Planning a Season of Opera

| May 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

by Ian Campbell

Is it the chicken or the egg? Is it the singer or the title? Is it audience appeal or the need to expand horizons? And frequently, is it affordable?

Putting together an opera season of four operas can be challenging, and San Diego Opera’s 2014 Forty-Ninth International Season is no exception. Were we staging six or seven operas in the season it would be easier because a title which is less-well-known can be accommodated in the greater number. But with four operas, anything unknown, such as this year’s “Murder in the Cathedral” or last season’s “Moby-Dick” represents a full quarter of the program.

This can be disconcerting for some opera goers who are fearful of what they do not know, and may result in their not subscribing at all, or failing to take the unknown opera. Either action can be costly at the box office, and reduced ticket revenue hurts the bottom line badly.

So it becomes a title-juggle compounded next by artist availability. I constantly hear singers I want San Diego audiences to enjoy, so even when the title is known, it still depends on when the singers wanted can be here. Sometimes their schedules simply cannot mesh sufficiently. Our productions are not “touring shows” as are the Broadway works heard here. Ours are rehearsed and performed over a four-week period, and if a singer, or conductor, cannot be here for the full period he cannot be engaged. Consequently we engage artists as many as four years in advance so that we have a chance to keep them away from the eager claws of the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden and Paris Opera, for example.

Planning that far ahead can bring great rewards such as our having four of the world’s greatest singers for Verdi’s extraordinary “Requiem” in 2014. Piotr Beczala, Krassimira Stoyanova, Stephanie Blythe and Ferruccio Furlanetto are in demand everywhere, and colleagues in Europe are asking me how we got them all at the same time. Simple: we asked before they did!

The order of the operas is dictated by artist availability naturally. I may have preferred to have “A Masked Ball” open the season, but when Beczala, Stoyanova, Blythe and conductor Massimo Zanetti are all available in the third position, and for both the opera and “Requiem,” that’s clearly where it is placed.

Another part of the juggling act is the expense of the operas chosen. Four operas with large casts, a long list of soloists, and all new productions built here is out of the question. The budget simply would not stand it. So we look at what productions we own and are repeatable, and then what other sets and costumes we can rent from our colleague companies and cast strongly.

In 2014 we own both “Pagliacci” and “Don Quixote,” each with a small number of principal roles. This lower expense allows us to manage the far greater expense of renting and casting “A Masked Ball” and “The Elixir of Love.”

Expanding horizons is part of our mission, but now and then we need to be less challenging, and 2014 is such a season. In 2015 we will stage ‘Nixon in China,’ and in 2016 a world-premiere opera by Jake Heggie, who composed “Moby-Dick,” each of these operas falling into the more risky category where local audiences are concerned. So 2014 is meant to be easier for many.

Finally, box office revenue represents 40 percent of expenses requiring 60 percent of our income to be donated, which is the national average for opera companies. So we need to be confident that we can sell tickets. The mix of operas in 2014 should ensure we reach our targets since there is something for everyone. And the high quality casts, known to many of our donors, help keep them involved, and retain their valued contributions. They want quality maintained, and will help pay for it.

So keeping all these balls in the air is part of deciding on an opera season, and it actually is fun working it out.

I’ll see you at the opera.

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