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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Opera is not immune to the recession

Warning: rant ahead!

After last month's announcement that our own Michigan Opera Theater had to cancel productions, we now have the announcement regarding the Baltimore Opera:,0,685458.story

I have been associated with both of these companies, and have a great amount of respect for both Dr. D and Michael Harrison.

Personally, I am not a huge supporter of the unions, and I feel that the highly inflated salaries of both unions and the excessive spending in the non-union areas contribute to this issue.

As a former designer, I used to be appalled at my colleagues who would spend thousands upon tens of thousands on fancy fabrics, real antiques and other items to decorate singers and stage.

When I was in Chicago, I was a union stagehand for a few months. It just seemed ODD to be paid to not work. It seemed odd to have our lunches and dinners catered in. It went against everything I had experienced to date, and I never liked it.

Another instance was the production where an audio engineer had a paid assistant, IMHO, far too much like "I'm getting my girlfriend a paid gig" than an actual assistant, especially since she just sat around doing nothing while I as producer had to pay her a salary. I am perfectly happy to pay a salary if someone actually works, and these companies should really start looking at their structure.

I am not suggesting layoffs - not at all. I spent 16 years in this industry, and am far too familiar with the "its not my job" attitude of union employees. The industry should revert back to model where everyone does what is needed to bring a production together - none of this "we have to wait until this person shows up so we can move this stack of cable, wood, boxes to that point over there."

Pick up the f-ing box and move it, ok?

I always enjoyed my work, and I made a comfortable living while NON-union. I have never been able to reconcile myself to the excessive spending, and the fact that I was once sacked from a design job for NOT spending enough.

That company probably wishes they had someone like me around now, and no it wasn't either of the 2 listed above.

Personally I think opera companies need to re-think their approach to spending, and keep in mind that what they essentially do is create a "simulation", not a reality...

I doubt highly that someone is going to storm out after buying their ticket and complain that the costume fabric should have cost another $100/yard.

And how about giving Americans jobs? Yes, I *know* that opera is an international industry, but the truth is that American companies, once they get to a certain threshold, are perfectly happy to start hiring singers/designers/conductors from outside of the US.

Sure, the reverse is true, but we all know that the balance tips far too much to one side. Offering a few comprimario roles to Americans doesn't cut it.

And the argument that the audience deserves big box office stars? Sure they do, and that is why we have the Met.

Because I love this industry more than anything else, it saddens me greatly to know that these types of cutbacks are happening.

Thoughts, comments, brickbats?


  1. I totally agree. My first point is that unions are one of the causes of the trouble we are in. They inflate the prices we pay for everything that unions touch. Don't get me wrong, unions were vitally important in the past to protect us from early capitalist greed but any advocacy group that has been around too long becomes an advocate of filling their pockets and not its primary focus whether it be NOW, NAACP, SAG, etc. Fair wages for fair work; not extravagant wages for little work.

    I am a traditionalist when it comes to opera staging so I like to see it the way the composer intended. So no updating The Abduction from the Seraglio to Mars or Cosi to WWI San Diego. But the costumes and sets don't have to be true antiques. Don't be minimalist and don't be excessive. There must be a happy medium.

  2. re: any advocacy group that has been around too long becomes an advocate of filling their pockets

    hell to the yeah - I'm in Michigan.
    UAW, anyone? Anyone?
    Bueller? Bueller?

  3. I'm pretty sure I didn't get a job from a certain organization because they didn't believe that was anti-union. Odd. They were a non-union shop, I told them I was non-union and I still think that's why I didn't get the job.

  4. All live theatre is inherently expensive and economically "inefficient."

    If everyone (stars, coro, orch, crew, prod/tech, supers, ushers, box office) were paid the median wage, how much would a production of "Tosca" cost? Would it be possible to stage it and break even? Somehow, I doubt it.

    (I also notice that it's often the stagehands who get criticized for their contracts, not the stars or, say, the BO staff. Double standard, anyone?)

    In this new economic world, of course contracts should be renegotiated. But there's a lot of hidden lavish spending in the admin and fundraising efforts of opera companies that will have to be clawed back. Corporate sponsorships are going or gone. How is that "branding" exercise working: did it ever turn a profit?

    In the old days, a big donor could ask, and get, a fundraiser to fly to Paris with her (on the Concorde!) for a little shopping. Those days are gone.

  5. Hi Sinyet and welcome!

    re:"All live theatre is inherently expensive and economically "inefficient."

    I worked in the industry for 16 years, at many different theater/dance and opera companies in the US, and no, it doesn't have to be that way, and sometimes isn't.

    re: it's often the stagehands who get criticized for their contracts

    I did that because I *was* a stagehand, and can speak from experience. Many productions have stage staff that they simply don't need, the guys who are grandfathered in on an old contract, and who will openly refuse to perform even the smallest task outside of their metier.

    i.e.: there job is to raise and lower the curtain, so they won't help a props person move a box.

    and oh yeah, I *so* agree that fundraising tends to bleed money. Don't give me that "you have to spend money to make money" song and dance.

    Learn to bid things out once in a while and take a vendor that offers quality at a reasonable price.

    Again - not asking anyone to earn below a living wage. We all know there are excesses that could be trimmed, such as the leather-bound pen sets given to donors at a small thank-you lunch?



  6. I'm not a fan of unions either. But, as you also mentioned, the administrative sides needs to be frugal as well. A lot of union workers get paid too much for doing too little, but the executives in the US are way overpaid, too. And when they lose their jobs they have golden parachutes. Both sides contribute and we're all the losers because of it.

  7. I worked in both theatre and opera for a number of years. This union thing IS an enormous problem. While the principles of unions are admirable – or once upon a time, WERE admirable, today it is, for all the above stated reasons, one of the causes of “the fall” of the arts. Also, certain people are easily corruptible – even charming, seemingly “good” people. This is sad. One of the debts listed in the Baltimore Opera bankruptcy is a $20,000 bill for a spa visit to Italy. This is the kind of thing that makes my blood absolutely boil. Opera companies are notoriously “poor” – with bigger volunteer staffs than any arts organization (even ballet), and yet someone saw fit to saddle the company with a $20,000 spa bill. In Italy? Give me an eff’n break. I don’t worry too much. I think we’re going to see major changes in the arts – they will not go away – and what emerges in a few years may be an improvement in the way we do things, though it’s tough to see that now.

  8. Couldn't have said it better Mr. P! Then again, I have always thought you would make a fine GM of an opera company.



  9. From your lips to God's ear, Opera Gal! :-}