Curtain Falls on Opera Companies as Recession Hits; Arts Feel Patrons' Pinch

Article excerpt

Byline: Kelly Jane Torrance, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's not just business institutions that are in danger of economic extinction these days. Your local opera company could be next.

Arts organizations across the country - especially in opera and classical music - are feeling the pinch as patrons have less money to donate and buy tickets. Groups are scaling down, canceling productions and, in some cases, even closing up shop altogether.

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Opera Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, canceling the last two productions of this season, the popular Barber of Seville and Porgy and Bess, and ripping up the contracts on the three productions planned for next year. The company will continue raising funds for a new season, but the likelihood of one looks bleak. The opera company made the move just days after the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra canceled its January performances, citing declining revenues.

Baltimore is not the only opera company to go under. Opera Pacific, the only opera company in well-heeled Orange County, Calif., ceased operations last month. It doesn't appear the company will be revived.

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra warns it likely will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection if it can't get a $ 1 million loan from the city of Norfolk.

Even organizations that are surviving the credit crunch are learning to make do with a lot less. Miami City Ballet dancers will perform to recorded music instead of a live orchestra for the second part of this season.

The biggest institutions in the country aren't immune. New York's Metropolitan Opera announced it is dropping next season's highly anticipated revival of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles. The star power of Broadway's Kristin Chenoweth, who was to make her Met debut in the production, couldn't save it.

Met General Manager Peter Gelb warned that some other revivals might be replaced. Meanwhile, the new head of the New York City Opera quit last month, saying the company didn't raise enough money for the season he wanted to mount.

D.C. opera lovers were shocked when the Washington National Opera said last month that it is postponing Wagner's Ring cycle; all four operas were to be presented next season in an event that had been planned for seven years.

Many companies have complained of poor ticket sales, but Mark Weinstein, executive director of the Washington National Opera, said, Our ticket sales have never been higher. In fact, he said, he expected to sell out The Ring, but that couldn't save the cycle.

"'The Ring' is monumentally expensive when you put them all together, he says.

The company needed an extra $5 million or $6 million on top of its ordinary budget, and it wasn't certain whether it could find the cash in this climate.

It's not a wait-and-see, because if you just wait and see, you'll be in trouble, he said. Did everybody anticipate this financial world meltdown? If so, I would have lost a less money in my 403(b). What you should be anticipating is over the next several years, there will be good times and bad times.

Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, said economic uncertainty is plaguing arts organizations.

The challenge is, they don't know how big the crunch will be, he said. Individual giving, corporate giving, foundation giving, government support and earned support - all are affected by a bad economy. …