Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Financial Concerns

Having made it past the April 15th tax deadlines, money matters keep clogging my mind. The past six months have contained some of the scariest moments the American economy has experienced since World War II. As the recession has worsened, more than a million people have lost their jobs (some 500,000 laid off workers are estimated to be collecting unemployment in California). Economists are predicting that another million will probably become unemployed before the economy begins to reverse itself.

Sometimes opera people get so caught up in their tiny little world that they fail to pay attention to what's happening in the rest of the universe. It's easy to see why. Opera offers a convenient hiding place, filled with glamour, intrigue and great music. Occasionally, however, it can also deliver a rude shock -- the kind of reality check which jolts a reviewer out of his reverie and makes him wonder if he's monitoring the life or death spasms of an endangered species.

Last fall, while attending a performance of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I received one of those nasty omens (this was the same Harold Prince production that has been used by the San Francisco Opera). Placido Domingo, Marilyn Zschau (a passionate Minnie) and Tim Noble (a brutally macho Jack Rance) were doing a fine job onstage. Supertitles were helping me to enjoy Fanciulla more than any other time I can remember. Until the curtain rose on Act III.

There stood the Lyric Opera of Chicago's men's chorus, handsomely decked out as California gold miners. But, as the men anxiously awaited Minnie's arrival on a handcar, my eyes drifted to a sign by the water tower which read: "S and L Mines."

No matter how romantic Puccini's music may have sounded at the moment, those words sent an ominous chill running down my spine.

As the cost of the Persian War has continued to climb, opera companies have had to brace themselves for leaner and much meaner times. Along with their fellow nonprofits in the social services, arts organizations are suffering from the devastating effects of the recession and the recent rise in postal rates. Governor Mario Cuomo recently socked the New York State Council on the Arts with a 56% budget cut. Facing frightening deficits, other states are desperately looking for budgetary line items that can be cut. Support for the arts is an obvious choice.

When Michigan's Governor John Engler proposed to eliminate all state arts grants for the remainder of the fiscal year, Michigan Opera Theater's founder, Dr. David DiChiera, argued that such measures could have a devastating impact on his opera company's ability to garner funding. "Many foundations place a great deal of emphasis on outreach programs. With the elimination of such programs, we may have great difficulty in attracting foundation dollars."

How has the nation's opera community reacted to the task of raising more money from corporations showing diminished profits? How have they met the challenge of trying to shrink their own payrolls without sacrificing their artistic integrity? How have they acknowledged the need to cut back on some of their most ambitious artistic plans?

With fear, loathing and growing concern.

One evening, the board of directors of an opera company in Ohio purportedly voted to shut down operations for several years. Several nights later, key members of the board "mysteriously" managed to develop the funding which would allow the company to keep functioning through the rest of the season. Nevertheless, as one reviews the press releases announcing each company's upcoming repertoire, one sees that the menu keeps heading toward a steady diet of La Boheme, Carmen and Tosca.

The reason is simple. People are scared. They're scared that they won't sell tickets. They're scared because their audiences are suddenly finding themselves with far less discretionary income. They're scared because, with an increasing number of corporate and personal bankruptcies, fundraising is getting tougher than ever. They're scared because their federal, state and municipal governments have fewer dollars to spare for the arts. And with AIDS, the homeless and other social concerns needing more money than ever, there is increasing competition for a shrinking number of donor dollars.

More than anything else, people are scared because they know that, with the crisis in the Persian Gulf ended, Americans must now turn their attention to the nation's economic problems. And, no matter what happens in the White House, some hungry chickens are coming home to roost.

Recently, some artistic administrators voiced deep concerns that many of the huge strides taken toward making opera a popular art form in America (accomplishments gained during the past twenty years) may slowly be erased as the recession worsens. How so? By betting on box office winners, conservative impresarios will restrict their offerings to the meat and potatoes repertoire while outpricing themselves from newer, younger audiences with less disposable income. The result will be a further concentration and ossification of an already aging audience hell-bent on attending traditional repertoire while younger people seek out cheaper and more interesting forms of entertainment in other venues.

Thankfully, a handful of opera companies with a long history of embracing new works are sticking to their artistic guns. The 1991-92 season will witness important premieres by the San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Music Center Opera, New York City Opera, Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Nevertheless, the San Francisco Opera has cut back on the number of productions in its fall season; the Seattle Opera will not perform next August and the Minnesota Opera will not produce its usual summer musical.

Here's where the arts community could take a lesson from the gay community, which was quick to see the handwriting on the wall. With the nation's attention focused on the war in the Persian Gulf, most gay fundraisers reluctantly acknowledged that the public would show little concern for AIDS or other gay-related causes. Following the war's resolution, it became obvious that the media would soon retrench and refocus its attention toward Republican efforts to re-elect George Bush as a war hero.

Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts (which is anticipating budget cuts) does not look like a strong prospect for financial support. Weakened state and municipal governments are cutting back on their support as well. Rather than act as the voice of doom, I tend to concur with Columbia Artists' Matthew Epstein, who refers to history's artistic cycle (in which the last decade of every century marks a tremendous growth in operatic activity in societies undergoing major social change). Epstein is convinced that the United States is where the 20th century's operatic revolution will occur. As bizarre as his prophecy may sound, I couldn't agree with him more.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 25, 1991.

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