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Article Published: 02 Apr 2019

Shutdown Blues – And Benefits

The federal shutdown of December 22 to January 25, the longest in U.S. history, had an impact across society, the opera world included. The National Endowment for the Arts was among the agencies affected, and during the shutdown’s 35-day span, it was not disbursing grants. The stoppage caused an understandable degree of unease among NEA-funded companies, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s threat to reinstate the shutdown if he did not receive funding for his border wall.

“Things are being delayed, which is having a moderate impact on our cash flow,” said Lawrence Edelson, producing artistic director of American Lyric Theater, soon after the shutdown ended. “The hope is that they won’t shut it down again and turn off our grant. We’re a small organization, and any funding is a significant part of our budget.” The NEA did in fact manage to play catch-up, much to the relief of the arts community.           

The shutdown did give some opera companies an opportunity to demonstrate their civic engagement, in the form of ticket giveaways to furloughed federal employees. Palm Beach Opera offered free tickets to its La traviata. The Metropolitan Opera provided comps for 12 performances of five operas, including its smash-hit new production of Adriana Lecouvreur, starring Anna Netrebko. Seattle Opera’s offer for Il trovatore generated a two- minute news segment on the local NBC affiliate KING-TV — an unusual piece of exposure for the art form.

Utah Opera’s free-ticket program for The Little Prince prompted a note from the wife of a federal employee, expressing gratitude for the company’s show of citizenship. “We thoroughly enjoyed our experience,” she wrote. “But what stands out even more in our minds is the concern and support we felt from you, members of our community, at a time of uncertainty, low morale and vulnerability.”

“We wanted people to appreciate the work we do in the community,” says Jon Miles, Utah Symphony | Utah Opera’s vice-president of marketing and PR. “In a stressful time, you feel a little bit helpless. Everyone here appreciated that they were able to do something to help.”

This article was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Opera America Magazine.