The Sensation of Figaro

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
, 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
, ‘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

Go there, too >>
The Abduction of Opera

And there >>
Quick Opera Facts 2007

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