Darker nights at the opera

M any an opera plot is set in motion by a wicked curse that generates terrible heartache and loss. These days, it looks as if the real world of opera has been hit with a curse every bit as pernicious.

Although orchestras, art museums, theater troupes and dance companies have certainly been buffeted by the economy's precipitous decline that started last fall, opera is being hard-hit.

The Baltimore Opera Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, shortly after presenting a vividly sung production of Bellini'sNorma that made it to the stage only after a longtime donor guaranteed the salaries for the cast. The cash-short company, incorporated in 1950, canceled the remainder of the season, leaving ticket-holders to take their place in the line of creditors.

Last month, Connecticut Opera in Hartford abruptly shut its doors for good after nearly seven decades -- filing for bankruptcy was considered too costly. That was essentially the same decision reached by Opera Pacific in Orange County, south of Los Angeles; that company closed in November. The Los Angeles Opera laid off 17 staffers.

And just last week, New York's Metropolitan Opera, the epicenter of operatic art, revealed more signs of the toll that the sinking economy is taking. The company put up the giant, beloved Marc Chagall paintings that adorn the opera house at Lincoln Center as collateral for an existing line of credit to help with cash-flow issues. Met staffers are taking a 10 percent pay cut; singers are being asked to do the same next season, a season already affected by cost-cutting measures.

This is clearly no ordinary recession.

"I've never seen anything like it, even going back to 1980," says Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, a New York-based service organization representing more than 100 professional companies in 43 states. "It has had an unprecedented impact."

Even fundamentally healthy companies are scaling back on the number of productions or performances. Washington National Opera, for example, which has enjoyed steady ticket sales and contributions this season, had to postpone next season's scheduled presentation of the four-partRing Cycle by Wagner; the company was unable to raise the millions needed for the project.

The flip side is that opera remains popular. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts reveal that opera audiences grew 35 percent between 1982 and 1992, and another eight percent the decade after that -- the largest increase in any of the arts disciplines. In 2002, more than 25 percent of operagoers were under the age of 35, rebutting the stereotype of an exclusively older crowd.

The Met's extraordinary success with high-def simulcasts beamed into movie theaters around the country and beyond also underlines the appeal of opera -- as of last month, a little more than a million tickets have been sold this season.

And many companies are busily plunging ahead with their seasons, having already whittled expenses and doubled fundraising efforts as best they can. Baltimore's Opera Vivente, for example, a chamber-sized company accustomed to pinching pennies, opened a production of Monteverdi'sThe Coronation of Poppea this weekend and has one more work slated for May.

Washington National starts its spring season in two weeks, right on schedule with Britten'sPeter Grimes ; similarly large-scale pieces by Wagner and Puccini are to follow.

But the reassuring, business-as-usual news continues to be dwarfed by the bad. "When a city loses an opera company, it is not usually one of many in that city, so it is more likely to make headlines," Scorca says. "And when the Met makes some cutbacks, it makes headlines."

More downer news stories are likely. One reason is that many opera companies are not well-positioned to withstand steep recessions. More than half of American opera companies were founded since 1970, a quarter of them since 1980, so their roots are not as deep as many orchestras and other institutions.

"Fewer than 50 percent of the companies have significant endowments," Scorca says, "and most of those endowments are relatively new. They have not had a chance to grow over decades."

With so much focus on just getting each opera onto the stage -- raising the money to pay for soloists, choristers, orchestra personnel, stage crew, scenery, costumes, etc. -- many companies put off the substantial effort required to establish an endowment. Baltimore Opera never built up a significant one.

Other companies have seen once-healthy endowment funds lose 30 or more percent of their value with the market plunge, adding to budget pressures. (Nonprofits rely on drawing a small percentage annually from endowment funds to help with operating expenses.)

"Opera is the most expensive art form because it combines different arts forms into one," says Mark Weinstein, Washington National's executive director. "Survival depends on the quality of financial management and board involvement. An opera company has to depend on donations, rather than ticket sales, so it is more vulnerable when the economy weakens."

That vulnerability is all too apparent now.

"Companies came through recessions in the 1990s and the start of this decade, but this economic downturn, being more severe, has affected the more fragile companies," Scorca says. "The companies that have suspended operations have had some years of fragility; they weren't charging along robustly and then got caught up in this downturn."

Without deep resources, the companies in Baltimore and Hartford were taken down by sharp drops in ticket sales and contributions as the stock market began to drop back in the fall. "In the past, when the economy was down, we could call on donors who made a special effort," says Willie Anthony Waters, Connecticut Opera's general and artistic director for its final decade. "But we had never seen things cascade like this season. We were not going to be able to get out of the morass."

With many weakened corporations, foundations and individual donors all holding back on contributions now, and with government grants being severely reduced, it would be doubly difficult for any bankrupt nonprofit organization to re-emerge.

"I don't know of an opera company that shut down and started up again," Waters says. "If the Baltimore Opera or Connecticut Opera were to return, it would probably have to be under a different guise. Whether that would mean different leadership or management, I have no idea."

At this point, the Baltimore Opera board continues to meet regularly. Michael Harrison remains artistic director, a post he assumed in December after many years as general director. M. Kevin Wixted, the recently appointed general manager, would not comment on whether any new faces would be coming into the picture.

"All I can tell you is that we are still in Chapter 11, and that we are doing what we can to come out of it and produce opera again," he says. "But Chapter 11 is difficult to come out of. A lot of things have to fall into place."

Scorca sounds an optimistic note. "It is inconceivable that Baltimore would give up its incredible tradition of opera and not have an important opera company," he says. "I don't believe the city will stand for not having an important opera company. The Baltimore Opera itself, or another provider, will bring opera to the city."

Weinstein has been in contact with Wixted "and offered to help in any way we can." Scorca notes more companies around the country "are talking to one another about what resources they could share" in these difficult times. It is possible to imagine Baltimore Opera regaining its footing, at least initially, in association with another organization.

Although any revival of Baltimore Opera would be complicated -- just regaining public confidence, with thousands of ticket-holders owed money, would take quite an effort -- the interest in trying appears to be strong.

"This is a great group of people," Wixted says of the company's board. "They have a passion for this great art form. That's why they are still on the board and trying to work things through."

Passion is a theme Scorca sounds, too.

"Opera fans are most passionate about their art form," he says. "Where some companies have failed in the country, this passion will help fill the vacuum."

That spirit has already led to the forming of Baltimore Concert Opera, which bows this month, offering an unstaged, abridged version of Mozart'sDon Giovanni with piano accompaniment. It was founded by local singers who lost their Baltimore Opera gigs when the company went into bankruptcy. There is talk here of yet another opera venture being launched in the area before long.

(Opera lovers are obviously hard to keep down. In New York, a new company just made its debut, founded with a loan from one member's 401(k) and a group of unpaid, eager singers who are making their own costumes. AsThe New York Times reported, "even if the economics and logistics are crushing, the passion seems recession-proof.")

Meanwhile, Opera Vivente, which has successfully weathered 10 seasons, is determined to finish its 11th and move on to a 12th next fall.

"Assuming that further catastrophe doesn't happen and we're not all selling pencils on the sidewalks like they did in the Depression, our staging of [Britten's]Albert Herring will go forward in May," says company founder and general director John Bowen. "Our big question is how we can end up in a situation where we are able to withstand whatever [2009-2010] brings. Opera companies are good at getting by with little, but none of us can survive on good intentions."

As companies, large and small, continue to deal with the tanking economy, they will have to make increasingly tough choices about every aspect of producing opera.

"The companies that survive this will be able to thrive later. But if you cut back on quality now, you'll be lost forever," Weinstein says. "I'd rather see companies cut quantity than quality. Those cutting into quality -- and that includes marketing, because how people perceive the company is part of the quality -- will not make it."

shows that go on

Baltimore Opera is silent, but other companies are active this month:

•Opera Vivente , The Coronation of Poppea (Monteverdi); Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. 410-547-7997, operavivente.org

•Peabody Opera Theatre , La Traviata (Verdi); 17 E. Mount Vernon Place. 410-659-8100, ext. 2, www.peabody.jhu.edu .

•Annapolis Opera , Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo); Maryland Hall, 801 Chase St., 410-280-5640, annapolisopera.org.

•Washington National Opera , Peter Grimes (Britten); Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W. 202-295-2400, dc-opera.org.

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