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Originally published Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 5:42 PM

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Opera companies, notably in Seattle, face money trouble

Critic's Notebook: The Seattle Opera's financial situation is among the most acute among American opera companies, although problems affect almost all of them.

The New York Times

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This is very sad. Seattle Opera has contributed so much to the cultural life of the cit... MORE

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"The new normal?" Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera, repeated the question I had just asked him over the telephone. He paused for a moment.

"No, I won't accept that," he said. "As an American and as a general director I can't accept that."

The question was whether the current recession is serious but temporary, or whether it represents a permanent change in the ambitions and expectations of U.S. opera companies. Opera moves slowly, with programs mapped out years in advance, so the coming season may be the first planned entirely amid economic uncertainty. And if you look around the country, much of the landscape is saddening.

Seattle's situation is among the most acute, although troubles face almost every company in the country. But Jenkins has a longer perspective on it than most, having led the company since 1983.

In 2003 he signed a 10-year contract extension, and the company knew that it would be undergoing a difficult transition to a new director around this time. What it couldn't have known then was that its shift in leadership would occur in the worst economic environment for arts organizations in decades.

It became clear over the past year that Seattle's financial situation, which had worsened since 2008, was serious, and that the company would end the 2011-12 season with a rare shortfall: approximately $1 million in a budget of about $20 million.

In the language of the news release that the company issued on June 26, it is "reshaping for a leaner economy." Translated into English, it is desperate.

The Seattle Opera — which, reflecting Jenkins' interests, has made a specialty of Wagner — has worked hard to ensure that next summer's "Ring" cycles will go on as scheduled. But during the 2013-14 season the company will mount just three productions, rather than its standard five, and in the summer of 2014 it will present an iteration of its International Wagner Competition instead of a previously announced production of Wagner's "Meistersinger von Nuernberg." In 2014-15, and for the foreseeable future, the plan is for four-production seasons.

Perhaps most ominous, the company's well-regarded young artists program will produce a concert rather than a full opera production during the coming season. Led by singer and director Peter Kazaras, who has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Jenkins, the program will then go on hiatus in 2013-14.

Its long-term future is uncertain.

"Assuming economic recovery and community support," the news release says, "the Young Artists Program may re-emerge in future seasons."

These changes are on top of the usual cuts in salaries, artist fees and staff, although two positions will be added to focus on fundraising and major gifts, part of the depressing nationwide shift of resources from artistic matters to marketing and development.

Even though a meeting of the company's board Tuesday yielded word that the budget shortfall would be somewhat smaller than anticipated, those new development officers may well be necessary. Jenkins said a drop in large donations was the main source of the crisis, along with the shedding of the subscriber rolls and increased difficulty in selling more expensive seats. This is the same situation that is affecting every arts institution, but in a company the size of Seattle's, there is a smaller cushion when the money dries up.

Even in companies that have not had — or have not yet announced — such an overt crisis, the operative word is caution. Next season at the Los Angeles Opera, which has presented some truly daring projects over the years, is about as disheartening as it gets: Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" and Rossini's "Cenerentola." The only rarity — Verdi's "Due Foscari" — has clearly been scheduled only because of the involvement of the company's general director, Plácido Domingo, who will sing the baritone role of the Doge.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago, historically one of the most important companies in the United States, has a 2012-13 season of astounding conservatism: a tour through the standards. The only opera from the last century, the Renee Fleming vehicle "A Streetcar Named Desire," by Andre Previn, hardly pushes boundaries. Worse, tickets for "Streetcar" are available only to subscribers, in an anxious ploy to retain the company's traditional base.

The company's general director, Anthony Freud, started last year after stints at the Washington National Opera and the Houston Grand Opera, so this season was largely planned before his arrival.

"The titles of the coming season," he said in a telephone interview, "are titles I inherited."

From his past work elsewhere there is reason to hope that Freud can pull Chicago into the 20th century, to say nothing of the 21st. But he is locked in his company's dependence on its subscriber rolls, which — among the largest in the country — pull it toward the path of least resistance. Although he called himself a "terminal optimist," Freud had a different take from Jenkins on the "new normal" question.

"I have no doubt that a new normal will emerge that will be less volatile but very different than the economic world we left behind in 2008," he said.

So we may well be looking at many years of walking on eggshells. But the problems of opera in the United States predated the recession, and there's never good reason to wait to address them: the stagnant repertory; the necessity of big stars, like Domingo, to sell almost anything; the focus on escapism over innovation and relevance. There is lots of "Aida," lots of "Turandot," even at companies, like the Minnesota Opera, that use their limited resources to advocate for new work and thoughtful theater.

What Minnesota has is, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, an audience that is used to adventurous culture. It remains to be seen what other parts of the country can bring to their opera companies, in terms of both their openness to new experiences and their dollars. The wording of Seattle's budget announcement was intentionally blunt to serve as a strong message to a city that should not take its opera's continued existence for granted.

"I can't say the money has flooded in," Jenkins said. "But it's been helpful. And the support of the community has been strong."

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