern HD transmissions in 2006 -- was quoted as saying that HD might be "cannibalizing" ticket sales at the Met as well as cutting deep into ticket sales at local opera companies.

I think HD transmissions are great as a supplementary opera experience, but they will never replace what audiences feel when attending live opera. If someone were to ask me how to find a balance that might benefit everyone, here is what I would propose: Rather than sending these transmissions to movie theaters, have local opera companies present them in their own theaters on big screens. The local companies would derive the profits that would go to movie theaters. Because they are desirable events with only a limited number of seats, give first access to audience members who subscribe to the local opera company. This helps build loyalty as well as a base for marketing locally.

In addition, create educational activities around these presentations. The local opera company could engage one of its employees or a scholar to speak about the opera for 45 minutes before the transmission begins. Ultimately, an opera company thrives when it has a strong bond with its audience and its community (corporate, academic, political) because they want the opera company to flourish.


Q: How is the health of the opera scene outside the United States? Where does the US fit in the worldwide opera scene?

A: America produces marvelous singers, some of the best in the world, and many fine musicians to play in its orchestras. Unfortunately, we have created a mentality that culture is only tangential to quality of life. There are nations such as Austria, Finland, Germany and France, among others, that invest in culture for the well-being of the populace and, in some cases, tourism. Austria is a destination for people who love music and its festivals bring a huge infusion of money into the national economy.

Italy, the birthplace of opera, is struggling now, because the previous (Berlusconi) government placed little value on culture in the nation that has the largest patrimony in the world. I hope that Italy regains its position as an historic home of opera.

Opera is huge in Asia. South Korea produces many wonderful singers. Japan has long been a great “consumer” of opera, by which I mean that not much is produced locally but the best companies from Europe and North America perform there all the time. I think this will be the case in China soon too. They are building many Western-type performing arts centers with the most modern stage technology.

Some American companies are doing well. The Met raises a lot of money but also spends a lot. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has long prided itself on sound fiscal management. The San Francisco Opera and the Houston Grand Operas are on the upswing. There are fine regional companies that have strong management and solid community support in places such as Cincinnati, Dallas, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Other cities have companies with some of those elements in place. 

Others, including St. Louis, Santa Fe and Sarasota, have special festival-type limited seasons with strong national followings. We know that every government dollar spent on the arts brings $5 to $6 in local expenditure by the people who attend performances. This comes in restaurants, hotels, transportation, parking, baby-sitting, taxes and much more. Regional opera can be saved if it is made a priority among political, corporate and academic groups in a community. Better workers want to live in cities that have stronger cultural offerings.

Readers: Given the realities of today’s economic and cultural climate, what would you do to keep opera alive and flourishing in America?


Photos: 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the defunct Opera Cleveland, Met HD Broadcast in Manhattan, 2006

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Comments [12]

Laurie from Turin

Happy to see my dear friend Enric reading and posting here! And as always, thanks Fred for wise words. Let's hope for the best for opera...I've got my eyes on China!

Dec. 25 2011 04:14 AM
Enric Martinez-Castignani from Barcelona (Spain)

As a professional singer I totally agree with all the things that you write in this article. As it is well known, in Europe we have a huge Opera crisis too. There are many theaters in difficulties and may be it is the time to change the paradigma of the opera world.

Thanks for you post. I will share it!


Dec. 24 2011 05:42 AM
william pagenkopf from flushing, ny

In NYC its the Met hiring Broadway directors the most know nothing of opera and think by changing time period it will add value. Peter Gelb will find in the long run those that can afford tickets will not put up with updated Camille in a red flapper dress and other atrocities.
(As overheard at performances.)

Dec. 09 2011 02:54 PM
David from Flushing

The decline of opera is just part of the decline of classical music as a whole. Orchestras are closing as well as opera companies and there is probably nothing that can be done about---culture has changed.

We have had decades of "if only opera was in English," or shorter, or "if kids were exposed to opera they surely would like it." None of these are true.

Lovers of classical music seem caught in a "love me, love my music" trap. They fail to recognize that many people dislike their music and come up with superficial reasons to explain it.

The fact is that without the over age 60 crowd, audiences would not exist today. What will happen in 20 years is obvious.

Dec. 08 2011 06:48 PM
Peter Weis from New York

Exposing more people to opera, especially younger people, is where we need to begin. For the younger generations there are many misconceptions and stereo types about opera. I myself did not really understand the beauty of opera until I attended one earlier this year at the MET. Now I am hooked.

Dec. 07 2011 03:05 PM
George Damasevitz from New York

Opera companies have fallen victim to the same causes that threaten entrepreneurship in other disciplines around the world. Namely, technology and consolidation. Technology brings high quality art to your earbuds on a whim and with you on the subway. Why bother to pay sixty bucks for a seat at the operahouse when you can download a good recording for a fraction of that? In addition, big houses have big overhead and production costs. Salaries for staff and cast are becoming too high to manage. Opera is for everyone. Too many treat it as an opportunity to be seen among the glitterati in their Guccis.
Opera productions should scale back on opulence (no more Zefferelli productions) and let the patrons use a little imagination. Good productions don't have to be expensive.

Dec. 06 2011 02:20 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Fine article Fred. The degrading and cheapening of the culture all around does not help. I remember the Sarnoffs who ran NBC had Amahl and the Night Visitors every Christmas on TV, the NBC Opera on Sunday afternoons and the NBC Symphony with Toscanini conducting on radio. The NBC we have today presents cheap, vulgar programs and really awful reality programs such as Real Housewives, etc. A&E TV occasionally had concerts and fine films on TV. Now they show reruns of The Sopranos. As for Italy, the less said, the better. I grew up listening to Italian radio. Beautiful songs that wound up on the concert stage written by Murolo, DeCurtis, etc.
Best wishes

Dec. 06 2011 01:33 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

To keep opera alive and flourishing in America, I would have somebody of bold imagination seek determinedly and relentlessly -- until the goal was achieved -- to secure a permanent home for the New York City Opera. Minus the worldwide economic crisis, the NYCO would not be in its present, disturbing, itinerary condition. As a result of the complications of the worldwide economic crisis, things got all balled up administratively, with bitterness worse than futile vis-a-vis making sure the NYCO would have a permanent home. Even while acknowledging that the money necessary could appear somewhat daunting, that much money in the grand scheme of things is a small price to pay for everything that the New York City Opera has contributed to American life and culture. The money needed, actually, is around; it's simply a question of a person of bold imagination using their skills of seduction to attract worthy donors. Mayor Bloomberg does not have an innate passion for opera, but I wonder if anybody has specifically made the case to him about why it is unthinkable that the New York City Opera should be left without a permanent home.

Dec. 06 2011 11:58 AM
DICK BRODE from Manhattan, NYC

I can't disagree that being a part of a live performance is an exhilarating experience - and is preferable over anything else. But I'd also like to say that being a part of a MET HD presentation has it's own wonderful excitement. Price is certainly a factor - I'm fortunate to live in NYC but really can't afford many live MET performances. But going to the movies brings to me what I couldn't normally enjoy. But more importantly, I find myself wrapped up in the opera like I've never been before - I never thought I'd cry at a Wagner opera, the Ring cycle no less - but there I was, crying like a baby. I asked myself, Why? I could have answered, Well, it's the music, stupid. But no, I think its more than that - much more. I was totally absorbed, pulled in so close, so near, so much a part. I finally understood and felt deeply the emotion that I had never felt before. And so I can say without reservation that the HD is a great thing. It is not exactly like being there, but there I was - and I loved it. And, truthfully, I upped my donations to the MET. What a wonderful thing.

Dec. 06 2011 10:26 AM
Sandy from New Hampshire

I have been a longtime Met subscriber. Just before I moved to NH, Granite State Opera shut down. It was the company closest to me and was about to do Macbeth with a singer or two I knew. I was so disappointed! The Met Live in HD is conveniently close. It's better than nothing, but it certainly is not the same. The local audience members don't seem to understand this. I think they don't appreciate truly great music making and singing in live performances because they've never been exposed to it. They seem to approach Live in HD in the same way they would a play or a movie, focusing on the plot and the visual aspects rather than the music. The price is their main concern. These attitudes are reinforced by the venue, which is primarily a playhouse. It is apparent that the management considers Live in HD a sideline for filling seats after the main summer theater season ends. No one there seems at all knowledgeable about opera.

Dec. 06 2011 08:55 AM
Fred Plotkin

Meche, How would you fund these touring companies? This includes building productions (scenery, costumes, lighting, direction) and, even if it is done minimally, there still are costs. You would be touring not just singers but also the orchestras playing for them.

Dec. 06 2011 04:03 AM
meche from MIMA

Those are some very thoughtful answers Fred. What would you think of touring companies comprising all these gifted young artists graduating from our fine music schools, touring around to small cities? I think one of the problems facing our society is that culture has been seriously dumbed down--celebrities famous for being famous instead of true artists recognized for their artistry. We are not educating our children to appreciate the arts.

Dec. 06 2011 03:00 AM

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