The State of Our Business Today : Opera Companies

Rudolph Bing, former general director of the Metropolitan Opera, once explained, “There are two sighs of relief every night in the life of an opera manager. The first comes when the curtain goes up. The second sigh of relief comes when the final curtain goes down without any disaster, and one realizes, gratefully, that the miracle has happened again.”

In the current economic environment, the miracles are harder to come by and the disasters seem to be coming at opera companies from all directions. “The news from America’s opera companies is very grim,” writes Ivan Katz in the Huffington Post. “Virtually every opera company seems to be taking a budgetary hit, from the entertainment colossus that is the Metropolitan Opera in New York to the resident opera company in Orlando, Florida. We have not seen retrenchment like this since the darkest days of the Great Depression.” 1

Opera is the most expensive art form to produce. Period. Even in times of economic plenty, opera companies are constantly challenged to fundraise heavily in order to stay afloat. Even with full houses packed with patrons, ticket sales account for only about half of the operating budget for most opera companies. Corporate funding, foundation grants, individual donors and, sometimes, government assistance all contribute to keeping the books balanced.

Today, many opera companies are finding their donations and corporate funding down in this tough economy. It’s hard for corporations to justify donating to the local opera company when they are cutting jobs and benefits. Individuals are also decreasing money spent on giving and ticket sales as they see their pensions shrink before their eyes. Even splashy, black-tie fundraising galas are often seen now as gauche and in poor taste when frugality is in and everyone is cutting corners.

In such a challenging environment, opera companies have to fight to survive. Those with a secure financial and business model are weathering the storm, but some are not so lucky. The demise of two long-standing opera companies last year, Opera Pacific and Baltimore Opera, has both singers and patrons reeling.

In March 2009, Baltimore Opera board of directors voted to pursue Chapter 7 liquidation and dissolve the organization that was founded by American soprano Rosa Ponselle in 1950.2 The company is in the process of selling off its assets and will be distributing the proceeds to pay off the many creditors, singers, and other businesses involved in their operations. The recession plus a decrease in funding was blamed for the company’s demise. Cash flow was so depleted prior to first filing Chapter 11 that a board member had to personally guarantee cast salaries for what ended up being the last production of the 58-year-old company. Many singers who worked with the company are now left with canceled contracts and empty calendars.

A lack of funding was also cited for the downfall of Opera Pacific, which served Orange County, California, for 23 years. Board Chairman Sebastian Paul Musco said that many of their long-term donors were tapped out with other financial demands and they could no longer step in and bail out the company. “We’re exhausted,” he said. “We want to go out of this thing gracefully with our heads up high.”3

Thankfully, not all companies are in such dire straits. Many are taking concrete steps to reign in costs and increase ticket sales. After taking a year off to regroup, New York City Opera is back and has recently opened the box office for their 2009-2010 season. They have expanded their “Opera for All” program, which offers 25 percent of all tickets throughout the season for $25 or less. This initiative continues the company’s commitment to making opera accessible to all audiences. Unique and creative marketing strategies will continue to gain opera an audience especially when the price is right.

Two opera companies, one large and one small, are great examples of successful companies which have weathered the changing times with success. Here are their stories.

Atlanta Opera

Atlanta Opera, a B-level company located in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded in 1979. The company strives to expand the experience of its patrons with memorable and exciting performances that reflect the highest musical and theatrical standards, while also supporting community and educational programs. Dennis Hanthorn, general director of the Atlanta Opera, graciously offered to answer our questions.

How has the economy affected your ticket sales and subscriber base?

The Atlanta Opera has certainly been affected by the difficult economy just as all other arts organizations in Atlanta and around the country have. Our single-ticket sales were down slightly in terms of revenue at the end of last season, though our season ticket sales were strong since most came in before the economic crisis. On the single-ticket front, we found that, for the most part, people were still purchasing opera tickets but they were buying less expensive tickets.

Season tickets sales for the upcoming 30th anniversary season, which opens on October 3, are going well, though they are slightly behind last year at this time. We feel that, because of the uncertain times, many people may be waiting until closer to the opening of the season to commit to season tickets, or they may decide to purchase single tickets. We will have some attractive single-ticket offers and we already have smaller season ticket packages to help people be able to experience live opera even on a tighter budget.

How has the economy affected your fundraising efforts?

Fundraising is definitely challenging in the current economic environment, but it is not impossible. Due to the Atlanta Opera’s success in fundraising over the last three years and our plans for the future, we feel we are still in a strong position to raise the money to meet our budget obligations for fiscal year 2010. We have a strategy in place and feel we still have many opportunities for new funding, particularly since our patron base has grown over the past three years.

Even though we are optimistic, we are finding that people extend their payments over a longer period of time or they give at a later point than usual. We’ve also found that people who had already made pledge commitments are fulfilling them later than originally anticipated.

Is your company traveling to New York to audition singers this year? How has casting changed, if at all, due to economic factors?

Yes, we are. We continue to look for the best artists for our budget. While there are, of course, cutbacks, we remain eager to bring very good singers—both new and already known—to Atlanta.

Have there been any changes in programming due to the economy?

We have not changed any already announced programming. However, in our planning for future seasons, we are paying even closer attention to production size, set transportation costs, and artist fees. We continue to present a variety of opera titles rather than retreating to the most popular titles.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

Thus far we feel we are weathering the tough times better than many of our colleagues who have had to reduce seasons, make staff cuts, or even go out of business. We have significantly reduced our expense budget. On the production side, we have been able to operate more efficiently than in the past since we now have two seasons under our belt in our new venue. We pay careful attention to our expenditures and have deferred some new initiatives we had originally planned to do.

All of these reductions, though, have not and will not affect the artistic quality of the opera productions we present. We will continue to monitor the economic situation as this season progresses and make appropriate changes to our budget, if necessary.

Skagit Opera

Skagit Opera, a fairly new, small opera company located in Mount Vernon, Washington, resides about an hour’s drive north of Seattle. Starting out conservatively, Skagit Opera’s first staged production was in 2004, and they have steadily been building an audience and a reputation for excellence ever since. General director and founder Ron Wohl shared his thoughts and strategies for success in today’s market.

How has the economy affected your ticket sales and subscriber base?

We modified two staged productions to opera concerts. The first one replaced a full opera and it was a Valentine’s Day concert, featuring baritone Morgan Smith with Dean Williamson conducting. This sold very well, but there was only one performance compared to four, so sales were off but so were expenses.

We are offering a modified season this year featuring a fall concert with the local Skagit Symphony and then a full production of Madama Butterfly in February/March. We don’t know how the subscriptions will go, but we have had a good initial response and are optimistic. Since we are relatively inexpensive for opera, we should do well.

How has the economy affected your fundraising efforts?

Funding has been reduced and we have to work much harder to raise less money. But there is a lot of that going around and we needed to be working harder and more efficiently on development. I think we will be much stronger and more stable as we come into a better economy.

Is your company traveling to New York to audition singers this year? How has casting changed, if at all, due to economic factors?

We have not done that previously, although we have hired out-of-town artists with whom we were familiar. We are trying this year to work with singers living in the Pacific Northwest.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

We still are working with an all-volunteer administrative and development staff and, therefore, have more flexibility in a bad economy—we don’t have to lay off anyone. People ask how we are doing, and I typically answer, “We are still in business.” This year that is a great thing to be able to say.

It’s important to keep in mind that fortunes have been made in every economic downturn. And while no one expects to get rich in the opera business, successful companies are finding both practical and creative ways to cut expenses while growing their subscriber base and reputations. Interestingly enough, some of the smaller companies, which tend to use more volunteer staff, are in a healthier position than many of the big companies, which rely heavily on outside funding sources.

But regardless of the fallout and the creative financing, quality opera is still being staged around the country and qualified singers will be hired to perform in them. Singers need to be well prepared and informed in order to take advantage of the opportunities available.

Endnotes

1. www.huffingtonpost.com/ivan-katz-/the-fright-at-the-opera_b_163350.html

2. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/12/AR2009031203447.html

3. www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-et-operapacific6-2008nov06,0,5880085.story

Valerie White Williams

Valerie White Williams is a Seattle-based singer, voice teacher, lecturer, and writer. A featured presenter at the 2005 Classical Singer Convention in New York City, Williams taught classes on “Promoting Your Teaching Studio” and has since then lectured on vocal health and internet marketing for musicians. Visit Williams online at www.valeriewilliams.net to learn more about her singing career and www.vocalsplendor.com for information about her voice studio.