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Photo credit: Elise Bakketun; Marcy Stonikas, Sarah Larsen; Seattle Opera’s Consul

A lot of ink has recently been spilled about the demise of opera. Audiences are supposed to be drifting away; the number of subscribers is dwindling; people generally are not interested in our art form; all is gloomy, and opera has been described as being pushed off a precipice by public disdain and disinterest.
Based on my experience as a General Director of a major opera company for thirty-one years and in the business of opera one way or another since 1965, I disagree. I have often said that the tradition of opera lovers looking backwards to seemingly rosier times caused our ancestors at the first performance of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, in 1642, to tell their friends that if they thought this was good, they should have been at Orfeo some thirty-five years before. They also probably complained about so many older people in the audience, reasoning that the new art form was headed for the dustbin. It certainly wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.
The United States (and most of the world) has been through a terrible Recession. Most opera companies had to cut back on what we intended to do; if we didn’t and still kept producing at the same level, we would now be in financial trouble. At Seattle Opera I told the audience that we would reduce the physical productions but never skimp on the singers or music.
Did we lose subscribers? Yes. Did we lose single-ticket buyers? Yes. But have these lost, vital members of our audience begun to return? Absolutely. We have worked hard to encourage them both by keeping up artistic standards and by intriguing them with new ideas. They have responded in every way. We have fewer subscribers now than we had in 2008, but this year our subscription renewal rate was the highest since 1998. When bad economic times hit–and I have seen quite a few blips since 1983–I would say that considering the severity of this crisis, we have found the audience coming back at a surprising rate both as subscribers and as donors.
The age of the audience is, as I suggested, a shibboleth that has been around forever, and it is very explainable. When men and women get married and have children, they don’t have the time or the money to buy opera tickets. When they are older, they can more easily afford to come to the most expensive artistic entertainment that exists. If we look back at the early 80s, the audience at Seattle Opera was older on average than it is now. This improvement has come from a vigorous educational program. Schools rarely expose their students either to orchestral or vocal classical music, and it is up to us to do the job. Our education department is twenty-five times more effective than it was when I came. At Seattle Opera in fiscal 2014 we had over 500 education events to all ages, from Kindergarten through retirement communities, all of which encouraged people to discover and explore more about opera.
Marketing uses every possible avenue to attract audiences. Though newspaper advertising is still important, our company uses social media extensively. It isn’t my area of expertise, but we have very aware men and women to keep us up-to-date on Twitter, Facebook and whatever new kind of social media is popular.
Seattle Opera’s board is very active in overseeing our financial condition; the finance committee meets frequently, and we have to present budgets that are balanced and that work. No one on our board has ever tried to get into artistic decision making; they leave that to those of us who are hired to do it. But they require us to be financially realistic.
I believe that one of the ways to keep an opera company in good shape is to keep the public informed of the opera’s financial situation. In the darkest days of the Recession, I made a series of talks in public and on our website explaining what we were doing and why. I have no idea if they helped, but at least we took those interested in Seattle Opera into our confidence. When we then asked them for help, they knew what we were doing to keep alive.
In an earlier blog I pointed out that if since 2008 Dr. David DiChiera has kept a large opera company alive in Detroit, possibly the most depressed large city in the United States, any opera company should be able to do it. I still think that, and I know I live in a city that while it suffered in the recession has a lot of youth and vigor in its business and in such corporations as Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, and of course Boeing. Although the amount that each of these corporations contribute directly to Seattle Opera varies greatly, they employ lots of people who both attend and contribute. Still, we have had to work hard to keep and bring in new donors and have tried consistently to turn out a product that people really want to experience. We have, I think, stuck to our core beliefs, the most important of which is quality, and we have kept producing a variety of opera so that our subscribers would never get bored.
We still have financial problems and live very much on the edge; we are after all an opera company. I’m writing this at the beginning of fiscal 2015. Like all non-profits we start every fiscal year at zero. But I know that everyone who works for Seattle Opera, both our union and non-union employees want the Opera to continue and succeed. I further believe that as long as there are people who love the sound of the human voice, unamplified, and are excited by emotional music and live theater, opera will continue to be performed. We are the most expensive art form in the world, but we have the most devoted audience. To say that we are doomed is to forget or ignore how intensely our audiences love opera and how new audiences, if given the access, are moved by what we do. That love based on what Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and all the others have given us, plus a lot of hard work on our part, gives us an exciting future.

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  1. says

    I wonder why Seattle has the 25th largest metro GDP in the world, but ranks 167th for opera performances per year. Perhaps this points to a larger issue than just opera, such as America’s unique and isolated system of funding the arts by donations. Statistical data seems to suggest that public funding systems work better for supporting an expensive form such as opera.

    • says

      I don’t think the Gross Domestic Product is the way to understand the popularity of opera performances. One factor that skews the percentages is the size of our houses. In Seattle our theater holds almost 3000, a very normal size in the United States for opera houses; in Europe most theaters are built for between 700 and 1500 people. The tradition of operagoing in most European countries is much more established than in the United States as well. Public funding systems mean that politicians have a say in how the opera house is run and its leadership. In America private boards are composed of donors who generally are concerned only with the company’s finance and do not meddle in the art. Or at least that’s the way it is in Seattle. Furthermore when you talk about public funding, never forget the charitable deduction for donations to non-profits, something that does not happen in Europe. This is a very, very important part of how American operas function. This is a huge question, but I would personally rather not be controlled by bureaucrats.

      • says

        If you’re going to claim European politicians interfere in programming, then you need to give us some documented examples to show it is a significant pattern. I’ve lived in Europe for the last 35 years and I can think of only one instance when politicians became involved in a production. It involved an opening scene of a Regietheater production depicting Jews being gassed. I’m not expecting any documentation from you, because the type of “interference” you describe doesn’t exist. We should speak here as intellectuals, not Fox News.

        It’s true that many European houses are smaller than in the USA, exactly for the reason that even small cities have full time, year-round opera houses. I love going to the 500 seat houses in cities like Lucerne (pop. 76,0000) or Pforzheim (pop. 118,000) because I can hear opera with the acoustic and intimacy it was intended to have. This cannot be achieved in 3000 seat stadium-like halls which are a gross aberration of what most operas were meant to be. Name one American city with a population of 76,000 or 118,000 that has a full time opera company, much less a dedicated opera house.

        A system of funding the arts by donations from the wealthy concentrates the arts in a few financial centers where the extremely wealthy live. That’s why, unlike Europe, smaller US cities can’t have significant numbers of opera performances, much less dedicated houses.

        Charitible deductions are a terrible way of funding the arts. The numbers starkly reveal this truth. The USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita, behind every European country except impoverished Portugal. We are in a class only with third world countries. Costa Rica, for example, comes in at number 40, right behind us. Even Istanbul, Turkey, has more opera performances per year than Seattle – 55 vs. 44.

        Seattle only does about one quarter of the number of productions and performances that major European houses do, and its budget is only about one quarter theirs, and yet it claims to be a major company. Such claims are the norm for America, and I personally find them fraudulent.

      • says

        The we-have-big-houses-and-thus-less-performances argument isn’t going to pan out. A quick calculation of seating capacity times number of performances shows America still lags far behind.

    • Neil McGowan says

      Entirely agreed.

      When sponsors call the tune – and more importantly, when they spike other repertoire – then the tail is wagging the dog.

  2. Charles Papendick says

    Congratulations on your success. Maybe Peter Gelb and the Met Opera Board in New York would like to attend some of the education events. Maybe if it isn’t broken, it shouldn’t try to be repaired.
    Grand Opera is exactly that. As a newbie to the opera medium, I certainly appreciate the classics. They are what made opera grand, as well as the great voices.

    The production shows the story. The orchestra and soloists and chorus bring the characters to “life”.

    They ARE the product.

  3. Jessica Phillips Rieske says

    I almost never comment on anything, but it just felt that I must thank you for this article. As Chair of the MET Orchestra Committee, it really is encouraging to hear this… Thank you!

  4. says

    When the priorities of an opera company are, as you say, “[to] reduce the physical productions but never skimp on the singers or music.” the priorities are correct. If the singing, conducting and playing are thrilling…. people will come…. hugely elaborate stage machinery or “scandalous” directorial concepts are really NOT what puts people in the seats. And certainly being a prophet of doom is never a way to entice people to give it a try. Bravo to you for your leadership in Seatle and for your clear thinking and for your love of the art.

  5. Dan Dare says

    If you take catchment areas into account, the proximity of urban centres in Europe compared toNorth America makes it easier for the the former to attract ticket buyers.

    • says

      Generally true, but not always. The Northeastern seaboard has a population density comparable to the densest areas of Europe. 18 million in the NYC area alone. And there are metro areas like LA with around 15 million people, or the SF Bay Area also with countless millions. The difference might be that Europe’s populations are much more uniform in relatively high levels of general and cultural education, why the urban areas of the USA have millions of people living in standards only found in Third World countries.

      The USA illustrates that societies that neglect the arts also neglect the general educational levels and well-being of their citizens. A brutal fact, but true.

  6. says

    You cut back your seasons (and presumably the compensation offered to your chorus and orchestra) by 25% in 2013-2014 and the company, continuing after your retirement, plans a 20% cut in programming (from five operas to four) in 2014-2015. You canceled this summer’s Meistersinger and scheduled a Wagner competition instead. And now that you are safely drawing a pension, you make fun of those who say opera is in crisis, this after you’ve more than decimated your own company’s activities just to keep from going bankrupt. What a hypocrite!

    • says

      Hypocrisy or not, your comment, and most of those on your blog, illustrate the tendency of Americans to look at results without correctly analyzing the systemic problems that are the causes. In short, opera is far too expensive to be effectively funded using a private funding system. That’s why the USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita, behind every European country except impoverished Portugal. We may never have a public funding system, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is the only solution. And let’s not fool ourselves, with adequate funding for programming, educational programs, and affordable tickets we could fill our houses just as the Europeans do. Any ideas on how we can develop a public funding system? Perhaps you could ask your many readers for suggestions?

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