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Article Published: 30 Apr 2024

Why I’m Optimistic About the Year Ahead

I have reason to be optimistic about the year ahead, but I also want to be realistic about the challenges that continue for companies and artists alike.

Ticket sales are building back, and many of our smaller and mid-sized companies actually have surpassed ticket sales levels from before the onset of the pandemic. In a set of recent Zoom calls with general directors, almost everyone described themselves as “optimistic.” Early subscription renewals and new acquisitions are both encouraging.

Let’s remember that full houses are a source of strength, not only because they help the bottom line, but because they generate excitement for artists, audiences, and donors who are gratified to observe public enthusiasm for the art form. Some companies are taking this into account with special promotional programs that prioritize attendance levels over ticket income. Bringing people into the opera house now — repeatedly, not just once — is a key to future success.

But ticket revenue is only a small share of overall income. As you can see in our recently published Annual Field Report, there is no avoiding the fact that contributed revenue is and will continue to be the largest source of income for all our companies (see chart below). In this essential area, our member companies are not as optimistic as they are about ticket sales. Contributions have been generally flat over the last several years.

Revenue Breakdown for Opera Companies in FY2022

This is not an indictment of development staff or of opera, but the arts in general are not at the top of philanthropic priorities for many people. Very worthy social and political issues are covered regularly on the front pages of newspapers, as they should be. But when was the last time a positive arts story made it to the front page of your newspaper? Can you get a feature article before opening night? Media coverage helps generate ticket sales, and it also helps make the case for philanthropic support.

Another challenge for our members is inflation. The cost of producing opera increased tremendously over the last five years, and although inflation is moderating, costs will not decline. Increases are particularly high in the areas of set and costume construction, shipping, and staff salaries and benefits.

North Carolina Opera’s The Barber of Seville (credit: Eric Waters)

What are companies doing to balance budgets now that federal pandemic support is over? Many of them are producing fewer operas and reducing the number of performances to contain costs and achieve the highest possible level of efficiency. Over the 25 years from 1999 and 2024, the number of productions at OPERA America’s seven largest opera companies declined by nearly one-third.

That’s disappointing for opera lovers, of course, but I invite you to see the data through the lens of artists. One-third fewer productions means fewer performance fees for singers, fewer contracts for directors and designers, and fewer commissions for composers and librettists. It has an impact, too, on related businesses, like artist managers and scene shops.

Some very talented artists have gone on to jobs in other sectors because of these diminished opportunities. The most determined and entrepreneurial artists are developing career portfolios in which they juggle different kinds of creative opportunities as performers, producers, and teachers. But making a good living, paying off student loans, having a family, and owning a home are more difficult for artists today than they have been in recent memory.

Nikola Printz in Balls at Opera Parallèle (credit: Jack Brown)

Despite these defining issues, we continue to create compelling art. I’m optimistic about the sustained and successful effort to make opera a truly American art form. Over the past five years, the balance of new American work to inherited European repertoire has shifted from 30–70 to nearly 50–50. This shift has attracted global admiration and legions of first-time attenders. How we curate a blend between our inheritance and our creative future is among the most important decision points for company staff and trustees.

Adapted from OPERA America’s Report from the Field, which aired on April 24, 2024.

This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Across the Board, a publication of OPERA America for opera company trustees.