NEW YORK (Reuters) - The economy has cast a pall over U.S. opera companies, but the head of New York's Metropolitan Opera said on Tuesday the show will go on in a new season with stars such as Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming.
General Manager Peter Gelb has already cut senior and administrative staff salaries by 10 percent and canceled three planned revivals of operas to reduce costs in the face of falling ticket sales and a drastically reduced endowment.
At a news conference to introduce the 2009-10 season that starts in September with a new production of Puccini's "Tosca," Gelb said he would be feeling confident "if not for the pall that the economy is casting over opera companies."
"Because of the economy, I feel a bit like Orfeo facing the gates of hell," he said, referring to the Gluck opera "Orpheus and Eurydice" about a legendary Greek poet who descends to the underworld to bring his wife back to life.
The stock market crash has hammered endowments and led to a sharp fall in private and corporate donations to opera companies and other institutions across the United States.
The 58-year-old Baltimore Opera declared bankruptcy last year and canceled its remaining productions, Chattanooga Opera Company in Tennessee suspended productions and Opera Pacific, in Santa Ana, California, closed its doors.
The Met said in a statement ticket sales for this season were only down 1.3 percent on the previous season, despite the "worst economic situation in recent history," and it said most ticket prices would stay the same next season.
One bright spot in financial terms, Gelb said, was the Met's program of live high-definition transmissions of performances to movie theaters in more than 35 countries, which has sold more than 1.1 million tickets this season.
Gelb said that program was more than covering its costs and would continue as part of a strategy of shattering the image of opera as elitist.
Music Director James Levine said he was particularly pleased with next season's roster of conductors, which includes famed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, who was named music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year.
Fleming, one of the world's top sopranos, will sing the rarely performed Rossini opera "Armida," in a new production built around the American star who plays a sorceress who enthralls men. Spanish-born tenor Domingo, 68, returns in a revival of Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra."
"As long as he is singing as powerfully as he is, we will find ways to put him on the stage," Gelb said.
The season features directors Richard Eyre and Bartlett Sher, set designs by the Swiss architectural duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron who designed the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, and costumes by Italy's Miuccia Prada.
"One of the challenges of opera is that the artistic plans are made far in advance and then you have to figure out ways of navigating around those plans" to fit the budget, Gelb said.
Asked about reports of a 10 percent salary cut for unionized staff and artists, Gelb said negotiations were under way. "The cuts we've made are going to help make ends meet but we haven't solved the problems yet," he said.
The Met will continue to offer $20 rush tickets in the orchestra two hours before curtain time. The lowest regular ticket prices will start at $20 rather than $15 in the highest circle midweek, going up to $375 for the best premium seats at the weekend.