Rigidity and flexibility

rigidityI 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.

7 thoughts on “Rigidity and flexibility

  1. Well said!
    IMO, in the case of San Diego Opera, I question the dignity wherein the General Director/Artistic folds a company and comfortably walks away with almost 5%+ of the annual budget in his pocket. I guess he earned his keep, such as it was. Wondering out loud what his severance package looks like. Oh, I guess maybe none ’cause the $10M donation looks to have been used up balancing the annual budgets…..#fuzzynumbers and #poorplanning

      • Yes, looks like people were taken aback, and also by his justification for his salary in doing two jobs! More #fuzzynumbers and #badplanning…..

  2. A lot of good points, John. But I have to add one thing: the small flexible companies are not the panacea. The chief problem with the small flexible companies is: for the longest time, nobody gets paid. Therefore, only artists who can afford to work for free year after year (with money obviously coming from somewhere else – parents, spouses?) can create them, run them and perform in their productions. If they’re lucky, they get a TAC or OAC project grant down the road which will cover only part of the costs.

    It would be useful to have some sort of a conference where we’d hear from people like AtG, Opera 5, EO and others and see how they’re managing to program and grow. The recent Essential Opera IndieGoGo campaign seems to be the first time they’re able to pay the artists and themselves, but alas I don’t know if the crowd funding is viable, long-term, for any company. I’d be curious to know how such an org as the AtG, which has grown impressively and continues to be well covered in the media, are budgeting and making ends meet.

    • Good points. I don’t believe there is a panacea. Innovation is hard and risky. I also don’t believe that all small opera companies are innovative. Putting on low budget, rather conventional versions of established classics doesn’t seem to me a way forward at all and I suspect is largely about getting performance opportunities. In effect, it’s a glorified amateur dramatic society. In fact, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

      • Agreed. I think Opera in Concert could do much more interesting things, were they willing to un-wed themselves from the St Lawrence Centre. Also, Toronto Operetta Theatre could do amazing things if they only took operetta as a contemporary genre, relevant to and ABOUT our lives today. They can experiment with the cabaret format, interactive stagings, and even make money doing it. But no; what we get are the nostalgic traditionalist performances in both cases.

    • Why not contact Joel Ivany and ask him? I can tell you that I give Against the Grain Theatre a lot of coverage, because, the product they turn out is artistically innovative, (Figaros Wedding); the team is really a cohesive team, and, the public goes to their shows, all sold out….

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