The Sensation of Figaro

How a little capitalism goes a long way in the world of opera

| August 23, 2007

In the past year, nearly as many Americans filled stadiums to watch middle linebackers snarl at their meaty targets as were mesmerized by mezzo-sopranos serenading ill-fated lovers. According to Jonathan Leaf of the pro-market American Enterprise Institute's American, US opera attendance reached 20 million last year, just 2 million behind the NFL's overall attendance for the 2006-2007 season. And from 1982-2002 opera attendance nearly doubled. What's behind this 'opera boom,' as Leaf terms it? Good old-fashioned capitalism. Leaf argues that both private and corporate funding and consumer-oriented mass appeal have put American opera houses on surer footing than their loftier European counterparts.

American opera's success isn't rooted in governmental support. That much is evident from the paltry funds Congress makes available through the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). In the 2005 fiscal year, the NEA passed out only $1.4 million to operas, up a smidgen from $1.05 million in 2004. For those two years, reports the industry organization OPERA America, support from the NEA amounted to less than 1 percent of all US opera companies' income.

So with such little support, why is opera thriving here when European companies have the luxury of government coffers? Some argue that the vitality of American opera is largely due to being forced to please the audience to stay in business. Kevin Smith, the president of the Minnesota Opera, tells Leaf, 'Tough as it is, the American system is good in a lot of ways... Here it's a grassroots system, and you have to demonstrate your value.'

Some also argue that privately funded American operas produce an art that's in higher demand than their more illustrious European competitors. 'Certainly the prevalence of massive state subsidies,' writes City Journal's Heather Mac Donald, 'allows European opera managers to shrug off paltry box-office numbers.' Mac Donald also charges that the near perpetual flow of state money holds opera directors less accountable to the public. As a result, European operas have turned into 'orgies' reflective of 'a culture that cannot tolerate its own legacy of beauty and nobility.'

But for all of American opera's recent success, there is little to speak of when it comes to an avant-garde movement like Europe's Regietheater, or director's theater. American directors tend to shy away from the often-alienating postmodernisms from the likes of Christoph Schlingensief and Katharina Wagner. Instead, Leaf notes,? American companies take their risks by performing operas from outside the repertory. The Minnesota Opera produced Lakm?, a little-known opera by Leo Delibes to thunderous applause, and the National Opera also found success with Leos Janaceks' Jenufa, which is 'stark and disturbing,' says Leaf.? By the same token, running an opera company in the United States might be the biggest artistic risk of all. Luckily, Leaf and Mac Donald suggest, a good business model has made opera safe for now.

Go there >> America's Opera Boom

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