Reports from the Front: OPERA America

Melanie Feilotter

Just like its artistic counterparts, the opera industry last year made cutbacks (in jobs and salaries, for example) and compromises (fewer productions and performances) to continue to thrive. Since the recession began, funding sources have shifted, with federal funding, corporate support, and subscriptions on the decline. Foundation support varies regionally. At the same time, costs have continued to escalate at a rate significantly greater than the Consumer Price Index. The percentage of artistic expenses covered by ticket sales declined from about 68 percent in 1999 to around 56 percent in 2008. This points to a larger trend of opera companies relying increasingly on individual contributions, and it’s encouraging that from 2000 to 2008, total individual contributions to the fifty-three companies grew by nearly 90 percent.

Similarly, federal support waned from 2005 through 2008, with grants to opera companies declining even as the NEA budget increased. State and local funding, however, increased in that same time period.

The shifts in funding paradigms are forcing opera companies to implement new strategies. Many opera professionals cite the challenge of competition in a world with no shortage of cultural information and offerings, and of being forced to compete for the last-minute single-ticket buyer as subscriptions continue to diminish. These trends seem unlikely to dissipate.

In response, efforts to engage and inform audiences have intensified, with companies reaching deeper into schools and alternative venues to create and perform community operas. OPERA America fosters these efforts by providing funding to companies to bring an established curriculum program, Music! Words! Opera! into their respective communities. A grant this year from the MetLife Foundation will double the number of participating companies.

In addition, companies are increasingly negotiating the balance between the demand for traditional repertoire with a need and desire to engage new audiences through new and contemporary works. The number of American opera premieres over the past four years has remained stable (even through the recession), but even more encouraging is the rise in subsequent productions of new works in 2010 owing to multicompany coproductions. Three factors are at work here, driven by artistic and fiscal factors. First, companies are actively seeking producing partners to save costs. Second, companies are keen to support American opera composers by ensuring subsequent productions of a work following its premiere. Third, new and unusual works are more likely to garner attention in the media.

OPERA America’s 2010–2011 grants specifically support these goals. New Works Exploration grants broaden awareness of new North American opera and create relationships among potential producing partners by supporting staff travel to another city to attend a performance or workshop of a new work. Repertoire Development grants are awarded to assist companies in meeting the special costs incurred by developing and producing new North American opera and music theater. Finally, the Robert L. B. Tobin Director-Designer Showcase fosters emerging artists, with director-designer teams presenting their concepts at the annual opera conference with the intent of being connected with the company leaders in a position to hire them.

Smaller artist-driven companies are also playing a larger role, offering alternative styles of production (reduced orchestras, concert performances, adaptations, etc.) often in nontraditional venues (places of worship, schools, black box theaters). As more of these organizations find a voice and an audience, OPERA America has responded by broadening its membership parameters to permit them to benefit from services and connect with the larger opera community.

Participation by OPERA America’s Professional Company Members across all its professional development programs, has risen almost 25 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, indicating that most opera companies are past the worst fiscal hurdles and once again able to focus on business development and strategy.

Adversity often forces innovation. Opera companies are not bowing to the recession but rather using the opportunity to advocate for the field, support emerging talent, and innovate in all dimensions of operations.