Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part One

For the past four years, I have published my thoughts on the performance of grand opera, usually as reviews of live performances that I have attended, mostly in the American West (defined here as a line from mid-Pennsylvania to the Pacific Ocean), but I also include reviews from such non-American West outposts as France and Germany, Miami and Washington DC.

There are some other non-American West opera houses East of Pittsburgh and West of Paris, including some very obvious ones (e.g., the Met, Royal Opera, ENO), that I hope to add to the places I get to reasonably regularly (or at least occasionally) but I have found that the logistical problems of attending opera performances away from home  increase with each 1500 miles of travel.


[Below: Tadzio (Gabriele Frola, center) dances in a fantasy scene in the Hamburg Staatsoper production of Britten’s “Death in Venice”; edited image, based on a Joerg Landsberg photograph, courtesy of Hamburg Staatsoper.]

[For my performance review, see: Michael Schade, Nmon Ford, Gabriele Frola Brilliant in Hamburg’s New “Death in Venice” – April 19, 2009.]


At any rate, as I mentioned in my summary of the San Francisco Opera 2009 season, I attended 48 operas that calendar year in 11 cities on two continents. Since I record my impressions of each performance at some length, and do due diligence in preparing for each opera, I find that averaging four performances a month is quite challenging, and I suspect that I am one of relatively few people who do that.

It actually is not what I started out to do. I had intended to write a book on opera, but one of my sons said, “Dad, you shouldn’t write a book on that subject; you should create a website”.  So I did in November 2005, on the 50th anniversary of my first opera performance that I attended as a junior high school student. Within a week, I received a note from a professional associate who asked whether I intended to do performance reviews.

Soon afterwards, I went the San Francisco Opera to see a particularly non-controversial physical production of Bellini’s “Norma” (See my review at: Norma November 21, 2005 San Francisco). Here, non-controversial was not a good thing. All critics and apparently everyone in the audience despised the sets, and even the opera company’s then general director Pamela Rosenberg complained to the San Francisco press that she did not have money to rent a better production.

But there were some positive things to say about the performance as well (regarding the singing and stage direction, not unimportant factors in opera performance). After four years and the return of higher standards to the San Francisco Opera, I still find it personally interesting to see what I had to say about the performances back in the wild and crazy days of San Francisco 2005.


[Below: Belmonte (Matthew Polenzani) is reunited with Constanze (Mary Dunleavy) in the San Francisco Opera production of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Cornelius Meister’s Admirable “Abduction”: San Francisco Opera – October 11, 2009.]


At that time, I had recently attended a couple of performances in Paris and Zurich and was about to attend some more in San Francisco and Los Angeles, so I thought maybe I would add performance reviews to the website’s planned features. Now my website statistics have confirmed my son is right, with annual hits in seven figures and page views in six figures, and both numbers on an upward trajectory. And I can’t think of anything that I would say in the book that I can’t say on the website.

Opera as a subcategory of “Arts and Entertainment”

The chronicling of live performances turned out to be the seeming raison d’etre of the website. There are not a lot of people with experience and knowledge of the field, but who are not themselves part of the process of producing the operas, who do that. And the people you thought were there to do so – the daily newspaper critics, the learned men and women whose newsprint reviews were there to confirm or disparage your own conclusions about the performance you just saw – are declining in numbers.


[Below: Leslie Crosbie (Patricia Racette), with the support of her husband Robert (Anthony Michaels-Moore, whose back is turned) defends herself against the charge of murder in the Santa Fe Opera production of Morevac’s “The Letter”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: 21st Century Maugham: Morevac, Racette Reopen “The Letter” in Santa Fe – July 29, 2009.]


During the past century or so, the major dailies, with great pride, hired classical music critics, the best of whom had impeccable credentials in musicology and music history, and who possessed a trained ear for judging the quality of an artist’s performance. Such critics still exist in the employ of many of the newspapers in the great cities with which opera performance is associated. Some will always be represented in the print media. However, their continued existence in every cultural center can no longer be taken for granted.

The Internet is slowly, gradually eroding the institutional bedrock that seemed solid enough even a decade or so ago. I doubt if there is a single publisher anymore that does not take account of the Internet as a major factor in all strategic planning. As often as not, it is a threat to the existence of newspapers.

Nowadays, owning the newspaper may be collateral rather than central to a corporation’s business plan.  When News Corporation (which presumably has an idea of which newspapers still are worthwhile investments) bought the Wall Street Journal, it was possible to comprehend the synergy with News Corp’s Fox Business Channel and its related Internet sites. Maybe even owning the WSJ won’t prove a winner, but it’s hard to see many other papers in this time of Google and Craiglist and other publishers’ nightmares gushing a comfortable level of return on investment.

But if the publisher or the corporation that hires the publisher is uncomfortable with the newspaper’s ROI, budgeting and prioritization is in order. You can look at a field like sports, surely a more consistently read section than the arts. Now, there will be general sports editor, but there may no longer be assistant editors for football and baseball and the “other sports”. In deference to the newspaper’s readership the paper still will be expected to have a reporter covering all the local NFL team’s home games and any playoff games the home team makes, plus a select number of major league baseball, hockey and basketball games and a few major collegiate activities.


[Below: Nemorino (Giuseppe Filianoti) attempts to persuade Adina (Nino Machaidze) to be his sweetheart in the Los Angeles Opera production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[For my performance review, see:Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009.]


But as the economic screws tighten, more of this will be the work of free lancers rather than staff reporters. The minor sports and smaller colleges and all high schools not currently in the final game of  a world championship will be ignored completely, and even the major league activities will be attended more sparingly.

The same forces are at work in the cultural sections of the paper, but here the consequences are even more obvious. I suspect that there are more people that can write well and are knowledgeable about the intricacies of all three of the major American professional sports (football, baseball and basketball) than can write well and are knowledgeable about the intricacies of the very different fields of opera, ballet and the Broadway musical. Few papers will have the ability to have expert critics in all three of these fields, even free-lancers, and then cover the symphony, concerts of various types, art exhibitions, and still report on what’s new in the region’s museums.

And it is not just knowledge. A perceptive critic (would you wish to read one who was not?) should not only have a sense of what makes a performance a good one, but should be able to explain –  in terms that another intelligent person can understand – what the criteria are that were the basis of that critic’s judgment. So, the critic thinks the conducting was “idiomatic”, which, from the context, one understands is not a good thing. Assuming that the critic knows anything at all about orchestras and conducting, what must that conductor do to become desirably “non-idiomatic”?

But I fear that professional criticism is going in the other direction. I wish I were jesting when I report that in 2009 I reviewed a production of an opera in a major American city, whose prestigious metropolitan daily sent a reporter who complained in his review that he and the audience were deprived of seeing the hunky baritone’s bare chest, because his costume covered it.

I was discussing the tendency towards “arts and entertainment” as a single entity with a colleague. He told me that a relative of his is the classical music editor for a major East Coast newspaper that recently was re-organized to include “film” with classical music, a subject for which that editor, carefully scrutinizing the feasibility of retirement in the near future, confessed to lacking any expertise.

As papers lose advertising and are required to downsize, “the arts” will expand to include all of “entertainment” except for sports, which I believe, at least until the end of 2010, has enough readership to remain its own department in most daily newspapers. The trend towards newspaper “art and entertainment” departments may seem innocuous now, but editors will may well have to decide whether to pay for a reporter to cover the first performance of an opera revival (as opposed to a “new production”) or the opening of a rodeo. And, without the reporter’s depth of knowledge of the event being covered, the assigning of reporters to ‘events” becomes more a question of how to allocate the “free publicity” that comes with an article on the newspaper’s page, as opposed to a critical evaluation of a performance.

The Artistic Philanthropy Bubble: “It’s the Economy, Stupid”; but Something More Besides

During 2009, I had lengthy interviews with Ian Campbell of the San Diego Opera at the beginning of the year and David Gockley of the San Francisco Opera at the end, and in both cases they presented a bleak assessment of the impact of the current economic downturn on the financing of opera performances. [See: An Interview with Ian Campbell, General Director, San Diego Opera and Interview with San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell, Part II. See also: An Interview with San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley – Part One and An Interview with San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley – Part Two.]

The complexity of the art, requiring a cast of principals and orchestra, a conductor, usually a chorus, and sets and costumes requiring platoons of backstage personnel, generates expenses so high that the costs of production exceed the revenue generated, even if houses are sold out every performance.


[Below: Dark Alberich (Richard Paul Fink, top) curses the Ring of the Nibelungs to the discomfort of Light Alberich, Wotan (Greer Grimsley) in the Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Wagner, Wadsworth and Lynch Team for Seattle’s Magical “Rheingold” Revival – August 9, 2009.]


In the past there were funds available to opera, especially in the United States through philanthropy, that made up the gap between what is raised at the box office and what it costs to produce operas. Obviously, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, taxpayer subsidies amply fill the gap. But I suspect (a suspicion confirmed by my conversations with opera administrators in that country) that those subsidies increasingly will require constant vigilance and political efforts to sustain their subsidies intact, in the face of demands for such alternative uses as improved preschools and kindergartens and other non-operatic social concerns.

If an American opera company hopes to fund their deficit by enlisting large taxpayer subsidies, my suggestion is to have a Plan B. But if the company expects to sustain revenue streams through constant flows of philanthropic contributions, there has to exist a class of philanthropists, who have sufficient excess income to give away, and an interest in opera companies being the recipients of their gifts.

The news stories about people whose wealth was decimated by the Madoff scandals, or the collapse of investment banking houses, or the halving of equity and real estate values, did not dwell on the fact that so many of the people whose personal wealth was savaged, were contributors to the arts and other cultural activities.

Opera, as the most visibly expensive performance art, was, of course, particularly hard hit. One administrator of an East Coast opera company stated to me that some of the people in his area sustained paper losses of 40 percent, but still remained very wealthy people, but for others it was a catastrophe from which they will never return to their former roles of patrons of the arts.

To some extent  the availability of these other sources of income rebounds with an economic recovery. But Gockley and Campbell both note ominous trends that suggest that with the future rebound, not all will be the same. As the economy improves, there will be a visible increase in philanthropic giving, but what appears to worry Campbell and Gockley is that the numbers of philanthopists willing to give opera companies large gifts (Gockley uses the term “mega-donors”), with or without strings attached, appears to be declining.

Probably there are two principal factors at work here. One is the possibility that some part of the past philanthrophy was based on a bubble. The wealth that made the philanthropy possible was to some important extent based on bubble-generated revenue streams. Since philanthropy has a lower place in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the former philanthropist will appreciate continued praise for large contributions made in the past, but, the cupboard being bare, cannot be expected to give significant amounts in the future.

A second possibility is also likely  – that the potential mega-donors have other priorities.The donor may have given all excess wealth to establish a foundation to eliminate as many tropical diseases as possible. For such a worthy purpose, an international infrastructure will evolve to prioritize that foundation’s attention, energy and available funds. The requests from the local opera company to fund a planned new production will be deemed as not meeting the criteria by which the foundation is structured to dispense its funds.

For the last several decades, the trend has been to lengthen the time between the commitments to an operatic production and that production being performed. In the United States, the impact of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 had a devastating effect on operatic revenues that impacted many companies for several years, but by mid-decade things seemed to have turned around sufficiently to make artistic commitments that were based on much higher revenue projections than proved realistic when the economic turmoil of 2008-09 hit.

Those of us who have observed the processes by which opera companies mount their seasons know that every decision is controversial. If you stay too close to the most familiar and best loved operas, you will be damned as destroying the viability of opera as a living art form. If you move too far away from the standard repertory, or present familiar works in productions that your subscribers regard as bizarre, you will be damned as reckless and endangering the company’s existence.

However, one must consider Ian Campbell’s prediction that any community that loses its opera company will find the odds against its revival to be insurmountable. It is my personal belief that every company is in the process of painful re-evaluation of what is possible and is struggling to fulfill as many of the artistic commitments that they regard as essential to their company’s artistic integrity. Obviously, those of us on the sidelines might have cast votes to do this and not do that if we had participated in these fundamental decisions. That said, this seems to me to be a time to close ranks with the operatic managements that serve our communities.

Those who enjoy live opera performance should consider the products they are seeing as representing a much greater percentage of their opera company’s available resources than had originally been planned. Because of this, it is a dangerous time for opera companies.

There are things that one can do that should prove helpful and gratifying to the beleaguered class of opera managers, and may help save your local opera company. For those used to buying tickets for a few specifically chosen operas a season, consider becoming a subscriber – even for a “half series”. If the series contains an unfamiliar work, plan to learn about it and go to it.

If one is a subscriber, one likely has already been invited to make contributions to the opera company beyond the subscription price. Consider an increase in one’s contribution, even if it is just a small amount. If you are unhappy with management’s past decisions on repertory or productions or artists engaged, it may well be that expressing your viewpoint while increasing your economic participation in the company, may get better results than withdrawing support during these perilous times.


In the second part of this essay, I will discuss the subject of “throw-away art”, the opera sets and costumes that are destroyed each year for various reasons and what I call the “subscriber pushback”. I will also highlight some more of my favorite performances from 2009, and even offer a few notes of good cheer about the operatic future.

As always, anyone wishing to comment upon this or any other post on this website is invited to e-mail me at [email protected].