Sam Bergman over at the Minnesota Orchestra has a great post about the apparent double standard between opera companies and symphony orchestras. In brief: orchestras are constantly being berated for having structural deficits and are forced to produce more and more for-profit-like business models, while opera companies lose tremendous amounts of money on high-tech experiments and new opera commissions that run once and are never seen or heard again.
But from a fiscal perspective, it’s been written that the Met is actually losing untold millions on these simulcasts, and doesn’t really have a plan for making them financially sustainable in the future. Now, imagine that this were a symphony orchestra doing this – beaming their concerts all over creation and charging $25 a head for people packed into a theater in Las Vegas or Paris to watch us play. Then imagine that the New York Times found out that said orchestra was going to run a multi-million dollar deficit this season because of the cost of production. Can you imagine what the reaction would be?
I can. The orchestra would be roundly blasted by everyone from critics to consultants to its own board members for behaving as if money grows on trees, the simulcasts would most certainly be canceled immediately, a feeble plea for funding to save them would go out to the usual corporations and foundations, and in all likelihood, would fall on deaf ears because there’s a massive recession going on, donchaknow. And I can’t really say that this wouldn’t be a defensible reaction from all involved.
But because we’re talking about the opera world, none of this seems to happen. Opera (at least grand opera presented by large companies) seems to get a near-total pass from the folks who are constantly harping on orchestras for being clueless, elitist organizations who pay their musicians and conductors too much and can’t seem to make a budget sheet balance. Maybe it’s that our vision of opera is so bound up with images of opulence and wretched excess that it somehow seems okay for opera companies to shoot for the stars even when it’s dangerous from a bottom-line perspective.