Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Opera is Alive and Well!

For those of us who are opera lovers and follow the comings and goings in the opera world, we might feel that there is cause for despair. Recent tales of doom include one failed company (New York City Opera) and another that was saved from the brink (San Diego Opera.)  In addition the leader of the largest opera company in the world has been complaining that opera audiences are dying, the art form is moribund, and without significant union concessions, his company will go bankrupt in a few years.
James Buckhouse of Twitter presents to more than 500 attendees at the 2014 Opera America Conference.
Photo by Jerry Placken/Meyer Sound
I’ve just returned from the Opera America conference in San Francisco where representatives from most of the opera companies in North America met, shared best practices, and worked on strategies for the future. I believe that we all returned from that experience with renewed positive energy and a certainty that opera is not only alive and well, but thriving.

First let me just say that the situations in New York and San Diego were unique. New York City Opera succumbed after years of board and management missteps, well documented in the press and to the despair of many of us who grew up with that company. San Diego Opera on the other hand was saved by explosive community involvement that wouldn’t let the agenda of a few in the management and board close a company that had seen 28 years of surplus budgets.

As for the dilemma of the Metropolitan Opera, I won’t comment on a union negotiation, about which I don’t have the full details. I will, however, dispute Peter Gelb’s claims that opera is a “dinosaur of an art form.” Unlike that extinct species, opera is alive and breathing and more vital than ever.

At Opera America were many great stories to tell. Companies like San Francisco Opera, Minnesota Opera, and Houston Grand Opera have seen an increase in subscription sales. In an informal poll taken amongst General Directors of opera companies, most reported ending their fiscal years in the black. Performances have increased, the repertoire has widened, and many companies are finding interesting ways to innovate to attract new audiences.

One of the most heartening examples of the broad based appeal of operas is the reaction to the stadium or park simulcasts. Initiatives in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, and Houston to broadcast a live opera to a broad-based audience in baseball parks and public spaces far exceeded expectations, generating thousands of new opera lovers, many of whom turn into opera goers in the opera house.

The news here in Sarasota is positive as well. This past year we’ve seen an increase in subscriptions. And the response of our patrons to the Patterson Challenge to eliminate the Nadel clawback debt generated an overwhelming response that not only closed the appeal within a month of its announcement, it brought us a significant number of new donors, reversing a trend that has held since the outset of the recession in 2008.

And for the second year in a row, we closed our fiscal year with a substantial surplus, this year nearly $300,000.

And if some claim that our audiences are too old, I invite you to attend one of our Youth Opera events. This year’s enrollment included 80 young people and our summer camp exceeded 70 for the second year in a row.

To report that all is perfect in the opera world would be insincere. Like all non-profit arts organizations we face challenges. We are all recovering from the 2008 recession and we have to find a way to overcome the high cost of producing opera and to keep ticket prices at a level that are affordable, especially for new audiences. We have to bring the art form more to the public consciousness and eliminate stigmas (remember when opera singers were regularly on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show) and we have to find a way to expose even more of our youth to the glories of opera, since availability in schools have decreased.

But, as Mark Twain purportedly said, “reports of my death are exaggerated.” Opera lives on and will continue to stimulate, excite, and entertain audiences for many years to come. I’m excited to be part of that, and I hope you are too.

- Richard Russell, Executive Director