Shake-out at the opera as economy stalls

Fri Dec 12, 2008 10:39am EST
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By David Storey

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The curtain then rose on a shabby Paris garret where an impoverished writer, Rodolfo, burned a copy of his unpublished play in the stove to keep himself and his starving friends warm.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.   Continued...

<p>Quinn Kelsey (L) as Marcello and Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo appear in this undated handout image during a performance of La Boheme by the San Francisco Opera. REUTERS/Terrence McCarthy/San Francisco Opera/Handout</p>