The Fat Lady Keeps on Singing

By programming old favorites and making clever use of multimedia, opera companies are drawing new audiences and staying in the black

By Thane Peterson

Opera is one of the great anomalies of the troubled North American cultural scene. While symphony orchestras all over the country are plunging into the red (and even going bankrupt in at least a half-dozen cases), most opera companies are holding up relatively well. True, a few -- notably the San Francisco Opera -- are posting big losses, but most are managing at least to break even, despite the huge slump in charitable giving.

Just look at what's going on in Houston, where financial turmoil at Enron and other energy companies has wreaked havoc on the budgets of many arts organizations. Facing, in its own words, "severe financial problems," the Houston Symphony got into a major spat with its musicians in March, when it demanded pay and vacation cutbacks to avert a projected $3 million loss this year. The musicians finally agreed to a new, less lucrative contract on Apr. 1, but only after a 22-day strike. The Houston Grand Opera (HGO), on the other hand, broke even in the fiscal year that ended July 31 -– despite a 35% plunge in corporate donations.

So, what does opera have that the symphony doesn't? For one thing, flexibility. "We have advantages over symphonies," says David Gockley, HGO's general director. "We can be more flexible when times are tough." Symphonies have huge fixed costs, largely in the form of labor contracts with musicians' unions. Because an opera company doesn't have to maintain an orchestra -– which would have to be paid whether it plays or not –- they can pare back their schedules when times turn tough.

NEW WORK SUFFERS.

  For instance, the Minneapolis-St. Paul-based Minnesota Opera, which has had five productions in each of the last three seasons, is offering four during the upcoming season, which will save big bucks. But because the total number of performances is almost the same, revenues are expected to be relatively unaffected. Also, many companies are spending less on extravagant costumes and sets until the economy improves.

Changing the programming mix can help bolster finances, too. A few European classics still dominate opera schedules, and adding a well-known work such as Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème or Georges Bizet's Carmen to the schedule often guarantees a sellout. Last year, HGO -- known for pioneering contemporary works -- dropped the contemporary opera Dead Man Walking from its schedule and replaced it with The Merry Widow, the popular classic by Franz Lahar.

The change was made partly because Dead Man Walking was deemed inappropriate in the wake of September 11 and partly for financial reasons. "It worked out fabulously," says Gockley. "It's one of the reasons we broke even in the last season." For the season opening this fall, Gockley is dropping a production of Beethoven's Fidelio for Mozart's Magic Flute, a traditional blockbuster.

BROKEN BARRIER.

  Moreover, opera seems to have successfully reached a new audience. Attendance has climbed steadily for years –- it has risen 47% in the last two decades, according to a just-released survey by the National Endowment for the Arts. Some 6.6 million Americans –- 3.2% of the adult population -- attended at least one opera performance last year, the NEA says. True, at 48, the median age of opera-goers is relatively high, but it's lower than I would've expected -- and a year lower than the median age of Americans who attended classical music concerts. And a quarter of all opera-goers are under 35, according to the NEA.

Opera has proved remarkably adaptable to the age of multimedia, which in turn has helped increase its popularity. "Opera is infinitely more vivid and vital today than it was 30 years ago," says Speight Jenkins, general director of the Seattle Opera. "Thirty years ago, a lot of us who love opera were very worried about its future."

According to the NEA, the biggest increase in opera attendance occurred from 1982 to 1992. A major reason, according to Jenkins, is that many operas started using "supertitles." These are translations from the original Italian, French, or German that are projected so the audience can read along with the performance, making it understandable to people who haven't boned up on the story and memorized the libretto. By Thane Peterson

FLASHIER EFFECTS.

  The more innovative operas have since gone well beyond supertitles in adding multimedia effects to their productions. HGO projects performances onto a gigantic outdoor screen so as many as 4,000 people can watch and listen for free. Another system projects closeups of the performers into the upper seats and balcony so people there can follow the action without opera glasses.

The Seattle Opera is pioneering what may be the next big step forward in multimedia opera. Opera directors from around the nation have been flocking there to see the dazzling digital effects at the company's newly renovated concert hall, which opened to rave reviews with a showing of Wagner's Parsifal on Aug. 2. It was the first trial of a new digital system that allows high-resolution images to be projected on a 79-foot by 39-foot backdrop. Much of the equipment was donated by two leading projection companies -- Digital Projection and Scharff Weisberg -- in the hopes that opera companies around the world will buy similar systems once they see it.

"It's very cinematic," Jenkins says. "It allows you to do things like show rays coming out of the sun or mountains in the background that gradually change appearance over three or four minutes."

KEEPING THE MET AIRBORNE.

  Still, it's far from certain that the American opera scene can continue to hold its own. And one casualty may well be contemporary works. All the same, I'm surprised at how many such productions are still being scheduled -- and how many have done quite well.

For instance, James Meena, general director of Opera Carolina, a small company in Charlotte, N.C., says his second most popular production last year was Cold Sassy Tree, a newer work based on the 1984 coming-of-age novel by Olive Ann Burns. At HGO, an English-language version of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince played to sell-out crowds. The classic tale of a French pilot who crash-lands in the Sahara was adapted for opera by Rachel Portman, whose film scores for Chocolat and Cider House Rules earned her Oscar nominations.

Unless the economy improves soon, more adventurous programming will become more and increasingly hard to sustain. Puccini's La Bohème, the most popular opera, was programmed 192 times in North America over the last decade, according to Opera America, a service organization for professional opera companies. By contrast, the top seven North American operas were performed only 117 times combined over the same period, Opera America says. And many of them, such as Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, are far from adventurous fare.

And not every company is doing well in the economic downturn. Chicago's Lyric Opera, one of the greatest American companies, dipped into the red last year, though it continued to sell out most of its seats. Another troubling sign: No sponsor has stepped forward to continue funding broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera's performances now that Chevron Texaco (CVX ) plans to pull the plug on its support when the 2003-04 season ends.

Any corporations out there looking for some good publicity? Opera may not be MTV, but it's a lot hipper than it used to be.

Opera's Top Ten

The most-produced operas in North America during the past decade

1) La Bohème (Puccini)

2) Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

3) La Traviata (Verdi)

4) Carmen (Bizet)

5) The Barber of Seville (Rossini)

6) Tosca (Puccini)

7) The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)

8) The Magic Flute (Mozart)

9) Don Giovanni (Mozart)

10) Rigoletto (Verdi)

Data: Opera America

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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