Opera houses face two daunting uncertainties: Reopen dates and funding from wealthy donors

May 19, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

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The Metropolitan Opera’s opening night is typically one of the hottest tickets in New York’s autumn cultural season. And the opera world was buzzing about the new production of Verdi’s Aida starring soprano Anna Netrebko to kick off the 2020–21 season when it was announced back in February.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, and uncertainty deepens as to when the performing arts can return to New York’s stages, only a fraction of the tickets for the Met’s season opener, still on the calendar for September 21 despite doubts about that date, have sold. What’s more, this is prime time for selling subscriptions or ticket bundles, as well as regular tickets for the first part of the 2020–21 season, and business has not been brisk.

“The sale of advance tickets for next season has come to almost a standstill,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, tells Fortune.

With opera fans sitting on their hands right now, strains on the Met, the country’s largest performing arts organization, will worsen. Last month, S&P Global Ratings lowered its outlook to “negative” and downgraded bonds that are part of Met’s debt of $156 million after the company said the cancellation of the last two months of the 2019–2020 season would lead to a loss of $60 million. The Met has furloughed employees and Gelb is forfeiting his salary.

Countless other opera houses are also under pressure: The Lyric Opera in Chicago had to cancel its Ring cycle by Wagner—an expensive undertaking and one that burnishes a company’s prestige—and will lose $13.6 million from spring cancellations. One saving grace for Chicago: Patrons opted not to ask for refunds worth $1 million on canceled tickets for spring performances—the ticket holders can write off the cost as a tax-deductible donation. This month, the Santa Fe Opera canceled its summer program, as did the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York.

Complicating matters, planning in this environment becomes nearly impossible. “We’re in a vacuum of total uncertainty,” says Lyric Opera CEO Anthony Freud.

All this comes on top of a long decline in attendance figures at most opera houses. Some 20 years ago, the Lyric was selling every single ticket available; that’s down to about 78% now. At the Met, its box office generated 69.9% of possible ticket sale dollars for the 2019–20 season until it was aborted. That was an improvement over recent years, but well below the 83.2% of a decade ago.

And relief will be slow in coming. News last week that Broadway theaters will remain dark until at least September 6 does not bode well for the Met. Gelb says that even when the Met gets a green light, it will be a big challenge to ensure the safety of patrons, employees, and musicians.

“There is absolutely no space for social distancing,” he said. The proximity of orchestra musicians in the pit, the fact that there are several different rotating productions every week, and the question mark about whether international opera stars can even get to New York given travel restrictions suggest it could be a long haul before performances resume at the 3,800-seat house. And lest we forget, singers are “super-spreaders” of this virus.

Even when reopening is cleared, the Met and its peers could be dealing with half-empty halls if opera fans are skittish or if limits are placed on audience sizes. “Sitting down for three house four seats away from someone coughing will prey on people’s minds,” says Rich Maloney, a professor of performing arts administration at New York University.

The Met, which had a budget of $312.5 million in the fiscal year ending July 31, is particularly reliant on the generosity of donors—it received 48% of its budget last year that way, a reliance Gelb acknowledged was “too heavy.” The Lyric also gets about half from donors.

But now, in an hour of dire need, the Met, along with all cultural organizations for that matter, is hitting up donors again, urgently trying to find new ones to update an aging donor base and audience.

Last month it held a popular online four-hour gala featuring megastars like Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Roberto Alagna, and the Met’s highly regarded chorus and orchestra under maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s direction, beaming in performances from their homes. Some 750,000 have watched the gala. Other opera companies are similarly putting many performances online.

The Met has also been webcasting classic performances every night since mid-March: The upshot of these efforts has been 18,000 new donors and a doubling of subscriptions to its “on demand” app. Gelb says the app will be the cornerstone of new revenue streams the Met is looking into, but he’s staying mum on the details for now.

“Their ability to fundraise is a big strength they have,” says S&P research analyst Stephanie Wang.

The extra revenue beyond tickets has indisputably been a balm: The Met has been broadcasting live performances to movie theaters worldwide since 2006, which, along with the on-demand content on its app, brought in $28 million in 2018–2019 on top of $85 million in ticket sales.

But the fact remains: Opera houses need to fill seats again.

“No one of these things will ultimately change the fate of the opera house, but it shows we have a healthy donor base,” says Gelb.

Not just opera’s greatest hits

Even once opera and other performing arts return—and they are not high on any governor’s reopening list—the financial strain will remain for a while. There are fears that could lead opera houses to play it safe, putting on even more tried-and-true box office hits like Puccini’s Tosca or Bizet’s Carmen at the expense of the more adventurous fare that keeps opera vital and longtime fans interested.

That can be risky, Gelb warns: “If you overplay chestnuts, they become less of a sure thing.” While more challenging work has frequently been greeted with half-empty halls, this season’s Akhnaten by Philip Glass at the Met was entirely sold out.

So Gelb says the Met plans on keeping up the pace with new productions, but, to be sure, there are plenty of the “greatest hits” on the calendar. New productions include the Met’s first-ever commissions of operas written by women, coming in a future season: Jeanine Tesori’s Grounded, which is based on a George Brant play about a fighter pilot who goes into drone warfare while pregnant, and Missy Mazzoli’s piece based on the George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. In Chicago, the Lyric will present Lessons in Love and Violence, a political story set in an authoritarian state, written by Sir George Benjamin and Martin Crimp.

“If you can keep your social cachet, and if you can keep your high quality, you can survive,” says NYU’s Maloney.

The economics of the opera business have always been tough: enormous casts, large orchestras, big choruses, and, in the past decade, smaller audiences. But Gelb, whose contract was recently renewed through 2027, sees one inevitable upshot from the pandemic: a restructuring of opera’s cost structure. That includes the lavishness of the productions that most people associate with the art form.

“Grand opera in some people’s minds is all about opulence,” he says. “But it doesn’t need to be opulent to be effective.”

While it’s anyone guess when opera will return to stages worldwide, or how big the financial wreckage will be in the meantime, the big companies are betting that audiences will eventually return.

“I refuse to believe that as a species, we’ve lost our appetite for human interaction, that the time won’t return that humans want to gather in opera houses and concert halls and reengage with live music,” says Chicago’s Freud.