The passing last week of David DiChiera, founder of Opera Pacific, reminded Orange County’s opera fans that they used to have their own homegrown company, flawed as it was. Opera Pacific lasted 22 seasons before folding in 2008.
The pain of loss is made more acute by next Monday’s performance of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at Chapman University’s Musco Center for the Arts.
There’s nothing wrong with this production. On the contrary, it’s heaven on earth in some respects: Opera superstar Plácido Domingo, general director of LA Opera, brings its full chorus and orchestra along with a sterling cast to the Musco Center. And we get Domingo on stage in the bargain – playing Rodrigo, a young freedom fighter half his age. (The L.A. critics say he pulls it off with ease.)
But for all its herculean forces, “Don Carlo” is frustrating. It is performed only once, as a concert. The production’s sumptuous sets and most of its costumes remain 40 miles up the freeway at the Music Center.
This is the second year that local audiences have been thrilled and teased by Domingo and his fellow performers; last year they presented Verdi’s “Nabucco” for one performance only, also in concert form.
Domingo’s close relationship to Chapman University and the Musco Center began long before the 1,044-seat venue opened on March 19, 2016, when he sang in its inaugural concert. (In his review, Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed noted that the new hall was “an ideal opera house, potentially the best in the West and maybe even something more.”)
Domingo’s Chapman connection comes from his long-standing friendship with S. Paul and Marybelle Musco, the Newport Beach couple whose support was crucial to the construction of the university’s $82-million theater. Paul Musco, a longtime opera fan, is vice chairman of LA Opera, and he has championed the art form for many years in Los Angeles and Orange County.
But the influence of private donors, even those as generous as the Muscos, can go only so far, especially in the world of opera. It’s the most expensive and demanding art form in the world, and these days it’s more dependent than ever on public and private largesse than ticket sales.
“That’s been true since the loss of operatic superstars, which led to the loss of subscriptions,” said Stephen Brown, a former stage manager for the Metropolitan Opera. “The availability of tickets for individual performances has increased. Therefore, the income from ticket sales has deteriorated, and the funding gap has been filled by large donations from single entities.”
If you’re looking for a villain to blame for opera’s exorbitant costs, there are many culprits.
One underlying cause is the general rise in living standards. When most operas were written, their production costs, though significant, were usually more than offset by revenue. Even at the Metropolitan Opera, a troubled giant with one of the opera world’s biggest budgets, ticket sales alone made seasons profitable until the 1920s.
In those days, few of opera’s practitioners made a comfortable or even middle-class living, explains Speight Jenkins, former general director of Seattle Opera.
“Star singers were paid well, but everyone else – the other singers, chorus, crew, and orchestra musicians – received very little. Any profit was achieved on the backs of the people who were making it happen,” Jenkins wrote in 2014 in his Opera Sleuth blog at artsjournal.com.
These days, musical and theatrical unions determine wages through collective bargaining, and employee expenses now include health care and other non-wage items. According to Jenkins, 76 percent of Seattle Opera’s costs now come from artists’ and artisans’ fees.
Other changes have eaten away at American opera’s bottom line.
Speight reports that at Seattle Opera, material costs – fabric for costumes, steel and lumber for sets – doubled between 2000 and 2015. Most opera companies no longer own their own venues, as they did in the old days; rental fees are often exorbitant.
And government support of all kinds has been declining steadily since the 1980s – a far cry from Europe, where generous government subsidies often pay for the lion’s share of an opera company’s expenses. Corporate support for opera has also declined significantly since the ’80s.
The results have been disastrous. Baltimore Opera Company, Connecticut Opera, Orlando Opera, Cleveland Opera, San Antonio Opera, New York City Opera – the last decade has been littered with obituaries for established regional companies. San Diego Opera came close to shutting down four years ago and is a much smaller company after its near-death experience. New York’s mighty Metropolitan Opera, America’s preeminent opera house, is badly hobbled by long-term financial woes and an endowment that’s much too small.
EXPECTATIONS HAVE CHANGED
Some knowledgeable observers argue that American opera audiences are partly to blame for the crisis because they expect too much. “You can produce a wonderful, heart-stopping, glamorous gem of an opera for far less than (you) might think,” opera singer Jennifer Rivera wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post article. “In fact, there are a lot of truly excellent regional opera companies that operate on budgets of between two and five million dollars for their entire season.” Long Beach Opera mounts innovative and critically acclaimed productions on even less — its budget was $1.5 million in 2013.
Brown agrees that audience expectations have changed. “What killed opera were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. With the (advent of) total realism in special effects at the movies, opera audiences want to see that on the stage. That is where the big bucks go, for example in (the Met’s recent production of) ‘The Ring.’ They spent $19 million on a set that doesn’t work.”
Others see a more fundamental problem of demographics. “(Opera’s) most basic problem is that its audience is literally dying,” writes Aaron M. Renn, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “As recently as 2008 the Metropolitan Opera sold 92 percent of its seats. Today that’s down into the 70s. Even truly excellent productions sometimes play to a house that’s a third or more empty.”
Brown qualified that while that might be true in America, younger opera audiences abound in Europe. “I went to a performance in Prague, and my wife and I were the oldest people in theater.”
Renn suggests radically rethinking the way opera is marketed, especially to younger people.
“As part of its major fundraising program, the Met needs to have a budget for long-term audience development. And it needs to turn to savvy marketers from outside the arts world – I suggest looking at luxury or fashion houses – to make it happen.”
Brown counters that the problem lies not with marketing but education. “It’s not about putting money into fashion houses, it’s about putting money into the arts, especially music and vocal music.”
Brown is talking about better educating performers as well as audiences. “Not only do we not have operatic superstars, we don’t even have well-trained singers these days. With the advent of TV and movies, if a young singer goes to his agent or manager and asks, ‘What do I need to do to get more contracts?’ they’re generally told to get to the gym rather than a voice teacher. We’re not training singers that people want to hear, and we’re not allowing young singers who could be the next Sutherland or Domingo the time to become that.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.