The Browser

Paying for Opera

Why it costs so much, and what to do about it.

If there is any art form that cannot pay its own way, it is opera. Since the early 18th century, when George Friedrich Handel struggled to keep a company going in London, opera has been sustainable only with the help of subsidies–whether from aristocrats, governments, or corporate benefactors. Even with tickets priced up to $125 and higher at the best houses in the United States, box office revenues make up only half the cost of the show. In cities such as Vienna, Paris, and Berlin, tickets can cost twice as much and contribute an even smaller share of operating budgets. I’ll get to the question of why opera costs so much in a minute. But for the moment, assume that the problem is incorrigible. If you want to live in a society in which opera continues to exist, you have to decide who should pay for it.

In European countries, the instinctive reply is “the government.” But even in Italy, Germany, and Britain, countries with long histories of public subsidy for culture, government support has recently drawn public fire. While opera is the most needy of the fine arts, it is also the most elitist. In the United States, according to a just-published survey of participation in the arts, fewer than 4 percent of the public claims to have attended an opera in the last year (and people probably exaggerate about this, just as they do when asked how often they have sex). Around the world, opera is synonymous with snobbery. Its reputation in England was not helped a couple of years ago when a Tory minister described the homeless in London as “the sort of people you step on when you come out of the opera.” Since the audience is rich snobs, people say, let rich snobs pay for it.

T hat’s essentially the system we have here. Wealthy individuals and corporations make up the gap between box office revenues and operating expenses–amounting to $223 million in 1996 according to Opera America, the Washington-based trade association. But the idea that Americans do not publicly subsidize opera (or the other arts) is, in fact, erroneous. We do support them, quite generously, not through the National Endowment for the Arts but with a law that says contributions to charitable organizations are tax-deductible. Studies say that a dollar contributed to opera costs the government between 40 and 45 cents in foregone revenue. In other words, opera benefits from the public purse to the tune of about $100 million a year–more than the entire proposed 1999 budget of the NEA. (Why don’t conservatives who want to eliminate the NEA ever make the point that there is a multibillion dollar arts subsidy embedded in the tax code? Click for the answer.) The $62 million privately donated to the Metropolitan Opera in New York last year cost the government something like $25 million. This is less than the direct subsidy of 99 billion lire ($60 million) the Italian government gives La Scala in Milan or the 87 million deutsche mark ($52 million) that Germany gives the Berlin Staatsoper, but is slightly more than the Royal Opera in London gets.

Opera enthusiasts in this country constantly lament the lack of direct government support for the arts. Europeans, on the other hand, faced with a new climate of budgetary austerity (countries are having to trim their deficits to join the European Monetary System) wonder how their cultural institutions can attract the private money that seems to flow so freely in the United States. With opera fans on each side of the ocean admiring the other’s support system, we must ask: Which method of subsidizing opera is preferable?

But first, back to the cost question. Why does opera endemically require subsidies? The short answer is that while there’s only one audience, there are multiple performances all taking place at the same time. An opera is a symphony concert, a choral recital, a play, a ballet, a mural, and a fashion show all at once. The number of people who work to put on one of these spectacles–building the set, brushing down the wigs, turning the crank that lowers Don Giovanni down into hell–is incredible. It can take 700 people, all of whom eat two or three times what normal people eat. Then there are the supernumeraries–the spear carriers, peasants, etc. What would opera do without supernumeraries? What would all those supernumeraries do without opera?

People who work in the best American opera houses tend to be well paid, but not ridiculously so. In her wonderfully gossipy new book about Cecilia Bartoli, Cinderella & Company, Manuela Hoelterhoff digs out some hard-to-come-by figures. Top stars at the Met get $14,000 a performance, for between nine and 12 performances. If you factor in three weeks of unpaid rehearsal, Placido Domingo gets less for singing at the Met than Cokie Roberts gets for speaking to the National Association of Manufacturers. At $500,000 a year, Met General Manager Joseph Volpe is well paid, but not absurdly so, for someone who runs a $150 million-a-year business and has to deal with malingering divas instead of deferential corporate vice presidents.

Those hoping to reduce costs run smack up against Baumol’s Law, named for the economist William Baumol, who first elaborated it in a 1966 book titled Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma. Baumol’s Law says that in certain sectors, productivity cannot increase. It takes the same number of musicians the same amount of time to perform The Barber of Seville today as it did in 1816. (In fact, thanks to union contracts, it actually takes more musicians–you pay an orchestra big enough for Wagner even when you program Rossini.) In order for the wages of the skilled professionals who perform an opera to keep pace with those in other sectors of the economy, where productivity does improve, the cost must inflate. In short, there’s no alternative to subsidy.

Given this state of affairs, whose system of subsidy is better? The European model has the advantage of being forthright: The government declares that it wants more Puccini than the market provides on its own, and it writes a check to pay for it. Though this means that there is political oversight of artistic decisions in theory, this structure yields considerable creative freedom in practice. But because a third party is paying most of the bill, there’s less pressure to please the audience. This can encourage complacency, artistic mediocrity, welfare dependency, and the rest–which may be why fans say the best American operas companies are now of higher quality and consistency than the best continental ones. Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, says that the more he learns about the European system, the less envious of it he is. American opera companies can’t sustain the mostly empty houses Scorca says he witnessed on a recent trip to Germany. And the kind of catastrophic financial mismanagement that has resulted in the British Royal Opera closing down for the coming season is less likely when managers have to raise the money themselves.

In the United States, pleasing the audience is doubly important–not just because the box office take contributes a higher percentage of overall revenues but also because the subscribers are contributors, too. This incentive system keeps opera companies lean and hungry–and American opera houses filled near capacity. The need to win private support may encourage a higher degree of artistic conservatism–too many performances of crowd pleasers like Tosca instead of works by 20th century composers–and an overreliance on big-name superstars. But it has the advantage of seeming fairer to culturephobes. The same government benefit–a tax deduction for all charitable contributions–flows to supporters of the Houston Opera and supporters of the Christian Coalition, in proportion to their generosity and enthusiasm. Society gets more music than the free market would provide, and more churches.

On balance, I think our system of paying for opera is more rational. But then, as reading Hoelterhoff’s book will remind you, the words “opera” and “rational” seldom belong in the same sentence.

If you missed the link on why conservatives who want to eliminate the NEA don’t make the point that there is a multibillion dollar arts subsidy embedded in the tax code, click.