Don’t just stand there, build something

build me a new stage?The San Diego Opera is closing down, unable to see a way to reconcile its finances. Mark Swed, at the LA Times, is upset by the decision. What to do?

No town is in more need of a performing arts center. New halls are sexy.

I must have been away the day in cost-benefit analysis class when the professor covered the sexiness of expensive building projects when one of your major performing arts companies has just closed due to insufficient funds…

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  1. Perhaps these events in San Diego are a reflection of a kind of artistic and social fraud that lies at the heart of the American opera world. A fraud in which the entire American opera community participates, from the journals, to the bloggers, to the music schools, to the opera companies, to the classical music media.

    + In San Diego, three salaries amounting to 780,000 dollars go to the director and his wife. And then the company ceases to exist overnight. It is extremely rare for the Artistic Director and General Director to be different jobs in opera companies and each with its own salary large salary. There are clear signs of nepotism when the Director’s wife is given a 280k job.

    + The San Diego Opera is listed as one of America’s top 10 companies, but the city of San Diego ranks 296th in the world for opera performances per year.

    + We see Houston calling itself a “Grand Opera” when its orchestra only has 49 members (about half the size of a normal opera orchestra,) when it does not even rank among the top 100 cities for performances per year, and has so few performances it can’t even have a dedicated opera house.

    + We see Washington calling itself our “National Opera” even though it ranks 182nd in the world for performances per year. It’s entire season has about the same number of performances major European houses often do in 2 or 3 weeks.

    + We see that the Met’s budget of 320 million is two and a half times higher than the Vienna State Opera’s, even though Vienna is the most active opera house in the world and has a season four months longer. The Met’s budget is 185 million dollars more than the Vienna State Opera’s, enough money to run two additional major opera houses. We see how the wealthy treat themselves to the most expensive stars and stagings while letting the rest of the country go to hell.

    + We see the lavish productions and expensive stars in San Francisco and Chicago even though they are not among the top 50 cities for performances per year.

    + We see that San Francisco consciously plans its season just long enough for the musicians to be able to collect unemployment benefits after the season ends. Umemployment benefits are consciously used as a method of arts funding. (The NYC Ballet uses the same tactic for its orchestra.)

    + We see that Los Angeles has the 3rd largest metro GDP in the world while it ranks 180th for opera performances per year, and yet has a larger collective of theatrical and musical talent than almost any other city in the world.

    + We see Boston claiming to be such a cultured city when it ranks 252nd in the world for opera performances per year.

    + We see Dallas spending uncountable millions on a posh new opera house while the city remains 257th in the world for opera performances per year.

    + We see Seattle claiming to be a world center for opera when the city ranks 167th for opera performances per year.

    + We see schools like Indiana University excellently training hundreds of singers and presenting productions equal to A-level European houses, and all with the tacit assumption that those singers will have to go abroad to find work after they graduate.

    There is an inherent delusion in all of this – a kind of self-imposed fraud in which almost the entire American opera community participates.

    • BTW, I note IU’s role because it is America’s largest and premiere school for training opera singers. It’s just a coincidence that you work there, so there is no correlation. I just want to be clear about that.

      • All clear. Beyond coincidence, it is great that our arts administration students get the chance to do hands-on projects with IU’s Jacobs School of Music, and the productions are, as you say, absolutely first rate. My personal role with the music school, on the other hand, is purely as an appreciative member of the audience.

        Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    • Regarding San Diego, you are absolutely right. Ian Campbell’s main talking point is “it’s a revenue problem, not an expense problem.” But it is a problem that he and his wife have been sucking as much as $1 million out of the company for years, while the fundraising performance has gone down, down, down. In most nonprofits, a board would give these staff their walking papers. Instead, the hand-picked San Diego board gave them better and longer contracts. The crime is that there is an audience for opera in San Diego, but Ian Campbell had ossified in his leadership. And instead of gracefully handing it over to a new administration, I’m afraid his ego resulted in his preference to kill the whole thing instead of being proven wrong.

    • Thank you for those observations, William. Those facts are startling, but also not surprising that American opera companies would put that kind of “spin” on themselves, and try to sell that to donors, audience members, the media, and more. Perception is an important factor with performing arts companies, particularly expensive ones such as opera, when material resources continue to dwindle.

      I wonder, too, if a factor is the need for more innovation within the opera sector itself. A discussion in vogue these past few years is linking “arts and entrepreneurship”, which unfortunately tend to lump all artistic forms and professions into one category (absurd), in discussions predominated by academics or curators, instead of practitioners (strange). That being said, when there ARE some performing artists represented, they tend to be primarily in music, and then theater and perhaps someone in dance. Where are the opera people? Surely this is an opportunity for change?

      • There’s a lot of room for innovation in opera – innovations that should be created foremost by its actual practitioners, as you note. In Europe, almost every larger opera house has a studio theater for small and experimental productions. America only has a handful of opera houses and I don’t know of one that also has a studio theater under its administration. The funding just isn’t there. Since you are also an American expat working in Europe, I suspect you know what I’m talking about.

    • I think I’ll dispute Mr. Osborne’s shot at Houston Grand Opera. It may be true the they’re not huge or highly ranked, but it’s hardly a source of scandal unlike his previous mention of San Diego. So Houston’s opera isn’t so grand, that’s something that can be changed with time and good stewardship by the BoD.

      • A first step in Houston is to recognize that their season is very undersized for a city that big and rich. The Metro GDP of Houston is larger than the entire country of Austria which has 8 or 9 full time opera houses while Houston only has one part time opera company. Only public discussion of the very small season will move things forward.