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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Before each performance of Puccini's "La Boheme" at the San Francisco Opera house this fall, company director David Gockley stepped through the curtain and delivered a grim message to the audience.
Gockley told them he wanted to "address all of your concerns about how the San Francisco Opera is affected by the tumultuous state of the economy." Opera fans could expect "fewer and less elaborate productions," he announced.
The curtain then rose on a shabby Paris garret where an impoverished writer, Rodolfo, burned a copy of his unpublished play in the stove to keep himself and his starving friends warm.
The destitution of the characters on stage is not something the 3,000 members of the generally well-heeled San Francisco audience, or the millions of opera aficionados across the United States, are likely to experience themselves.
But the economic crisis engulfing the world is being felt in even the grandest opera houses of the United States, prompting cuts and even closures after decades of growth. In a business that is planned years in advance, the effects could take years to play out.
The 58-year-old Baltimore Opera declared bankruptcy and canceled its remaining productions, Chatanooga Opera Company in Tennessee suspended productions and Opera Pacific, in Santa Ana, California, closed its doors.
Most other houses said they hoped core programs could continue, although sales of tickets have generally softened. The Metropolitan Opera in New York introduced a draw for a block of hugely reduced tickets for weekend performances in response to the recession.
Ticket sales, however, make up only a small proportion of the cost. Mark Weinstein of the Washington National Opera said even a complete sell-out brought in less than half the cost of about $4 million needed to stage a regular opera there.
The true scale of the problem is likely to emerge in the coming months if endowments continue to fall, corporate sponsorhips dry up and there is a fall-off in the all-important smaller individual donations on which many companies depend.
Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, an association of 114 U.S. companies, said the end of the year is a critical time when donations from individuals come in. "We really need to pay attention in January," he said.
In Detroit, home of the collapsing U.S. auto industry -- an important arts investor -- Michigan Opera Theater reacted to declining funds by cancelling a 2009 production of Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci."
Founder and general director David DiChiera said the house had so far been able to avoid layoffs. "Now, however, we have to look at everything to get our costs in line to ensure our ultimate fiscal stability, and that's what we've done."
Opera houses in Europe, which enjoy more government backing, are also feeling the pinch and face cuts. "None of us is protected from the harsh winds of change now sweeping across the world," said Nicholas Payne, the director of Opera Europa, which provides services for professional opera companies.
Putting the crisis in America in perspective, Scorca said the downturn followed years of boom. Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. opera companies now in existence had been established since 1980. "It's been a remarkable growth story," he said.
That trend is now interrupted.
"I think there'll be a shake-out," the Washington National Opera's Weinstein said.
But he expressed faith in the long-term strength of the opera business. Although it is an expensive art form, it is driven not by money but by its passionate following, he said. To survive, opera companies must be flexible and "get ahead of the business cycle."
Demonstrating that pragmatic approach, the Washington National Opera put off its production of Wagner's complete four-opera Ring cycle due in the 2009-2010 season, a hugely expensive project that had been planned for seven years.
"We balanced the books last year and we are close to it again this year," Weinstein said.
Reporting by David Storey; Additional reporting by David Lawsky in San Francisco and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Eddie Evans