San Diego Opera closing

I was going to write more about habits vs. singing, but the news of one of the world’s major opera companies closing down grabbed my attention. We keep hearing about opera “dying”, … It is all inevitable decline, “sign of times”…

I don’t believe a word of it. People don’t go to the opera because it is too expensive. And why is it so expensive? In the case of San Diego Opera, when you read of the kind of salaries the management was taking you stop wondering. The company’s finances collapsed for the same reason Wall Street banks collapsed – bad management, lack of accountability…   Hard to  believe the manager with 800,000 earnings couldn’t figure out how to save the company. Maybe he was just paid too much?

The banks got bailed out of the trouble because they were “too big to fail”. An opera house can probably fail without any consequences, except for the people who work there and who go there. Which, as we read the press articles, are “less and less”, no youngsters… Well, if the 800,000 were better spent you could have have had those youngsters coming in with their schools; attending workshops, presentations and competitions. They could have gotten the bait… started the “habit” that, in years to come, would make them into regulars. But it did not happen.

Opera always requires subsidy. This is a simple fact, no way around it. Back in my journalistic days I interviewed a press officer at Covent Garden, right before the big remodel. As far as I remember the company generated 1/3 of the budget from ticket sales, 1/3 from own business ventures (shops in the building, functions) and 1/3 from state subsidy. San Diego Opera has only just gone down to the 32% of income from ticket sales. It means that so far they’ve been pretty awesome with their fundraising, making up for lack of luxury boutiques all around the building. By European standards, that is.

If I were a supporter of SD Opera I would feel pretty sheepish right now, knowing that my pledge, instead of funding the the artists, the carpenters and the building, went to the general manager’s pocket.   It just reinforces the perception of opera as a snobbish, elitist plaything of the super rich, who “subscribe” out of social habit. These people are dying out, not the opera. Time to reach the other guys, those who love it but might not afford $200 a night.

I signed the petition (almost 17,000 signatures as of today) and I hope it succeeds. But until the management culture scales back to what it was in the good old days (preiReagan era), I don’t see much hope of this thing not happening again. Maybe it is time for smaller opera companies to take over the abandoned audience.