This is a boom time for depressing news about arts cutbacks, but the news from the world of classical music and opera may be the most depressing of all. All over the world, especially in the U.S., where music gets fewer state subsidies than in Canada, opera companies are shortening seasons, replacing risky repertoire with tried-and-true works that are guaranteed to sell. In times of crisis, only the strong—or the popular—can survive.
The Metropolitan Opera certainly seems to be functioning on that basis. The 2009-2010 season was supposed to include a revival of John Corligano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, which had its premiere at the Met in 1991. But the revival has been dropped, and singers who had already been signed for Versailles were transferred to a certain hit, Verdi’s La Traviata. Modern music, even if it’s as unthreatening as Corligano’s, is too much of a financial risk. The same goes for older works that are expensive to mount: the Washington National Opera cancelled plans to build a new season around a production of Wagner’s four Ring operas, which require large casts and a big special-effects budget. As for works that aren’t well known, forget it: the Met ended plans to revive Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (best known for getting the composer in trouble with Stalin), and when the Baltimore Opera went out of business earlier this year, some local critics blamed it on too many productions of lesser-known works—like Lady Macbeth of Mtensk.
The opera companies that are doing all right are the ones that have always played it safe. The management of the Lyric Opera of Chicago boasted that it wouldn’t have to change any plans for its upcoming season—because it had already spent several years emphasizing operas that are proven hits with audiences, like Gounod’s Faust, plus some rarities that have popular appeal and aren’t too expensive to mount. The general director of the company, William Mason, told Maclean’s: “I hate to use the word ‘vindicated,’ because it sounds like you’re rubbing other people’s noses in it. But I’m grateful that we are in the shape we’re in, and I just wish everybody else was in good shape too.”
But when it comes to tailoring a recession-era schedule to audience demands, even Mason can’t beat the Orlando Opera in Florida, which allowed its customers to choose the 2009-2010 operas through a survey. The winners were three of the most frequently performed operas in the world: La Bohème, Carmen, and of course, La Traviata. The company announced this schedule as a “comfort opera” program, an attempt to give the public what it craves in difficult times. (It also announced a round of layoffs and pay cuts.) Jim Ireland, president of the Orlando Opera, told Maclean’s that “if sales drop off, you always try to offer that which the public most desires.” And what the public most desires is, in the words of Orlando Opera publicity director Andy Howard, “the operas that inspired Rent and Pretty Woman.”
It could be argued that there’s nothing wrong with that. Putting on a modern or lesser-known work means spending a lot of money on something that probably won’t break even, since classical audiences prefer what Ireland calls “operas with hummable melodies, which often isn’t the case with 20th-century and newer works.” Even in good times, most theatres don’t devote a lot of time to works that are bad box office; if Stratford can call itself a Shakespeare festival, why shouldn’t opera houses stick to Mozart and Verdi, who are to opera what Shakespeare and Shaw are to theatre?
The difference is that with opera, unlike plays or movies, there are no theatres dedicated exclusively to new works; if traditional opera houses don’t put on new and rare operas, no one will. So whereas opera producers in the 20th century were proud of their resistance to modern opera, today’s producers are embarrassed by it: when L.A. Opera director Placido Domingo cancelled a premiere of a modern work in 2009, he announced that this didn’t mean the end of his commitment to contemporary music. But that kind of commitment will have to wait a while, because, Ireland explains, “if one predicts low sales because of the lack of familiarity of a piece, often a donor can be found to make up the difference. It’s much harder to find that sort of donor in a down economy.” Rare operas may be part of what keeps the art form alive, but it looks like they’ll have to wait until there are some rich people to pay for them.