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Article Published: 01 Oct 2023

Progress Amidst Uncertainty

El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego at San Diego Opera, with Guadalupe Paz and Alfredo Daza (credit: Karli Cadel)

As we enter new seasons this fall, there is encouraging news about the state of opera. But it’s hard to overlook the financial challenges and disturbing announcements in recent months from across the arts sector.

In theater, we read about Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group’s indefinite closure of the Mark Taper Forum. The Center Theatre Group is L.A.’s leading nonprofit theater, and the Taper is one of the landmark buildings of the Los Angeles Music Center. In New York, The Public Theater, one of the nation’s most successful nonprofit theaters, recently laid off about 50 people. The Public produced A Chorus Line and Hamilton and started Free Shakespeare in the Park. Artistic Director Oskar Eustis said in an interview, “The economic headwinds that are attacking the American theater are attacking us, too. Our audience is down by about 30 percent, we have expenses up anywhere from 30 to 45 percent, and we have kept our donor base, but it’s static. Put that all together, and you get budget shortfalls — big budget shortfalls.” The Public will feature five shows this season, down from 11 in the last full year before COVID.

A recent article in The New York Times reported on attendance at museums: “At the famed Guggenheim Museum, attendance is down by 16 percent since before the pandemic. What has increased is the cost of running the institution. ... In addition to salaries, inflation is driving up the cost of everything from heating to shipping artworks.” A recent survey by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) found that only one-third of museums have rebounded to pre-pandemic attendance levels, with two-thirds experiencing attendance closer to 70 percent. AAM’s chief of staff predicted, “It will take years to fully rebound to pre-pandemic levels of staffing, revenue, and attendance.” The opera field is facing the same challenges. Opera Philadelphia, a company that has transformed its programming over the past decade and remade its position in our industry, announced significant cutbacks in August. On the same day, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the storied support organization for the Metropolitan Opera that was founded in 1935 by Eleanor Robson Belmont in the depths of the Great Depression, announced it will wind down its operation and stop publishing Opera News as a standalone magazine.

Data collected by OPERA America underscore the challenges our opera companies are facing. We conducted a survey this summer to compare ticket sales from the just-completed 2022– 2023 season with 2018–2019, the last complete year before COVID. Subscription sales and overall ticket sales were down for most of our companies with budgets over $1 million. Smaller companies revealed a counter-trend with increased sales. Across all 68 companies that participated in the survey, the total ticket count between FY2019 and FY2023 declined by 21%. Ticket revenue over the same period decreased by 22%.

And ticket sales patterns have become unpredictable. At some companies, a new work may sell out while a work from the inherited repertoire languishes at the box office. At other companies, it may be just the opposite. Ticket sales may be strong early in the sales cycle and then drop off closer to opening night while elsewhere, sales can be negligible until just days before the curtain goes up and then skyrocket. Sadly, it forces company staff to operate without their usual guideposts. Promoting a season is like guiding a boat through a dark and foggy night; it’s hard to know where you are.

Here’s the encouraging news, though: Attendance among first-time ticket buyers set new records last season! At companies with budgets over $1 million, 35% of their ticket buyers were new to file. Across all our companies, the average was 31%. Several companies even reported first-time attendance of over 50%. This represents a tremendous inflow of new audience members and augurs well for the future. Retention strategies must be at the top of our agenda. How do we induce first-timers to return, and return often? How do we introduce them to the idea of making a contribution — even a small one — to begin the habit of supporting their local opera company? And most important: The work we put on stage must be compellingly good. It has to inspire people to leave their homes and, perhaps, to travel downtown on a day when they are otherwise working remotely.

We continue to convene our members in regular Zoom meetings and have heard exactly what Oskar Eustis of The Public Theater said: Ticket sales have decreased, contributions are stable or not increasing, and costs have escalated everywhere. The federal funds that came through the Payroll Protection Program, Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, and Employee Retention Tax Credits are fully expended at most companies.

UrbanArias, a noteworthy company outside Washington, D.C., is appreciated for its productions of new and existing American operas. It announced on its website this summer: “We are suspending productions as we search for a new model for our company. We still believe in our mission of telling the stories of our lives through opera. We still believe that no other medium has the same power to tell these stories. We still believe in the composers and performers that share our dream. But modern life has not made our mission easy. ... We want to take some time to try to find solutions to some of these practical challenges, and then to come back stronger.” That statement summarizes the situation very well.

How are other companies adjusting? Some are reducing the number of productions next season. Lyric Opera of Chicago is offering six plus the Mozart Requiem, down from eight. The Met has reduced its season from 24 titles last year to 18. Other companies are reducing the number of performances of each opera to optimize seating capacities and reduce costs. Some companies are mounting a few of their productions in smaller venues to lower expenses.

But please don’t confuse reduced productivity with reduced creativity. The production of new and recent American works continues without pause. Omar, El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego, Champion, Florencia en el Amazonas, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, and X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X will be seen at the Met, LA Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and San Francisco Opera. We’re anticipating premieres of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s new opera Intelligence at Houston Grand Opera, The Righteous by Gregory Spears and Tracy K. Smith at the Santa Fe Opera, Carla Lucero’s and Marianna Mott Newirth’s Touch at Opera Birmingham, and Finger Lakes Opera’s Two Corners, composed by B.E. Boykin with a libretto by Jarrod Lee.

Progress is unsteady. An American opera repertoire continues to expand with stories of today, and we’re still living with the impact of the pandemic. Opera leaders cannot expect activity to return to “normal” while we’re still trying to figure out new audience and donor attitudes and behaviors. We have to keep adjusting, improvising, and experimenting as the circumstances around us change.

When SpaceX’s rocket exploded just four minutes into flight last April in Texas, Bill Nelson of NASA strategy, but don’t we in the arts deserve the same leeway to try new ideas? It’s the process of testing and learning — supported by the people who care most about our companies — that will get us through the current period of uncertainty to a new era of sustainable success.

Adapted from OPERA America’s Report from the Field, which aired on September 29, 2023.

This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Across the Board, a publication of OPERA America for opera company trustees.