Theater

The Opera, Elvis, and That Which Changes Everything

In art, as in life, love doesn't pay the bills.

  • comments
  • Print
+ Enlarge this Image
Nolan Pelletier

In the first act of Fidelio, there's an aria about money. Here's how Jonathan Dean, Seattle Opera's supertitles guru, translated it from the German:

Where there's no money, there's no true happiness.

Life is just a series of headaches for the poor.

But when there's cash in your pocket, the world is at your feet.

Money can buy power and love and satisfy your deepest desires.

Happiness works for its wages. Money is a wonderful thing.

Rocco, the guy who sings this, is addressing his daughter, Marzelline, and Fidelio, the guy (who is actually a girl in drag; a story for another time, alas) she hopes to marry. Rocco wants his daughter to be happy. He also knows that love alone won't feed or clothe or shelter you; for that stuff, you need money.

It takes a lot of money to stage an opera, and in the past 15 years or so, Seattle Opera, like most major arts organizations around the world, has been hit hard in the checkbook by the economy. The Puritan part of our cultural heritage has meant that American government is basically anti-art and won't support it. The mercantile part of our cultural heritage has meant that art should "pay for itself," whether in terms of money or "positive social outcome," e.g., art that "empowers at-risk youth" or "creates community" or "brings people [of different races, ages, politics, blah blah blah...] together," ad infinitum. Pity, these days, therefore, the art that speaks merely to the human condition, is beautiful or inspiring or funny or sad or just plain great. In our simplistic, reductive, neo-Puritan age, that "mere art" kind of art can be very hard to sell indeed. Thank goodness for the passionate and innovative thinkers at the Seattle Opera who are always working on new ways to get people excited about opera, while keeping longtime fans happy.

Fifty years ago, for the Seattle World's Fair, the old Civic Auditorium in what is now the Seattle Center was redesigned as an opera house. The first production there, in June of 1962, was Verdi's Aida, which conductor Milton Katims called the "grandest of grand operas." Aida is a giant, fantastically gnarly story about pharaohs, slaves, priests, princesses, love, lust, headgear, tunes, and kings—plus, if your company has the money to do it up "grand opera" right, maybe elephants.

Five months after the success of this first opera in Seattle, Elvis came to town. It Happened at the World's Fair, in which he starred, was filmed in the same civic complex where Aida had been staged. Three-hundred-plus singers, musicians, and crew had taken part in Aida; about the same number of teenagers hung around in wait for the King of Rock 'n' Roll. Elvis had been here before, in 1957, which is when Jimi (then James) Hendrix saw him. There are two lessons to be drawn from this: (1) You never know who is going to see a show, or how or when or if it will affect them, but you need to make a place where it can happen. You may not see the results for years, but you need to keep providing art—including the old stuff—so people new to art, like kids, can see where art and all of us came from and learn and be inspired by it and then create toward or with or against it and their and our forebears. (2) Popular and "high" art take place side by side, in the same venue, world, heart. It Happened at the World's Fair was, like Turandot and Fidelio, about love and race and gender and transportation and personal and political history and people being mistaken for what they're not and being imprisoned by history and by law and having to do a job you may be reluctant to do and getting saved by a girl.

It costs a lot of money to stage an opera. No opera anymore ever pays for itself by ticket sales. But they also didn't have to when opera started.

When what we now think of as opera began in Italy in the late 16th century, it was an art form supported by aristocrats, people who sort of kept artists on retainer to create things for them privately—to be displayed in their homes or churches, to be performed in their private chambers. When public opera houses started springing up in the mid-17th century, they were still mostly funded by rich aristocrats who wanted less to entertain the masses than to advertise their own civic goodness. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, as the increasingly wealthy middle classes built public opera houses, the financial basis of opera shifted gradually from an aristocratic patronage model to a for-profit business model, i.e., you had to make money from it. This era saw the rise of the impresario, a man who commissioned, produced, and hoped to make a killing off of opera. Sometimes this business model worked, but sometimes it didn't. When it didn't, composers were dumped or felt their hands were tied and wrote listless, tepid work; opera houses went bust. (Or, as in the case of bad-boy Wagner, resorted to subterfuge to wrest money from the claws of his troubled, heart-smitten patron, Ludwig II; another story for another time, alas.)

You can't get away with that nowadays. Both composers and opera companies have to find ways to materially support their art. It costs a lot of money to mount an opera. According to Kelly Tweeddale, Seattle Opera's super-smart executive director, Fidelio cost about $2 million to mount, while the previous production, Turandot, one of the grandest of the grand operas, cost closer to $2.9 million. Like most opera productions, both of these were rented whole: sets, costumes, direction, everything but the people. The choice of performers is what distinguishes the individual production, and the people (performers, musicians, techies, staff) account for about three-fourths of the cost of any opera. Only about a quarter of the cost is material stuff: sets, program, etc. Every single production requires that the company raise money.

I am assuming Kelly Tweeddale is a Wagner fan (you'd kind of have to be to work at Seattle Opera, whose regular productions of Wagner's Ring cycle are a company signature), but she's about the most un-Wagner type of money-for-opera person you could imagine. Of income contributed to the opera, 68 percent is given by individual donors. Compare that to the less than 10 percent (each) given by corporations, foundations, and the government. In other words, most money given to the opera is given by individuals. Part of Kelly Tweeddale's job is finding what an individual donor is passionate about, what he or she would LIKE to be part of or give to. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, one of his stated goals was to eradicate the National Endowment for the Arts (which had been created by an act of Congress in 1965). It was not a coincidence, then, that as government support for the arts dried up in the 1980s, fundraising, which had mostly been done by volunteers, became professionalized. Bake sales gave way to fostering relationships with individuals who cared about exactly where their dollars were going. In some ways, Tweeddale's role is that of a matchmaker. She's not just trawling for anyone to marry and provide well for her kid, she's looking for a match that will be a happy one. If someone loves Italian sing-alongs, they're more likely to fund a Puccini than a Shostakovich. If someone wants to bring in first-time operagoers, that person might want to underwrite the free KeyArena stage show of Madame Butterfly. If someone is crushed-out on Greer Grimsley's baritone, he might want to fund part of The Ring. Or if someone likes females who dress like boys, she might want to fund Fidelio (or The Rosenkavalier or The Marriage of Figaro or Orpheus and Eurydice...). The idea is to invest in something you care about.

Where there's no money, there's no true happiness, Rocco sang.

It's not that these days there's no money, it's just that there is less of it. In June of this year, Seattle Opera announced that an anticipated shortfall of $1 million was causing them to cut back on staff and productions. Beginning in 2014, the company will produce a four-opera rather than a five-opera season, and the 14-year-old Young Artists program will go on hiatus for the 2013–14 season. The Seattle Opera press release that announced these cutbacks also noted that since 2008, the number of opera performances nationwide has been reduced by 11 percent. As Michael Stipe once sang, "Everybody hurts." I bet he's making less money now than he did in the '90s and the aughts. Maybe even Elvis, too. recommended

Speaking of money (and not having any), Seattle Opera is doing La Bohème this winter. See the opera calendar.

 

Comments (0)

Add a comment