In 1763, just when Christoph Willibald Glueck was in the process of reforming opera and creating the art form as we know it today, Samuel Johnson described opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment.” Its irrationality comes from its inability to pay its way and its consequent need to be supported–first by the nobility, then by the Gilded society of a century ago, and today by a multitude of donors who love it.
Why is it so expensive? Many believe that its expense comes from the fees of star singers or unrealistic union demands. As a general director of Seattle Opera for nearly 31 years, I don’t agree with either hypothesis. The reason opera is so expensive is basically because it is the most complex art form, involving many more people than any other. We are expected by our audiences to present extraordinary theatrical productions with superb singing, great acting, elaborate costumes, handsome sets, and the most modern and inventive lighting. Though the size of orchestras vary depending on the composer’s requirements, if a major opera company doesn’t supply enough strings to balance the brass, winds, and percussions, severe criticism not just from music critics but from its subscribers will ensue.
Its expense comes from what composers and librettists, working in a much less expensive time, demand. In the 1920s, for instance, the Metropolitan Opera is reputed to have made money. Star singers were paid well, but everyone else–the other singers, chorus, crew, and orchestra musicians, received very little. Any profit was achieved on the backs of the people who were making it happen. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Since the advent of musical and theatrical unions, wages are determined by collective bargaining; both sides have to agree on what is fair. And I can say that as far as Seattle Opera is concerned, the Opera and the unions have consistently worked well together. But because there are so many people involved, the cost of opera has skyrocketed. 76% of our cost comes from paying the artists and artisans who create the magic onstage.
There are other costs that were unknown to opera companies in the past, such as health care and theater rental. Most opera companies in Europe or America owned their own theaters. Now, many like Seattle Opera rent our theater when we use it. There is also another factor that has deteriorated since about 1980. In the roughly fifteen years prior to that governmental support of opera companies, while not comparable to the kind of subsidy enjoyed by many European companies, was much more generous that it is today. We are fortunate in Seattle to receive funds from our city, county, and state. But these, added to the what the National Endowment for the Arts grants, now constitutes about between 3% and 5% of our budget.
Prices for all that goes into a production have risen. Although this is not a huge part of our budget everything from steel and lumber in building sets and material for costumes costs vastly more today than even in 2000. The ingredients of a new production now costs more than double what it cost then. Our ticket prices since then have increased on average 3.5 % annually. This is not atypical for most U.S. opera companies. At Seattle Opera we used to bring in 45% of our budget from ticket prices, and 50% from fund raising. The other five percent would come from rentals, interest income and the like. Unfortunately one important source of contributions when I became General Director of Seattle Opera in 1983 no longer plays as large a role: corporations. The result is that the overwhelming source of our funds are individuals and foundations. And the formula is now different. We are lucky if we can bring in 42% of our funds in ticket sales, and the extra 5% has always been variable. The rest must come from individuals.
By increasing our ticket prices, we can keep up with inflation, but the audience will bear only so much. The other possibility is a non-starter: cutting costs to the detriment of the product. If what one puts on the stage is not what the public expects, they will not come, and all is lost. It’s very popular to write about the declining opera audience and that those who come are older. I think this probably was said by those who came in 1643 to the premiere of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppaea. They no doubt thought that the audiences were more with it in 1607 when his Orfeo was premiered. Opera audiences always look backward; nothing is ever as great or as good as it was thirty or forty years ago.
At Seattle Opera I can testify that our audiences are marginally younger than they were a decade ago, and our Education division is infinitely more involved and active than it has ever been, working constantly to bring a love of opera to the young and mature alike. Our Development department works around the clock to find new donors and to encourage the donors we have to give more. Fund raising has become a much more important part of the opera than it was even fifteen years ago. Everyone is working for fiscal health and continued high quality in performance, which is why we exist. So what does one do? It’s a delicate balance. Keep the art exciting, attract younger subscribers, and discover new donors. Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner demand as much.