Economy sounds sour note for classical music companies

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

NEW YORK -- Tenor Placido Domingo, who always packs the house at the Metropolitan Opera, didn't always this fall.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera have each dropped plans to produce two operas they had announced for next season.

The San Jose Symphony declared bankruptcy last month.

A weakened economy means many U.S. opera companies and orchestras are facing financial crunches, reflected in less-than-brisk box-office sales, delayed ticket purchases, declines in subscriptions and fund-raising, and curtailed programs.

"It really is the economy, stupid," says Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a New York-based nonprofit association that represents most of the nation's 1,800 orchestras.

'Soft' box office

Met spokesman Francois Giuliani agreed, "The box office has been somewhat soft -- probably because of the economic situation and the effect it has had on tourism." The Met also had to write off a $4 million pledge when philanthropist Alberto Vilar failed to deliver.

Nine blocks south of the Met, Carnegie Hall is drawing close to past years' capacity, but customers are waiting longer to buy tickets. "That means our marketing department is sitting there and thinking, 'How is this going to play out?'" spokeswoman Ann Diebold said.

The shiver of uncertainty extends nationwide.

The Houston Grand Opera, where star soprano Renee Fleming is singing in Verdi's "La Traviata," has laid off 14 administrative employees and cut back on performances.

Chicago's Lyric, which posted 14 consecutive years of sold-out houses, is averaging 94 percent of its seats filled so far for each event. Preparing for its 50th anniversary season in 2004-05, the company dropped plans for new productions of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" and Montemezzi's "L'Amore di Tre Re" next year. They were replaced with two standard works that may be an easier sell and cost less to produce.

Taking heat from fans

William Mason, the Lyric's general director, said he has taken some heat from devoted fans.

"I'm grateful for their passion, but they're not any more disappointed than I am to have to do it," he said. "It's basic economics. It's an art, and we must never lose sight of that, but it's also a business."

The San Francisco Opera, in the red by $7.7 million, has canceled plans for two of its costlier productions, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or" and Weber's "Der Freischutz."

The sour notes began with the 2001-02 season, when many major orchestras reported deficits, largely because of difficulties raising the millions needed to keep privately run music organizations going.

The Cleveland Orchestra faces a deficit for the first time in a decade, to the tune of $1.3 million; the Philadelphia Orchestra projects a similar deficit; the Chicago Symphony -- profitable for 14 of the past 17 seasons -- was more than $6 million in the hole.

McAuliffe blames the squeeze on reduced income from corporate, individual and government sources. Donors are under stock-market pressure; endowments that yield income are also tied to a sliding market.

A national survey by the Symphony League found single-ticket and subscription sales staying firm. Opera houses, however, are in a "day-to-day battle" on single-ticket sales and are not meeting subscription goals, said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a group that tracks 117 opera companies.

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