- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2008

It’s not just business institutions that are in danger of economic extinction these days. Your local opera company could be next.

Arts organizations across the country - especially in opera and classical music - are feeling the pinch as patrons have less money to donate and buy tickets. Groups are scaling down, canceling productions and, in some cases, even closing up shop altogether.

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Opera Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, canceling the last two productions of this season, the popular “Barber of Seville” and “Porgy and Bess,” and ripping up the contracts on the three productions planned for next year. The company will continue raising funds for a new season, but the likelihood of one looks bleak. The opera company made the move just days after the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra canceled its January performances, citing declining revenues.

Baltimore is not the only opera company to go under. Opera Pacific, the only opera company in well-heeled Orange County, Calif., ceased operations last month. It doesn’t appear the company will be revived.

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra warns it likely will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection if it can’t get a $ 1 million loan from the city of Norfolk.

Even organizations that are surviving the credit crunch are learning to make do with a lot less. Miami City Ballet dancers will perform to recorded music instead of a live orchestra for the second part of this season.

The biggest institutions in the country aren’t immune. New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced it is dropping next season’s highly anticipated revival of John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles.” The star power of Broadway’s Kristin Chenoweth, who was to make her Met debut in the production, couldn’t save it.

Met General Manager Peter Gelb warned that some other revivals might be replaced. Meanwhile, the new head of the New York City Opera quit last month, saying the company didn’t raise enough money for the season he wanted to mount.

D.C. opera lovers were shocked when the Washington National Opera said last month that it is postponing Wagner’s “Ring” cycle; all four operas were to be presented next season in an event that had been planned for seven years.

Many companies have complained of poor ticket sales, but Mark Weinstein, executive director of the Washington National Opera, said, “Our ticket sales have never been higher.” In fact, he said, he expected to sell out “The Ring,” but that couldn’t save the cycle.

“‘The Ring’ is monumentally expensive when you put them all together,” he says.

The company needed an extra $5 million or $6 million on top of its ordinary budget, and it wasn’t certain whether it could find the cash in this climate.

“It’s not a wait-and-see, because if you just wait and see, you’ll be in trouble,” he said. “Did everybody anticipate this financial world meltdown? If so, I would have lost a less money in my 403(b). What you should be anticipating is over the next several years, there will be good times and bad times.”

Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, said economic uncertainty is plaguing arts organizations.

“The challenge is, they don’t know how big the crunch will be,” he said. “Individual giving, corporate giving, foundation giving, government support and earned support - all are affected by a bad economy. It’s particularly hard on organizations that have very large fixed costs and have a long lead time in production, like opera, major theater and museums.”

F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News magazine, predicts more bad news. “We’re not going to see this story develop fully until spring 2009, when companies release complete season announcements,” he said.

He notes that a closure has wide-ranging effects: “When a company closes, like Opera Pacific, that’s tragic not just for that community, but the entire opera community at large. Lots of singers came through that company and got valuable experience there. Lots of people became familiar with opera for the first time there and became opera consumers.”

One company that is surviving - even thriving - is the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The company actually added a date to its “Porgy and Bess” run. General Director William Mason said the company is seeing fewer season-ticket holders, but more single-ticket buyers. He urges companies to consider their artistic and financial integrity equally, and be willing to change their programming when necessary.

“You can’t forget we are a business. If you don’t respond to what’s going on in the world and get all artsy about it, saying let’s do this and to hell with the economy, that’s not a sensible approach,” he said.

Some companies have heeded that advice. The Met is replacing “Ghosts” with a revival of Verdi’s popular “La Traviata.” The San Francisco Opera canceled its upcoming revival of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” an opera that’s never been a sure favorite.

Will we see less adventurous programming and fewer contemporary works being staged by companies trying to attract more patrons during the recession?

Mr. Mason said “Porgy” has done well in Chicago, but “other titles not as familiar to the public are not doing as well as they would have done a year ago.”

Mr. Weinstein said, “Some of the riskiest projects will not pass the threshold test of getting done, but I think that’ll be more of a short-term effect, rather than long-term, because you can’t just play ‘Carmen’ and ‘Boheme’ and ‘Butterfly’ over and over again, because people get tired of that.”

“The temptation is to engage a broader audience, which isn’t a bad thing to do, unless that’s contrary to what you say you do,” Mr. Taylor said. On the other hand, he said, some groups say tough times give them a chance “to act with more clarity” and “become even more of who they are.”

Whatever the result, Mr. Taylor said, “The arts community is not alone in this.” In fact, the arts have an important role to play during tough times like these, he said. “When a country’s in crisis, the ability to express the human condition becomes even more profound.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide