The Metropolitan Opera has been hit hard by cash shortages and lackluster ticket sales as it attempts to lure audiences back amid the pandemic. , which have surpassed the classics in one shift.
The dramatic financial and artistic moves show the extent to which the pandemic and its aftermath continue to affect the Met, the premier opera company in the United States, as many other performing arts institutions face similar pressures.
“The challenges are greater than ever,” said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met. “The only way forward is reinvention.”
Nonprofits try to dip into their giving only as a last resort, as the funds are meant to grow over time while providing a steady source of investment income. The Met’s endowment, valued at $306 million, was already considered small for an institution of this size. This season, it is turning to the endowment to cover operating costs, to help offset weak ticket sales and a cash shortage that arose when some donors were reluctant to accelerate pledged giving during the stock market downturn. As more cash gifts come in, the company hopes to supplement the donation.
To further reduce costs, the company, which is performing 215 performances this season, plans to reduce the number of performances by almost 10 percent next season.
The Met’s decision to stage significantly more contemporary operas is a remarkable turnaround for the company, which for decades avoided newer works largely because conservative audiences seemed to prefer warhorses like Puccini’s “La Bohème”, Verdi’s “Aida” and Bizet’s “Carmen.”
But as the Met staged more new work in recent years, that dynamic began to shift, a change that has become more pronounced since the pandemic: While attendances have generally been anemic, contemporary works, including Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” last season and Kevin Puts’ “The Hours” this season drew sold-out audiences. (Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” on the other hand, ended this month with a 40 percent turnout.)
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From now on, Mr. Gelb said, the Met will open each season with a new production of a contemporary work.
It kicks off next year with the company premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and the season includes first performances of Anthony Davis’ “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X”; Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” and a staged production of John Adams’ “El Niño.” And Mr. Gelb said the Met was recasting the following season to bring back “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “The Hours” with its three divas, Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara reprising their roles. would play again.
“Opera should reflect the times we live in,” said Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s director of music. “It is our responsibility to generate new works so that people can recognize themselves and their reality on our stage.”
Mr Gelb said the company’s change of strategy was possible in part because big stars are increasingly interested in performing music by living composers. “It’s a big shift in terms of opera singers themselves, embracing new work and understanding that this is the future,” he said.
The Met has attracted many of the most illustrious singers of the day since Enrico Caruso ruled the stage, and it has hosted the world premiere of several Puccini operas and the US premiere of works by Richard Strauss and Wagner. It made a triumphant return last year after its long pandemic shutdown, which cost it $150 million in projected revenue. The public was back, although it still lagged behind. The donations were gone. And the determination of the entire company, including the performers and stagehands and ushers, was on full display: Even when Omicron closed many theaters last season, the Met never missed a curtain.
By the summer, however, the company, which has an annual budget of $312 million, making it the largest performing arts organization in the United States, began to feel the strains of the pandemic more acutely.
Last season’s ticket revenue from in-person appearances and the Met’s Live in HD theatrical presentations was more than $40 million lower than before the pandemic. Paid attendance at the opera house has fallen to 61 percent of capacity, down from 73 percent. Donors have stepped in to fill much of the shortfall, pledging more than $150 million in additional emergency funds during the pandemic. But during the market downturn, some were hesitant to deliver those gifts quickly.
“When the economy shakes, big donors shake with it,” Gelb said.
The company had avoided diving into its capital in the early days of the pandemic, as many other struggling opera companies and orchestras did, in part because it took the painful step of leaving employees, including the orchestra and choir, unpaid. But now it has raised $23 million from its endowment and can raise another seven million.
A recent cyber attack that left the Met website and box office unable to sell new tickets for nine days added to the company’s woes.
But as more private donations roll in — early in the new year, the company expects to raise an additional $36 million in cash on top of normal contributions — it hopes to supplement the donation before the end of the fiscal year, at the end of the year. of July. It is unclear whether that will be possible.
The Met’s decision to turn to its endowment undoes some of the work it has undertaken in recent years to rebuild it. A few years ago, the company announced a fundraiser to match the donation, and took steps to reduce the amount it raises each year from 8 percent to 5 percent of the value.
The Met isn’t alone in finding it difficult to emerge from the pandemic.
Portland Opera in Oregon, which has been battling a protracted decline in ticket sales, has cut its staff and halved the number of operas performed each season from six before the pandemic to three. “The situation Portland Opera is currently facing is not unique, but it is still a crisis,” said Sue Dixon, the company’s general manager, who said the cuts were necessary in the short term, but the company’s ability company to grow back.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has seen paid attendance hover around 47 percent this fall, up from about 66 percent before the pandemic, though a recent surge in sales has provided some optimism. “A lot of people aren’t back in the habit,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, the orchestra’s president and chief executive and the Kimmel Center. “We have to remind them that it is not only a beautiful and extraordinary and special experience, but also easy and cheap.”
Ohio-based Dayton Contemporary Dance Company canceled its holiday shows this month due to lukewarm demand and rising production costs. And the Philly Pops, a 43-year-old orchestra, has announced plans to disband next year, citing mounting debt and a sharp fall in subscriptions during the pandemic.
The prospect of a recession next year is further agitating art groups and raising fears that weak attendance could continue into next season and beyond. Federal aid, which helped many businesses survive the pandemic shutdown, has now largely dried up.
“We are still in this period of great uncertainty and fear,” said Simon Woods, the president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. “The need to build new audiences is more urgent than ever.”
For many opera companies and orchestras, the pandemic has accelerated the decline of the subscription model of ticket sales, which was once a major source of revenue.
At The Met, subscriptions are expected to drop to 19 percent of total box office revenue this season, compared to 45 percent 20 years ago. As single tickets become more popular and some older subscribers stay home due to virus fears, the average age of the Met audience has dropped from 57 in 2020 to 52 years old.
Mr Nézet-Séguin, who became the Met’s music director in 2018, succeeding James Levine, who led the company for four decades, said the company would remain committed to the classics even as it embraced innovation. And he said the company could try to appeal to different audiences with a range of works, both old and new.
“I want everyone to feel welcome at the Met,” he said. “Will they fall in love with every opera we do? Of course not. But I don’t want anyone to say, ‘The Met isn’t for me.’”