And So Falleth the Sky

It comes as no surprise that the economic downturn has hit arts organizations with stunning force. It is also no surprise that opera companies have been hit hardest of all, and the responses have run the gamut from sober-minded analysis to panic reaction. Were the issue not so serious, the doings of the panic-mongers would make for first rate farce.

When considering opera in the United States of America, the essential division is that there is (a) The Metropolitan Opera in New York City and (b) Everyone else. The Met is, by budget, the largest arts organization in America. It really is in a league of its own.

The Met is not merely a house that presents seven performances per week during what may be the longest performance season in the universe. It is now a "content provider," producing opera for transmission to movie houses all over the world, with downstream markets for its DVDs, compact discs, web site and satellite radio enterprise. It has broadened and strengthened its brand with radio broadcasts since before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As nearly as I can tell, The Met has responded to the economy's reverses by trying to reinvent itself on the fly. It now seems to be crafting its productions -- and casting them -- with an eye toward audiences somewhere other than at Lincoln Center. For example, I harbor the suspicion that the Zeffirelli productions that have been mothballed were replaced, not because they were unloved or became tired, but because they simply did not "work" on movie or television screens. What is impressively large scale and grand in the house becomes flat and "stagey" in two dimensions. The busyness and tumult that makes a Zeffirelli production such wonderful live theater makes it unpalatable in the movies or on the home screen.

Whether or not this bold venture into content provision will be a long term success depends in some measure on the willingness of the Metropolitan Opera's unions to continue to play ball with management. For if the unions get their collective back up and insist that The Met makes significantly higher payments for re-broadcast and downstream rights, the financial analysis alters significantly. And despite the certifications of trained numbers wizards, I remain skeptical that The Met's movie palace venture is a money-making proposition.

Success is also dependent on The Met retaining what is effectively its monopoly/stranglehold on Opera at the Movies. In addition to worrying about the pliability of the unions, The Met must also worry about some group of canny visionaries figuring out how to churn out high definition, high quality opera productions designed exclusively for the movies and home markets in places where talent is available and cheap, labor costs are trivial, and sound stages go begging.

Little of this, of course, means precious little to "everyone else." San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley recently ran "Notes from the General Director" in the San Francisco Opera News, which essentially was a first class rendition of Chicken Little's refrain.

Gockely has identified factors contributing to the current crisis: "Slashed endowments to cover deficits, behavioral changes in donors and ticket buyers, ever sky-rocketing healthcare and workers compensation costs, among other factors, are taking a gut-wrenching toll on our industry." Gockley points to certain factors unique to San Francisco that make a bad situation worse: The War Memorial Opera House is "beautiful but woefully inadequate"; the company is split over eight locations in the city; "ticket sales potential" is close to being "maxed out"; a long history of moving every dime into operations that has left the endowment anemic and facilities inadequate, and long-term fixed costs that make financial flexibility nearly impossible.

And to this Gockley adds the following: "We have a donor model that keeps me up at night -- we rely on 12 families for 50% of our contributed income, and the majority of these donors are over 70 years old!"

One of two things is going on here: Either Gockley is trying to soften up a number of constituencies by thinly veiled threats (If you complain when I wield the meat axe, I will have to resort to the firing squad) or he is hoping to alarm a sufficient number of people that they will flock to his aid in desperation. The former is deplorable and the latter is idiotic. I'm unsure which is worse.

It could be that Gockley is trying to (a) pummel the unions into giving up hard-won improvements in wages and working conditions; (b) wring concessions out of his company's artists, staff and suppliers; (c) prepare his audience for the possibility of being asked to pay more for less; and d) coerce private donors and public officials to contribute greater sums to preserve this "civic treasure."

What seems to concern Mr. Gockley to the point of ruining his sleep is the fact that twelve families make up 50% of his company's donations. I suppose he would have been happier in the Ducal Courts of Italy, when it was one family (the local duke's or princeling's) that made up 100% of the donations. One wonders what the impact on his sleep patterns would have been if the war with Austria that year was going badly.

What in heaven's name does he expect? He is involved in a corner of the arts business that has never covered expenses with ticket sales, and which, when given a choice of raising $500,000 by getting it from one donor or by getting $1,000 from 500 donors will inevitably seek to get the $500,000 in one check. Not so very long ago the concentration of lots of money from few donors (50% of contributions from twelve families) would have been pointed to with pride as the acme of efficient fund-raising. It now keeps the poor man tossing and turning at all hours of the night and early morning.

Compare this, for a moment, with the situation in another city, where the resident opera company concluded that, despite many years of financial prudence of the most admirable sort, it was in a significant financial hole.

That company, instead of screaming that the sky was falling, immediately followed the First Rules of Holes (when you find yourself in one, stop digging). It then followed the Second Rule of Holes (when you find yourself in one, knowing how deep in the hole you are in is less important than knowing what and how much of it is covering you). Everyone was assured that the quality of the company's productions would remain at a high level; that is, what is being sold to the public will not be cheapened or debased. Level-headed calm prevailed. No one was going to asked to slit his or own throat or fall on his sword. Donors were not treated as patsies to be mulcted, ticket buyers were not treated as boobs, and the public was assured that although concern was warranted, panic was not. In other words, the message was "It is OK to be nervous; it is not OK to be terrified." "We will get through this by working together" is a wiser approach than "Do as I say or the whole shebang is going to go down the tubes, maybe in the next twenty minutes!"

Arts education is not a dying field of endeavor, and the efforts made by many opera companies to educate students and the public about the many charms and pleasures of opera is an expensive (but 100% necessary) means of generating an audience now and in the future. The funny thing about opera is that for a very large percentage of the people who walk in the door, it is enjoyable, rewarding, and often great fun... in addition to being cheaper than an evening at a major league baseball stadium. Getting them through the door the first time is the hard part, but you had better have a high quality product that can keep them coming back.

Clearly, the funding model has to change for everyone, not just for San Francisco. Companies that for decades have narrowed their fund-raising efforts to secure greater bang for the fund raising dollar are of necessity going to have to figure out how to get $1,000 from 500 donors instead of looking to one benefactor for $500,000. You do not build enthusiasm and a desire to "do well by doing good" by threats, screaming, or panic. The "Here are the facts; how do get from where we are to where we believe we need to be?" approach is messy, unwieldy and occasionally exasperating. Threats and panic are a lot easier, but also far better calculated to achieve noisy failure and a reservoir of ill-will that will take decades to drain.