HONEY, I SHRUNK THE OPERA
By the Editor
As the UK’s opera companies—indeed, all arts institutions—nervously await the lateMarch verdict on their future funding prospects, it’s salutary to reflect on how other houses around the world are coping (or not) with the continuing economic crunch. Those who favour a shift here towards the ‘US model’ would do well to look at the news from San Francisco Opera, which recently posted a $1.5 million deficit for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Announcing the figures, the SFO Association’s president, George Hume, said, ‘Although the recession exacerbated the Opera’s difficulties in 2009-10, it did not cause them. The company faces serious long-term challenges to its business model.’ He went on to acknowledge the efforts of the general director, David Gockley, in addressing these problems, but Gockley himself called his company ‘seriously out of balance’.
Closer to home, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona has also had to take unprecedented action, and announced that its new season (see Coming Events, p. 479) will begin in October, one month later than usual. Attempting to avoid further layoffs after recent staff cuts, it is looking at raising ticket prices for its more popular productions, all in response to a gradual 30 per cent cut in theatre subsidies from Spain’s culture ministry—and a 15 per cent cut from the Catalan government.
Most alarming of all is the news that the Czech ministry of culture is pressing ahead with its merger of the National Theatre and State Opera in Prague. Last Christmas the State Opera’s general director Oliver Dohnányi resigned after a ‘friendly agreement’ with the minister of culture, Jiří Besser; his replacement, Radim Dolanský, who had been trying to assemble a rescue plan that would have included bringing in Jan LathamKoenig as music director and Elaine Padmore as artistic consultant, was himself dismissed on March 3. In mid February it was revealed that the National Theatre’s head of opera, Jiří Heřman, is to be replaced by Rok Rappl (known by his pseudonym Rocc), currently head of opera at the National Theatre in Brno. With the ministry having apparently decided that it wants to fund only one opera and ballet company, its plan puts the Prague National Theatre’s boss, Ondřej Černý, in overall charge.
From Madrid to Moscow, many European capitals enjoy more than one opera company, so there must be lessons for everyone here. The liveliest operatic scenes are those that can boast diversity, and perhaps the Prague State Opera’s fault was to be not distinctive enough, a poor man’s version of the National Theatre. (Not entirely to blame for this state of affairs, it had long been starved of funds.) Though the State Opera’s glory days, as the Germanlanguage rival to its patriotically Czech counterpart, are long gone, even under communist rule—when both houses were indeed programmed centrally—it enjoyed greater individuality. Bureaucratic vultures circle whenever they see weakness: rather than injecting funds in the hope of boosting artistic output, they welcome a pretext for cutting life-support.
Rivalry is always healthy: think of the different profiles enjoyed by the Opéra de Paris and the Théâtre du Châtelet, one funded by the state, the other by the city. A similar situation in Vienna puts a healthy distance between the Staats- and Volksopers on one hand and the Theater an der Wien on the other. Berlin’s Stiftung Oper eased some financial difficulties by pooling production and other administrative facilities, but left artistic control in the hands of the three distinctive houses. It may be too late for Prague to attempt such a solution, but let’s hope that other cities will take note. Opera, April 2011 371