Greg Sandow and the “Death of Opera”

Over the past month or so, we’ve been treated to a series of reports saying that classical music, and opera in particular, is doing quite well. As I’ve commented on my blog before, Chicago’s Lyric Opera has had a record-breaking year. Opera Theatre of St. Louis had a record-breaking year. Houston Grand Opera has also had a fantastic year. All kinds of opera companies are having great years. And across the pond, several English opera houses have openly mocked the Met’s Peter Gelb for his dire warnings about the death of opera, saying they too are having great years.

And yet there are still those who continue to argue that opera is dying. Dying!

(For those who have not seen it, Charles Rosen created this handy chart for the New Yorker explaining the various predictions of death for classical music over the centuries.)

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The worst part of this nay-saying is that it is coming from people who purport to be opera supporters. And yet they continue to spout warnings and threats like a modern day Savonarola.

Yes, I get it. As a classical performer, as an arts administrator, and as a board member of a large arts organization, I am quite aware of all the potential threats that opera and classical music are facing, thank you very much. But I cannot, and will not agree with those who seem to think the art form has one foot in the grave. Not when there are so many encouraging trends taking place.

One of the more recent articles foretelling the death of opera is Greg Sandow’s The Peter Gelb Furor.

A bit of background. Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Met, has made a whole series of comments recently that opera is a dying art form with shrinking audiences. Because of these difficulties, he has demanded steep cuts on the musicians, singers, and workers who make the operas happen… although he has conveniently excluded himself from the list of people that must endure painful economizing. (For my commentary on his remarks to the press, visit here and here.)

Sandow rushes to Gelb’s defense, arguing that opera really is teetering on The Abyss. His article sets out to show that the good news coming from the opera world is misrepresenting the true state of affairs, creating an illusion that threatens to lull people into a false sense of security.

With respect, I think Sandow is wrong, and I’d like to explain why.

* * *

“Yes, some companies are doing well. That would be true even if the entire field was doing badly. It’s a basic principle of statistics. And of common sense. If you look at a large enough sample of opera companies — or shoe manufacturers, or dairy farmers, or any group you care to name — a few will be doing much better than the norm, and a few will be doing much worse.”

Here’s where I start to have concerns. Yes, Sandow is correct that there will always be statistical outliers, regardless of whether or not the overall trend is positive or negative.

But that’s the point. There will always be outliers. So his framework can easily be inverted… this is essentially a half-full, half-empty philosophical debate that very much depends on the observer’s frame of reference.

But what worries me is that he isn’t approaching the subject with a neutral mindset—his hypothesis is already well-established in his mind. Looking at his blog entries as a whole, it seems clear that he adamantly believes classical music and opera are dying. So is he a neutral observer trying to accumulate data to determine a trend, or a fierce partisan trying to gather anecdotes to persuade an audience of his view?

At what point do you determine all those various “outliers” are, in fact, the trend? The last month has brought good news from a whole variety of opera companies—are they all outliers? Is he dismissing everything that doesn’t align with his view as an outlier?

“Back in September, I asked my invaluable assistant, Caroline Firman, to contact classical music service organizations in the US, and ask if they had information on ticket sales in the area of classical music they deal with. Kate Place, research director of Opera America, supplied a chart showing attendance from 1988 to 2012 at all the larger US opera companies, taken together.”

And again, I hear warning bells. To be sure, Sandow is absolutely correct to use broader data to test his hypothesis. But I have questions about the data he gathered.

For one, he told his assistant to gather data from specific sources—did his guiding philosophy unduly influence his choices? Did the fact that Caroline Firman worked for him influence her choices? There’s no methodology listed, no listing of the questions asked or data requested, no list of sources contacted or even how many were contacted, no mention of the return rate, no indication of who responded, or what years the data covered.   Plus, I don’t know what mechanisms were put into place to minimize confirmation bias or agreement bias.

And what, exactly, is meant by “larger opera companies?” And what allowances are made for different repertoire, different forms of presentation, different geographies, and so forth? How many opera companies fit into this definition—and are represented in the results? In short, how did he determine who is in the data pool?

And, obviously, the Met is in a category of its own… so how does it fit into the sample?

Another point.  I’m intrigued by the dates used for the analysis. How were they determined?  Would a different timespan support Sandow’s hypothesis?  It’s also curious that Sandow is using data he collected in September to discuss a problem that has popped up now. This is hardly a fatal flaw, and the timing be fortuitous. But it is much more problematic that he is presenting a huge statistical view that ends in 2012—two years ago. That is a significant gap, particularly if the narrative is that opera is failing right now. The exclusion of two current years, when the survey had no problem finding data from as far back as 1988, suggests that something might be hiding in those two critical years… something that the researcher doesn’t want to reveal.

Before I even see the data that’s presented, I have serious concerns about it.

Opera_America_1988_-_2002_Attendance__1_page_

And then he presents the data, and things really get murky.

Again getting to my first point, I’m intrigued that Sandow sees the trend as proof of decline. Really? Looking at this chart I can see that opera attendance has risen and fallen, but it has done so within a fairly narrow band, centered around 1,000,000 attendees. Peaks rose to slightly over 1,100,000, but fell back again to around 1,000,000. Moreover, between 2003 and 2008 the needle barely moved at all, holding steady at the baseline of 1,000,000. Based on Sandow’s set-up, I expected a much sharper decline over a much longer timeframe.

The decline that is apparent in this graph comes primarily in one single year: 2009. But… well, everything went haywire in 2009 as a result of the Great Recession, the largest economic downturn since the 1930s. Of course you’d expect to see attendance falling. But what I find really remarkable is that dip wasn’t nearly as bad as I would have expected. The decline actually halted in 2010 and remained steady ever since. That to me represents astonishing durability for the art form—even in the midst of an enormous economic crisis, ticket numbers dipped, but did not collapse.

And from my earlier point, I have to wonder if the slow—but real—economic recovery helped return attendance to its former benchmark….

“Maybe the numbers picked up since 2012, but what would that mean? A two-year increase wouldn’t reverse the trend.”

Sandow must have read my mind. But this isn’t a satisfactory answer. As noted, I see the overall trend of this graph as one of stability. If the attendance figures returned to their former level, or at least moved in that direction, it would essentially prove my point, and completely undercut Sandow’s.

“But how did they do the year before? Really badly. In their 2012-13 season, ticket sales were only 83% of capacity, down from 88% the season before. That’s a 9.4% drop.”

Here is where my most serious grievances begin. On the one hand there is an important question to ask—what is the cause of this decline? Leaving the specific case of the Lyric Opera aside… when there is a sharp decline in an opera company’s ticket sales, is that the result of large-scale, impersonal forces? Or is it the result of a very localized case of bad management and/or bad luck?

This is a particularly important point with the Met. Sandow seems to think that the decline in ticket sales is due to the larger “death of opera,” while many of the musicians and workers are saying the decline is specifically the result of Gelb’s mismanagement.

But there is a far worse problem here. As get gets into his analysis, Sandow begins to blur three separate criteria for measuring success. They are:

  • Ticket revenue. The total amount of money that is brought in by selling tickets, over the entire year. This number is directly tied to an organization’s budget. It assumes over the course of the year some shows will do better than others, but sets a final benchmark for where the organization hopes to land at the end of the year. If the company doesn’t hit its ticket revenue goal, there are serious, direct budgetary consequences.
  • Number of tickets sold. This simply reflects the number of tickets an organization sells over the course of the year. This number is usually tied to marketing goals, but it doesn’t have to tie directly to the organizational budget. In part this is because different tickets cost different amounts. And, it doesn’t necessarily indicate who actually attends the performance—there is always a number of people who buy tickets but ultimately don’t use them, as a result of inclement weather, last minute emergencies, or such. Or, a company could buy a block of tickets to give to its employees, only to find the employees aren’t interested or available. Again, this is a useful metric, but hard to tie directly back to the budget.
  • Percent capacity. Percent capacity refers to how many people are actually in the theater as a percentage of the total seating capacity. This is the number that really makes a difference to the performers, who love to perform to a full house. Conversely, few things are more depressing for performers than working to a house that’s only half full, or worse. But just because the house is full, or at near-capacity, that doesn’t mean the show is doing well. If a show is struggling, administrators may choose to “paper the house” or give away tickets to improve the optics of the situation. Or, it could offer a wave of last minute discounts to lure people in for a fraction of the listed ticket price. There are other issues that can eat into inventory, such as stage extensions or closed-off sections that actually reduce the number of seats available. This can be a useful metric, but as a result of the qualifications I mentioned it is usually the least important metric, and has the least impact on a company’s budget.

But again, the key to remember is that all of these things are different, and don’t directly relate to each other… or necessarily to the overall budget. As a result, your final analysis will look very different based on which criteria you choose.

Sadly, Sandow seems to base his argument for the death of opera on paid capacity—a particularly problematic choice. Again, capacity in and of itself doesn’t tell the whole story. Were those seats occupied because the opera company papered the house? Or were the ticket prices relatively cheaper in the 1990s, leading to more tickets being sold but far less overall revenue? What were the total number of seats sold, and what was the average price per ticket? Was the price per ticket appropriate for the performance, leading to acceptable amounts of revenue? After all, it is possible, particularly when an expensive superstar performer is headlining a production, that a company could sell every ticket in the house and still lose money.

And, have the sizes of the auditoriums stayed constant since the 1990s, an era when many arts organizations renovated their facilities? The Minnesota Orchestra, for example, just completed a refurbishment of its home, Orchestra Hall that reduced the total number of seats in the hall in order to make those that remained larger and more comfortable. Therefore, it will be impossible to compare paid capacity pre- and post-renovation.

The point is that while obviously opera houses want full houses, paid capacity alone doesn’t tell if an organization is financially healthy or not… or relevant to the community or not. A company could have full houses back in the 1990s, but have been overextended and increasingly marginalized. Was it making wise investments in building audiences or patting itself on its back assured that good times would last forever? Was it investing in artistic partnerships or going on autopilot? Was it working to understand its audience’s tastes or relying on conventional wisdom?

As we all know from the business world, sometimes a company’s glossy exterior is hiding the rot below, and sometimes a smaller, leaner company is having a greater impact.

“The Lyric might now announce what seem, in the present climate, like wonderful results, but in the past 20 years they’ve taken a big hit to their bottom line.”

But there are so many issues going on here. You can’t compare the 1990s to today—yes, it is a different climate, and yes that does make a difference. Financial models, resources and aspirations are wildly different today, particularly coming out of the Great Recession.

And more to the point, even if everything Sandow said about the Lyric Opera’s finances—and by extension, the Met’s—was true, it wouldn’t mean that opera was “dying.” Again, the fact that its paid capacity was larger in the 1990s than it is now tells us nothing about how relevant the organization is today. Nothing about how effectively it is acting on is mission. Nothing about its artistic activities… or their quality. Nothing about what it’s doing long-term to build audiences. Nothing about what it’s doing to create a new generation of musicians, composers, arts administrators or arts workers. Nothing about what it gives back to the city of Chicago.

These are important issues—it is, after all, a non-profit, right? So why is the only criteria being used to determine whether it’s dying or not its paid capacity?

* * *

At this point, let me back up and address Sandow’s larger question: What does all this mean for the Met? On the one hand, given its size, reach and national importance, I don’t know how well it can fit into generalized trends—it will always skew the sample.

This is important. The Met should always be above the curve. As the largest opera house in the country, with resources most other organizations can only dream of, it should be leading the way in nearly every category. It should attract the best talent, of course, but it should attract the most innovative administrators, who are ahead of the curve in finding ways to reach new audiences. It should be better at building revenue. Better at meeting customer demand.

The fact that it isn’t outperforming everyone else should raise some serious questions.

But let’s say that Sandow’s trend is correct and the Met fits the pattern the same as everyone else. That still doesn’t answer the real question at hand—what is causing the Met’s problems? As I’ve mentioned before, Gelb’s administrative and artistic choices have had a far greater impact the Met’s financial situation than the abstract notion that “opera is dying.” It’s clear that his shows have been disproportionately expensive and poorly attended, particularly in revival. They represent a poor return on investment.  Using capacity, the same measurement that Sandow uses, his 16 revival shows sold less than 65% capacity, and six revival shows sold at less than 50% capacity.

Is that due to the decline of opera? Or simply bad choices?

And related to that, what will do more to right the ship: stopping these bad managerial decisions, or simply forcing union workers to take a pay cut?

* * *

So in the end, I am not convinced by Sandow’s presentation. In fact, I suspect that he has fallen into the same trap he warns us about… cherry picking facts and ignoring a larger context.

I see an art form that has had ups and downs, but has remained remarkably secure over time. Looking at Sandow’s own data, I am encouraged by opera’s resiliency; it has successfully adjusted to the Great Recession and based on many examples, has begun to thrive again.

To me, the glass is more than half-full.

 

Xochipilli

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10 thoughts on “Greg Sandow and the “Death of Opera”

  1. I think there are two issues that should be considered in this larger discussion of “the death of opera.” The first part is about money. Regardless of any other condition, if you have enough money you will sustain the institution of opera. Frankly with enough money you’ll sustain just about any institution. If the Met continued to have the funding to cover all of it’s budget, we wouldn’t even be talking about the Gelb era in this context. However, it’s not just the Met that seems to be suffering. Several regional companies in the U.S., like San Diego, have gone belly-up, even larger companies like the NYCO are now gone. There is something systemic in U.S. opera production that is different than in decades past. You can’t deny that. And U.S. opera, while not-for-profit, can’t rely on the stability of public funding like in so many of the European houses. When the rich feel free to share their largess, like in the 1990s, opera companies are on fine footing. When not, like in the 2000s, the industry must shrink. Some companies are working to slim operations while others have had to fold altogether. In this context, opera is like any other business, growing and shrinking in the business cycle as wealthy patrons allow for.

    But a second consideration in looking at the “death of opera” is the art form itself. The conversation around the art always make it seem that we’re talking about something that is of the present moment. We consider the “death” of opera as if it’s an art form that is still alive. If you checked most companies programming for the next decade You’ll see all the biggest hits from the 19th century, constantly regurgitated with the occasional step into a modern work, and by modern work I mean not written later than 1930. And then once in a while you’ll get a rare, fairly recent work, and by recent work I mean something with unlistenable modern music about an old-timey or abstract subject. The art form of opera isn’t “alive.” It’s more like a very pretty zombie, maybe Meryl Streep or Goldie Hawn from Death Becomes Her.

    It might sound like I don’t like opera, but I do, very much, and so much so to be an advocate of wishing the demise of every opera company right now. And it’s simply for the two reasons I mention above. The overwhelming majority of money going into productions are to support the past of opera. Opera “died” a long time ago. What we fund and sustain now is history, not a vibrant future. It’s like the Colonial Williamsburg of the arts, ye olde opera with “interpreters” not singers. I don’t think there can be a “future” or opera without letting go of the old conventions and production philosophy. Put money into new works, things that are musically interesting and compelling (not challenging), about modern (not abstract) subjects that move the art form into a new century. There’s nothing wrong with historical operas, we all love to listen to them, but I don’t know of any other art form so frozen in time that it would jeapordize it’s very existence in refusing to move forward.

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    • San Diego and NYCO had SERIOUS board issues and that is what caused their problems. San Diego, in fact, has been resuscitated with new leadership and broad audience input. Many other smaller and innovative houses are having great success, in part because they are “letting go of the old conventions and production philosophy” and “putting money into new works”. But why must they be “modern” subjects? Those are ephemeral and basically riffs off whatever is timeless – has been timeless for centuries, and which continues to fascinate audiences. “Frozen in time”? I’m curious to know what houses you frequent.

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      • Sarah, my degrees are in classical music and I worked in arts administration for an A/B level house once upon a time. I’m familiar with the business operations of major opera organizations and the politics behind the scenes. The issues you bring up always bring me back to some fundamentals I wish would change.

        Re board issues, my hope is that we get back more to a per production model, attempting to rely more on ticket sales than wealthy donors. I think an investor/ticket model, a la Broadway or film production, though still with the potential influence of that money on the artistic integrity of a show, comes with less drama and personal indulgences owed to a board and guilds for a set repertory season. You can’t ruin a company and all production efforts when the producing company is not the funding source.

        The main reason I suggest looking to more contemporary subject matter is that the breadth of operas are so old fashioned and that modern audiences would connect better with contemporary subjects. Some of the most vibrant periods of opera focused on contemporary subjects (verismo) and the most popular operas used contemporary subject matter. In an age of 24/7 news, it seems the freshest subject matter acceptable are 40-50 years out of date movie stories (Dead Man Walking, Dolores Claiborne), wildly fantastic (The Tempest, Mittwoch aus Licht), blithely popular (Jerry Springer, Anna Nicole) or even futuristic (Dog Days). Timeless stories are the ideal, like you say, so it fascinates me why contemporary librettists and composers are determined to set their stories in out-of-date or fantastic settings.

        But finally, mostly, we have to start creating operas that are lovable. I don’t understand the determination of modern composers to create such ugly, unlistenable “music.” I’m always challenged on this part but there’s no way around it. Opera as an art form would have failed long ago if it only produced recently written pieces of the modern era. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century with the big split between “popular” music and “classical” music, the idea of creating pieces for enjoyment was lost in the intellectualism and atonality of the era. It’s like composers were determined to show the worth of their compositions by how challenging it was. And this applies to librettos as well. The affected imagery and allusions are to the point of the ridiculous. It’s like the whole idea of telling a story is just an incidental inconvenience when writing a modern opera.

        Maybe the answer is differentiating between “classical” opera companies with emphasis on the old war horses, and “contemporary” opera companies with different production models, analogous to an art museum and an art gallery, a classical ballet company and a modern dance ensemble. Who knows? However, to me, all the signs that opera companies as we have known them are on a precipice, if not over the edge already, are viscerally evident.

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      • Hello, and thanks for your thoughtful remarks.

        And as I mentioned in my piece, I think some of our differences are a matter of perspective. I concur there are problems and serious threats out there, but I see the glass as half-full.

        The San Diego Opera’s meltdown, for example, actually gives me hope that opera is most certainly not dead. For those who hadn’t followed that messy saga, it was a story of a talented, well-established leader who was having his established model work out… and thus decided to scrap the whole company. He convinced the board leadership to go along with his idea, and give him a hefty payout, too. If opera were truly dead, or even dead in San Diego, that would have been the end of it—everyone would have sorrowfully nodded their heads and moved on.

        But they didn’t. The community rose up and demanded a second opinion. Pressure mounted to have a serious discussion about the situation and see if a solution could be found. When it became clear that the CEO and board leadership were standing in the way, publish pressure forced them aside.

        And then it got really interesting. New leadership gathered all stakeholders together and said, “how do we make this work?” Everything was put on the table. And after hard work, concessions, and a new understanding, the opera company was re-born. And it was re-born using a different model to ensure it could survive into the future.

        Again, this wasn’t a bailout. It was a collective action that created a new company more in tune with the community’s needs and desires.

        And there are other successes. Above, I mentioned the record-breaking years in St. Louis, Chicago, and Houston. But I have to mention my hometown company, the Minnesota Opera, too. They have been very committed to presenting new works, and in fact their recent production of Kevin Puts’ Silent Night won the Pulitzer for music. It has achieved such distinction in this area that just last Thursday the Opera announce that it will receive a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support upcoming commissions of The Manchurian Candidate, The Shining and Dinner at Eight. So there is new work being done out there.

        I think to your larger point, it begs the question of what constitutes “death.” I agree that opera as an art form isn’t as popular and influential now as it was in, say, 1900. But does that mean it’s dead? I’m not convinced. As I’ve said, there is much good news out there, and clearly people are still interested in performing and attending operas. Yes, we need to modernize the financial/administrative models that support them, and yes that is a Herculean task, but I believe it can be done. And in many places, it is being done.

        Regarding your follow up post… I’m intrigued by your thoughts. Verismo certainly was a vibrant style, and many operas written in that “ripped from the headlines” format remain popular today. But one could argue that mythology has played a much larger part in shaping operas since the 1700s. By and large, people didn’t believe in those gods or supernatural beings… but does that mean those operas weren’t relevant when they were first performed? I’d argue no—Wagner’s Ring, Dvořák’s Rusalka, and Berlioz’s Les Troyens were all using mythology to explore highly topical debates about nationalism, foreigners, and community. I’d argue further that cloaking these ideas in ancient myths actually helped people talk about these topics because the subject matter wasn’t as immediate—in times of social transformation and official censorship, it was safer to have a legendary character sing those lines rather than a contemporary one. For this same reason, it was easier for Star Trek in the 1960s to deal with racism by working in stories of multi-colored aliens from other worlds.

        And regarding a contemporary opera I just mentioned above, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night deals with the Christmas Truce in the trenches of WWI. Hardly a current topic. But by doing so, he is able to explore the ideas of shared humanity, the injustice of war and the need for cross-cultural communication. If he were to try this same story in Iraq, it would immediately get caught in the cross-fire of contemporary politics. Just look what happened to The Death of Klinghoffer.

        For these reasons, I don’t mind that current operas are being based on slightly older stories. Dead Man Walking might be a bit out of date, but its subject matter isn’t. We still wrestle with the death penalty, the true goal of prison, and the idea of justice.

        I would say, do you have thoughts on the opera Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán? Intriguing in that the story itself is done in the magical realism so common to contemporary Latin American literature (like Gabriel García Márquez), with lush harmonies and soaring melodies. It was a huge hit when the Houston Grand Opera premiered it a few years back.

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