Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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

March 5th, 2010

This post continues the essay I began in the feature Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part One. I don’t know if I would characterize the Part One as necessarily pessimistic, even though I argued that a considerable amount of the revenues that operatic performance received from philanthropy may be thought of as “bubble-generated”.

This is partly because the philanthropists’ contributions included some significant percentage from an unsustainable economic expansion, and partly because wider societal needs are cutting into the philanthropic revenue base on which the arts are dependent. This opinion is not my own, but appears to be a consensus among opera company administrations that I have interviewed in several parts of the United States.


[Below: Tosca (Adrienne Pieczonka) seeks to comfort the tortured Mario Cavaradossi (Carlo Ventre) as Spoletta (Joel Sorensen) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: House of Puccini: Striking San Francisco Opera “Tosca” with Pieczonka, Ataneli and Ventre – June 14, 2009.]


Nor do I believe that the opera companies in some European countries that are used to generous governmental subsidies  are necessarily immune from the consequences of economic forces impacting their social systems. However, to paraphrase San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley, American opera company general directors would probably prefer to be dealing with the issue of large, but declining governmental subsidies, rather than the American situation of having (if at all) only small, though, of course, very welcome, government support (while competing for the “name” singers and other artists in the international marketplace for their services).

Thus, around the world, but particularly in the United States, I believe that the resources at the disposal of producers of grand opera will be much more constrained for the indefinite future than has been the case in the recent past. If, indeed, my supposition is correct, it is a worthwhile to discuss where these constraints may be most in evidence.


[Below: although engaged to another, Gerald (Bryan Griffin) falls in love with Lakme (Leah Partridge); edited image, based on a Deborah Gray Mitchell photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]

[For my performance reviews, see: Leah Partridge’s Splendid “Lakme” – Florida Grand Opera, Miami: February 27, 2009 and  Evelyn Pollock, Chad A. Johnson in Revelatory Florida Grand Opera “Lakme” – Miami, February 28, 2009.]


The Subscriber Pushback

There is a consequence of the decline in philanthropy, and of the absence of generous governmental subsidies. Every opera company’s subscribers have become ever more important. It is a remarkable group in every city. I doubt if any company can be said to have taken their subscribers for granted, but as resources decline or fail to increase, what this group thinks and does is (or unquestionably should be) an increasingly important concern to opera managements.

I think many opera company general directors would accept a church analogy as not inappropriate. (The reader may substitute whatever religious entity is preferred.) The subscribers are the core congregation, as opposed to those who come to church only for the “high” religious holidays (their metaphorical equivalent are those who will only buy the “hot ticket” to see a world famous superstar in a popular opera) or who visit the church from another area.

You, as the church leader, may want to lead your congregation into new directions, and expose them to some different ideas about how to do things. Because there is almost always a degree of trust in any church’s leadership in the early days, you can expect the core congregation to support you, for a while at least. But you will know when the congregation is beginning to become unhappy, and  the unhappier they get, the more uncomfortable will be life for you as the church leader.

If you no longer can depend on the congregation’s support, it doesn’t help much if you get accolades from all over the world at how brilliant you are or how “in the right” you are. If your congregation is split, or, even worse, is pretty well in agreement that what you are doing is wrong, it’s time to change course. You leave, or you take significant and maybe painful steps to reconcile your ways of doing things with the preferences of the core congregation.

As instructive as this metaphor may be, there is one part of it that doesn’t work so well. In a church, the leader may be preparing for the weekly service on a week by week basis, so that directions can be changed very quickly. Conversely, an opera company may make decisions several years ahead of time and find itself trapped in commitments that prove to be unpopular with the subscribers, or far more costly than expected, or both.

It is probable that in such a situation, one of two things will happen. The director whose artistic choices ultimately proved to be unpopular will have to leave, or signal that the future will be much different from the past, and the company will find itself concentrating its energies for several seasons on producing operas that they are certain the subscribers will wish to see.


[Below: the Rhine Maidens plead with Siegfried to return the Ring in Seattle’s “Goetterdaemmerung”; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Astonishing End to Seattle Opera’s “Goetterdaemmerung” – August 14, 2009.]


(The company, of course, will be grateful if the critics are happy, and, as well, the standees, and the people who help buy the tickets that sell out the house when there is a superstar. But you cannot survive as an opera company, absent a giant, predictable subsidy from somewhere, on the good will of critics, standees and a superstar’s affluent fans. They alone don’t generate enough of a revenue base.)

Possibly the most obvious area where “subscriber pushbacks” have made the lives of opera managements very, very uncomfortable, has been the mounting of operatic productions that make no sense to the opera’s subscribers, or, even worse, offend them. One can lecture subscribers on why they should not regard opera as a “trophy art for the middle class”, and that a company should not shy from enlisting production designers that set out to offend that “middle class” and make fun of the traditional ways of presenting the operas they like.

But unless most of the company’s revenues are derived from sources other than subscribers (who in the United States are both the principal ticket buyers and the philanthropists), the operatic management that feels that tradition-shredding “shock and awe” is the proper way to produce opera should be certain that their subscribers are unanimously with them.


[Below: Tamerlano (Placido Domingo) consoles his daughter Asteria (Sarah Coburn); edited image, based on a Robert Millard phtograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009.]


Ticket Price Inflation

When, in the 1960s, a year before beginning college, I bought my first ticket for an orchestra seat at the San Francisco Opera, it was only $10 to see an opera starring Renata Tebaldi and Tito Gobbi. (Tebaldi didn’t show, but the experience convinced me that the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House “orchestra section” is a great place to watch opera.) My subscription seats have been there ever since. No one will be surprised that the tickets are priced quite a bit higher now.

I am unaware of any company anywhere that has been able to hold cost increases for subscriptions in line with the per capita income growth for their community over any substantial period of time. One could object that it is the opera’s cost increases that should determine the increase in ticket prices rather than the increase in the community’s per capita income, but, it seems to me that ultimately economic forces will prevail. Increases in opera production costs cannot outstrip increases in a community’s wealth indefinitely.

Any long term opera company subscriber anywhere has seen ticket prices soar, even as that subscriber’s opera company has seen the percentage of revenues raised from ticket sales decrease over time. Although some subscribers have substantial personal wealth, it is likely more typical that most opera season subscribers, like persons who hold season tickets to, say, the home games of a National Football League team, must devote an ever greater portion of their income each year to be able to hold onto a prized possession.

Therefore, most opera managements, certainly in the United States, have reconciled to the reality, even with some brilliant marketing and popular offerings, their revenue bases will likely be constrained, and, where there may be new growth, it will be wise to devote much of that to replenishing and augmenting depleted endowments. The hope for the future is in reining in and substantially decreasing costs.

Perhaps the non-subsidized opera companies are the operatic canaries in a coal mine. What happens to opera in the United States could well become a model for opera companies everywhere in the future.

I argue that there are several areas where there is hope for bringing costs in lines with the new economic realities: 1) a better use of the world’s existing operatic physical resources, and 2) a better appreciation of the world’s current abundance of first rate opera singers and the other artists that support them.


[Below: Production Designer Achim Freyer’s disk for Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009.]


What should be better appreciated: operatic singers and orchestras

My reviews on this website have made the point that most of the singers that are hired in principal roles (and many in small roles) are extraordinarily good – and I have attended live performances of most of the major opera singers of the past half century. There are more good opera singers than there are opportunities for them to sing.

In fact, it is my opinion that it is now becoming rarer to see a bad performance of a principal in an operatic role than it used to be to see a very good performance. I also believe that the orchestras in those cases where my experience with them covers several decades, are consistently better than they ever were.

I suspect that quite a few critics would disagree with me on this, although many of them will not have attended performances of reigning superstars in the late 195os and the 1960s, as I have, and will not have the same basis for making a comparative evaluation, just as I cannot speak for performances that took place in the 1930s and 1940s.

Some critics will have criteria that can be explained, and respected (“Baritone X doesn’t pronounce his French covered vowels correctly”), even if I have  a different perspective on what constitutes a world class operatic performance. But there are some critics, and I suspect many of this website’s readers will concede this, that just don’t seem to know what they are talking about.

There is a point to be made about the emergence of great operatic talent that is readily available to all major and many smaller companies. As opera patrons begin to appreciate how good the contemporary singers are, and how many deserve to be regarded as “world class”, the worry that one is going to spend a fortune on a ticket for a substandard vocal performance  may not be justified. Things can always go wrong, of course, but confidence in the casting decisions of most of the major operatic managements is probably well placed.

And some of these voices you’ve not heard of may become famous later on. Consider some of the artists that I saw at San Francisco Opera in their 20s or early 30s when their fees were still relatively low: Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras are a few that come to mind without even researching the subject.

One likes to see artists that have had great successes elsewhere in the world at the home company, but I suspect the top ten artists in fees charged per performance at any given time are almost never the top ten best voices at that moment. If one has confidence in your opera management’s ability to engage wonderful voices (particularly those of artists with a great stage presence and acting skills), then assume that they will find people you have never heard of (and whose fees are not now exorbitant) who will really impress you.

What is Deplorable: Throw-away Art – Opera Sets and Costumes

Opera productions used in performance suffer wear and tear. The more popular the opera, the more damage to sets and costumes is suffered. In addition, there are new operas, and there is renewed interest in operas that have not been performed for a while, so there are good reasons for new productions. Even musicology can suggest new productions. We now have quite different ideas of how Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman”, or Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” or Verdi’s “Don Carlos” should be performed than, say, 30 years ago.

For most opera companies, there is an ongoing expense to store old productions. There are  examples of newly installed opera company intendants arriving and destroying many (in one famous case, it is reported almost all) of the existing productions, giving them free rein to work with their favorite concept directors to create new productions.

However, once one has made all the qualifying statements, too much of the operatic heritage has been deliberately destroyed – for some discarded productions, I suspect there is not even a photographic record of what has been lost.

Opera sets are utilitarian things. If a great artist has created them, that does not seem to matter much. It’s like the monastery in Milan where Leonardo da Vinci painted the “Last Supper”. The monks need a wider door to the kitchen? Just cut a wider opening in the current door below Leonardo’s mural, even if you have to cut off the feet of Leonardo’s image of Jesus Christ. (At least they saved most of the monastery wall that Leonardo used for his painting, which is more than can be said for the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle productions of Wagner’s “Fliegende Hollaender” or Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.)

There should be an international movement to secure the remaining productions of Ponnelle, and Franco Zeffirelli, and Ezio Frigerio, and other production designers of the first rank. (What “secure” might mean obviously can be the subject of more webposts. Intellectual property laws and customs surely have a bearing here. But as a point of principle, no work of art should be destroyed as a consequence of striving to preserve intellectual property, just as none should be destroyed simply to balance one institution’s budget or to clear the way for a  new production desired by management.)

My guess is that at least David Hockney’s productions in the hands of the Los Angeles Opera and San Francisco Opera are safe, but Hockney is one of the very few opera production designers whose recognition as a great artist so transcends the opera realm that one could imagine his physical sets being housed for display in an art museum.

There is a history of sharing great productions between major companies, and increasing sophistication in building sets that can fit the stages of several companies, greatly reducing the costs. (I will begin a series of website articles on this surprisingly complex subject soon.) But another area is just in its infancy – production “makeovers” where a production for one opera, when there is no longer need for the sets, are not discarded, but are converted into something else.

When this June, San Francisco Opera audiences see Robert Perdziola’s attractive sets for Gounod’s “Faust”, they are seeing a production that originally was designed for Marilyn Horne to perform Rossini’s “Tancredi” at Lyric Opera in Chicago. Perdziola reconstructed the sets to house Frank Corsaro’s concept of how to stage “Faust”, but when they appear in San Francisco, stage director Jose Maria Condemi will have reworked the sets again to bring us his own ideas.

“Makeover” productions can, in the right hands (resourceful stage directors working with inventive production construction crews) have the promise of significantly reducing costs, without diminishing the audience’s operatic experience.

These are my thoughts and assessments ending 2009. I will have more to say on each of these subjects. As always, anyone who wishes to comment upon, or associate or disagree with these thoughts, should contact me, through the now old-fashioned mechanism of e-mail, at the address operawarhorses@yahoo.com.


Tags: William's Thoughts and Assessments