I think I’m seeing two trends in the world of opera companies right now. On the one hand companies are closing shop, more or less messily. Opera Hamilton, New York City Opera and, now, San Diego Opera are all relatively high profile closures. On the other hand, with far less fanfare, there are smaller, more innovative companies springing up all over the place. Some prosper, some don’t. Is there a common theme? I can see a few. Rigidity versus flexibility seems to be one theme. Having what marketeers call a Unique Value Proposition (or not) is another.
Let’s look at rigidity. There seems to be, in North America, a very fixed idea of what an “opera company” is. It has a season. It has subscribers. It puts on fully staged performances of, largely, canonical repertoire. It relies on a relatively small number of very rich donors. Both NYCO and San Diego Opera appear to have been kept going for years by a single donor or bequest. A second feature of this model is that a drop in ticket sales or donations is usually greeted by a retreat into conservatism; less edgy productions, more mainstream rep. It can end up, as a sort of reductio ad absurdum, in a company running a two production season of Carmen and La Traviata in Zeffeschenk lite productions. And, yes, that really does happen. Just look at Ottawa. Personally, I think this approach is utterly self defeating. It buys a little time by pleasing an existing, aging audience but it’s mummified and as that audience dies, so does the company. It also fails the USP test. This approach is also most vulnerable to competition from cinema broadcasts; even more so since the Met seems to have accepted that the role of its HD broadcasts is to target exactly this aging, conservative audience.
So what’s the alternative? There isn’t an alternative of course. There are many, and one can look at a tradition that goes back a long way. In the 1940s when Britten and Pears wanted to bring new opera to a broader audience they didn’t set up a subscription company, they went on tour with operas especially composed for smaller forces. In so doing, they created some of the most notable operas of the 20th century. Another approach is to scale things down and take opera to unusual venues. In Toronto, Against the Grain have been the most successful exemplars of that. It’s a different experience. It isn’t COC lite. It has a USP. I could probably write a book length article about different possible models but I’m sure you get the idea. Stop trying to bail the Titanic with a leaky bucket and get creative instead.