I have kept pretty quiet about the most recent draining vortex of long-established classical music organizations.
I am bewildered as to how two formerly strong companies could end up in this sad situation. Last week the New York City Opera declared bankruptcy and the Minnesota Orchestra failed to come to an agreement over a contract that has been expired for a year.
Gee, the non-profit model certainly seems to work just great for the National Football League. I was stunned to learn that despite the fact that it is a $9 billion a year industry, the NFL commissioner and owners continue to enjoy status as a non-profit organization. Congress slipped language designating “professional football” organizations as nonprofits into an unrelated 1966 bill covering investment credits and property depreciation. Ever since, the league has been enriched via the single most egregious example of Sports Welfare — the billions of dollars in local, state and federal subsidies for the private sports industry, an inappropriate, unnecessary payout pick-pocketed from taxpayers. (Patrick Hruby).
Something is so wrong with this picture.
I only sang with the New York City Opera one time — the Barber of Seville in the 1980s. I was paid so little I had to sleep on the floor of a friend the entire period. I am sure I lost money. I was coached by Anthony Pappano, who at the time was a resident coach accompanist. He is now the musical director of the Royal Opera Covent Garden. My own experience was unmemorable, however, no doubt the company went through some amazing times with great talent, innovative productions and talented staff members.
I did get to sing with the Minnesota Orchestra a few years ago under the baton of their beloved music director Osmo Vanska who just resigned.
Yes, it is costly to produce an opera; you have scenery, lighting, artist fees, union chorus and orchestra costs and union stage hands. It was always a balancing act and sometimes a miracle to pull off the fabulous performances. Yet it is not nearly as costly as a Broadway show. Oh but wait, they are profit-making ventures for their investors or great write-offs if they fail.
When I first started singing the early 80′s I was trained in the opera studio at Houston Grand Opera. My then husband was the technical director for the main company. I saw first-hand the scrimping and saving and budget cutting that went on just to produce an opera, perhaps the largest type of non-profit performance events in classical music. There was a loyal audience but everyone in the business knows that ticket sales cannot be depended on and are pretty much cream. There were wonderful donors and a very active board with committees. And there was a great volunteer base. Above all there was a tough and, at times, exasperating budget manager.
With symphony orchestras there is the cost of the union stagehands to set up and undo the stands and help with loading trucks for tours, etc. There is also the hall rental or renovation, the cost of soloist fees, and the orchestra wages. The musicians, for the most part bear the cost of their instruments and their black garb. In both types of organizations there is the cost of staff salaries and benefits. Multi-media has been added to some performances to broaden an audience.
Somewhere along the line in the last twenty years, the production values started to have to compete with TV, film and the Internet so the expenses rose. There was a time when opera companies toured manageable sized productions; the Met and NYC Opera, Houston Grand Opera with Texas Opera Theater and San Francisco Opera with Western Opera Theater. This no longer exists. The Met brilliantly added HD broadcasts to reach to many communities. Other companies have followed suit — San Francisco Opera, and European companies to name a few.
Sometime in the late 80s and early 90s supertitles were added and this made the art form even more accessible. These all upped the costs. Larger more spectacular productions need more rehearsal and crew time.
The salaries and benefits for some CEO’s of the larger institutions went sky high as did the fees for soloists. I think it was a symptom of the 1990s living high on the hog. I was a lucky beneficiary of this heady time, not only with my fees but also in perks in the then successful recording industry. In the heyday of recording I would fly business class, be picked up by limousine and we were presented with a feast on breaks. The fee for recording was small but otherwise, money seemed to be no object. I do not think anyone foresaw the change in the recording industry and the advent of downloads, independent labels, and more. Granted, the classical share of record sales was always typically lower that all other genres. Record companies were either owned by other companies that subsidized them or they has figured out a formula that worked. Eventually those parent companies refused to support them for the greater good and thus no longer subsidized. Like most of the big conglomerates, the interest was ONLY in turning a profit. The classical industry started to implode. The presenters often relied on the publicity generated by recording stars to rub off onto their own organizations and sales. This was hard to come by.
Until the last fifteen years or so, self-employed union opera singers did not have health insurance. We were all single payers. Thankfully due to diligent work by a few members of the union, some but not all opera companies now make a nominal contribution towards a health fund as well as a retirement fund. These costs certainly could not take a company to bankruptcy. I for one am thrilled about the Affordable Care Act as I will not have to agonize over little or no coverage.
For many organizations it seems that over spending and “too big for boots” syndrome is a culprit. Another major mistake has been the raiding from endowments to pay for operating costs.
I do know that most who work in the arts are doing it for the love and not for the money. Some union negotiators may have lost sight of that fact. I understand the benefit of unions finding an equitable and guaranteed way of paying, but also keeping a safe working environment. Whether it be high time pay for stage crew who are working up on the rail, or time limits to most orchestral rehearsals so that repetitive strain injuries do not become an issue, artists are not expected to put themselves in physical danger. (Disclosure: I am a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents solo singers, choristers, ballet dancers and stage managers.)
Many unions sometimes request absurd things. For example, a minimum of workers is required no matter if the work performed requires 10 or 100 people. Paying 100 for the work of 10 does not make sense to me. In some places, in a dress rehearsal, the orchestra leaves at the three-hour rehearsal limit whether the piece has been finished or not which leads to less than secure performances. How many times have I been rehearsing opera only to have to finish the piece with piano because the over-time costs for the orchestra (and sometimes crew) are too exorbitant. Some companies actually have to negotiate as to whether the opera orchestra will remain for bows or will leave the minute the piece ends.
Overpaid leadership is also a culprit. Too many Board “cooks” might muddy the water but checks and balances by them needs to be key. They cannot be star-struck or duped into handing over the reins to a General Director. But by the same token, people experienced in the arts need to lead the companies and not business people. Perhaps self-run arts groups might have a better chance. Everyone could “own” a part of the business, thus inspiring them to come to some common ground and concern for the bottom line and the greater good.
Too many times the humanity and purpose gets lost and bureaucracy takes over in the current models.
I am not a businesswoman, but as a self-employed opera singer and teacher I basically own a small business. I do know how to manage a budget and save money. At one time I formed a corporation in order to give myself a regular salary. (Bankers love this when one applies for a mortgage because monthly income is understood — even though I dealt with the same amounts of money prior to incorporation. Self-employment does not always compute to banks and the IRS and it is even worse now with their computerized formulas.) It was a headache. I am back to my independent contractor status. I do work in the non-profit sector.
As a mere observer I am not privy to the inner workings of the NYC Opera or the Minnesota Orchestra. However, the bizarre logic of our congress allowing the NFL to not carry its weight while arts groups are gasping for air is insulting. The tax revenue could solve a lot of budgetary problems, over and above funding the arts. (By the way, although the government is shutdown, yesterday military jets still did a fly over Candlestick Park during an NFL 49ers game.)
The NFL definitely seems to be onto something. Maybe it needs to teach the classical world a thing or two.