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Met Opera's Finances in Dire Straits

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The Metropolitan Opera is losing tens of millions of dollars, even as expenses continue to climb.

According to tax returns filed this week, The opera's investment portfolios dropped in value during the economic recession. The returns show that the Met finished 2009 with a net worth of $236 million, down from $380 million a year earlier - a drop of more than 40 percent. The opera's pension fund lost $20 million in investments.

"Since the costs of running the world's biggest opera house have always been greater than its earned revenues, the Met has regularly faced enormous financial challenges throughout its history," General Manager Peter Gelb told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Despite the gloomy financial picture, the company spent $8.5 million more in its 2009 fiscal year than it had a year earlier - including $4.5 million going toward developing high-definition movie theater broadcasts, which earned a modest profit while drawing a bigger, worldwide audience.

The financial filings also appear to show a drop in donor support, although Met spokesman Peter Clark said that, overall, gifts have increased in recent years, including a 5 percent increase through the current season. Contributions and grants were listed as falling to $105 million, from $164 million.

Met officials have taken steps in the past half-year to trim expenses and boost revenue.

Stagehands who had been due a 2.5 percent salary raise in June delayed it until the 2010-11 season. And to help cover operating costs on a short-term basis, the opera was forced to dip into its endowment. It asked several donors to ease restrictions on how their gifts could be spent, freeing up $22 million.

A gift of $30 million from philanthropist Ann Ziff was announced in March, with most of the money available this year and the rest over the next four years. The gift from Ziff, whose husband was the publishing executive William Ziff and whose mother was the soprano Harriet Henders, is the largest in the institution's history.

But despite the financial pressure, Gelb remains optimistic. He said the Met has attracted larger live audiences with productions such as Rossini's "Armida," starring soprano Renee Fleming, and Verdi's "Attila," whose costumes were created by Italian designer Miuccia Prada, helping boost attendance to 88 percent of paid capacity last season. That's up about 10 percent over the average of the previous few years.

"The Met has managed through difficult times in the past," Gelb said. "Now, by increasing the public's interest in opera with our recent artistic successes and public initiatives, we are confident that we will thrive in the future, as well."