- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

Tenor Placido Domingo, who always packs the house at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, didn't always this fall. The Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera each have dropped plans to produce two operas they had announced for next season.
The San Jose Symphony declared bankruptcy last month.
A weakened economy means many U.S. opera companies and orchestras are facing financial crunches, reflected in less-than-brisk box office sales, delayed ticket purchases, declines in subscriptions and fund raising, and curtailed programs.
"It really is the economy, stupid," said Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a New York nonprofit association that represents most of the nation's 1,800 orchestras.
Met spokesman Francois Giuliani agreed, "The box office has been somewhat soft probably because of the economic situation and the effect it has had on tourism." The Met also had to write off a $4 million pledge when philanthropist Alberto Vilar failed to deliver.
Nine blocks south of the Met, Carnegie Hall is drawing close to past years' capacity, but customers are waiting longer to buy tickets. "That means our marketing department is sitting there and thinking, 'How is this going to play out?'" spokeswoman Ann Diebold said.
The shiver of uncertainty extends nationwide.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for 2001 reported a deficit the first in six years of $660,000. Spokesman Greg Tucker said the symphony has made back some revenue by renting out its hall and posting a 75 occupancy rate for shows this year.
The Virginia Opera also has been running a deficit of $425,000 since last year, which spokeswoman Lori Sutcliffe attributed to decreased donations and lower ticket sales at branch productions in Richmond and Norfolk. She said the increased productions at George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax had kept the budget from dropping further into the red.
The Washington Symphony Orchestra will break even this year despite lower donations and single ticket sales, said Executive Director Warren Cecconi. Corporate donations have dropped 30 percent this year.
However, the Washington Opera is exceeding box-office projections with four productions of its shows for "Vanessa" and "Idomeneo," two of which sold out.
Michael Sonnenreich, president of the opera's board of trustees, said the opera has stayed on budget for the past year and projected the budget to be in the black for 2003.
"Our artistic director, Placido Domingo, has been very careful in selecting our productions this year so that they remain within the budget while having superb quality," Mr. Sonnenreich said.
The Houston Grand Opera, where star soprano Renee Fleming is singing in Verdi's "La Traviata," has laid off 14 administrative employees and cut back on performances.
Chicago's Lyric, which posted 14 consecutive years of sold-out houses, is averaging 94 percent of its seats filled so far for each event. Preparing for its 50th anniversary season in 2004-05, the company dropped plans for new productions of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" and Montemezzi's "L'Amore di Tre Re" next year. They were replaced with two standard works that may be an easier sell and cost less to produce.
William Mason, the Lyric's general director, said he has taken some heat from devoted fans.
"I'm grateful for their passion, but they're not anymore disappointed than I am to have to do it," he said. "It's basic economics. It's an art and we must never lose sight of that, but it's also a business."
The San Francisco Opera, in the red by $7.7 million, has canceled plans for two of its costlier productions, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or" and Weber's "Der Freischutz."
The sour notes began with the 2001-02 season, when many major orchestras reported deficits, largely because of difficulties raising the millions of dollars needed to keep privately run music organizations going.
The Cleveland Orchestra faces a deficit for the first time in a decade, to the tune of $1.3 million; the Philadelphia Orchestra projects a similar deficit; the Chicago Symphony profitable for 14 of the last 17 seasons was more than $6 million in the hole.
The 123-year-old San Jose Symphony declared bankruptcy with debts of more than $3 million.
Mr. McAuliffe blames the squeeze on reduced income from corporate, individual and government sources. Donors are under stock market pressure; endowments that yield income are also tied to a sliding market.
"More individuals are giving, but the average gift is smaller," he said.
A national survey by the Symphony League found single-ticket and subscription sales staying firm, with the latter down 1 percent from last year. "It's not a disastrous box office softness," Mr. McAuliffe said.
Opera houses, however, are in a "day-to-day battle" on single-ticket sales and are not meeting subscription goals, said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a Washington group that tracks 117 opera companies.

Staff writer Marguerite Higgins contributed to this article.

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