Vienna State Opera is financially ‘on the brink’

Vienna State Opera is financially ‘on the brink’


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2014

Its general director Dominique Meyer has given a stark analysis of the budget to an Austrian news magazine, warning he will resign if the house goes into deficit.

He said that after 14 years of stagnant public subsidies, the Staatsoper will not balance its books next season, despite record audience numbers. ‘I’ve never made a loss in my life and I’m not prepared to start making one,’ said Meyer.
He added that Culture minister Josef Ostermayer keeps saying ‘we’ll find a solution. I trust him and believe he understands the situation.’
On his resignation plan, Meyer said: ‘I’m a free man and may find myself confronted with such a decision at some point. Under no circumstances will I allow myself to be manoeuvred into a position where the conditions are not right, in other words, one which forces me to make a loss. This isn’t a threat. I’m not the sort to make threats. But the situation is extremely serious.’
Meyer said all of the house’s financial reserves had been used up. ‘We’re at zero. With the current state of our finances, we’re in a situation for the upcoming season where nothing more goes.’
He had been “ordered” to raise ticket prices. ‘It’s not something I like doing, because I believe that prices in some categories are already very high, even if they’re still nowhere near as a high as in London or Milan.’ Even so, higher ticket prices won’t be enough, he said.
Turning to the issue of the Burgtheater, where Intendant Matthias Hartmann was recently sacked for a spiralling financial scandal, Meyer said he had invited Hartmann to revive his production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
He also said he could imagine inviting him back to do another new production, insisting that Hartmann’s artistic credentials were not in question.


  • Amazing news… since the Staatsoper is one of the most successful and popular opera houses in the world, with – even in this crisis time – every night a full house. It belongs to the heart of Viennese cultural identity. Letting the house slip into financial problems must be due to government sloppiness. After all, opera is not a business being run on profit, but a cultural institution provided by the authorities.

    The house has shed what for some people was an image of a ‘conservative tourist attraction’ already long ago, now including contemporary new opera, children opera productions, etc. etc.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    What kind of fees does the Vienna State Opera pay to star performers?

  • I echo Mr. Borstlap. Record audience numbers, but on the brink? What hope then, for smaller or less well known houses?

  • G Ell says:

    I do not fear any harm visiting the venerable Vienna State Opera. As John wrote, it is at the heart of Viennese cultural identity. As such it will be safe.

    The real trouble resides at the Metropolitan Opera. Read this:

    And we learned yesterday that San Diego Opera has turned off the lights.

  • The annual budget of the Vienna State Opera averages around 100 million Euros — about 135 million dollars — for an 11 month season. The annual budget of the Met is 320 million for a 7 month season — about three times higher for a season four months shorter.

    I’m surprised they are asking for cuts at the VSSO which fills 99% of its seats. The Met is down to 69%. There might be some small cuts at the VSSO, but I think the demand to cut 10 million Euros from the budget is mostly political smoke that will blow away.


  • Orchestra musician says:

    Just to get one thing clear….is the house going into deficit (a loss in the annual budget), or debt (when all reserves are used up and money needs to be borrowed)??

    The article gives signs it could be either which is a little confusing..

  • Full houses used to make impresarios wealthy in the 19th Century. Something’s wrong somewhere.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What is worrying is that nowadays, conductors and ‘star’- opera singers get rich, live in villas run by immigrant staff, drive Busonis, have summer residences in the Aubergine, collect jewelry and concept art, while opera houses and orchestras get desparate for money. The financial side of music life has got out of balance which – in a time when classical music is under pressures from all sides – is suicidal. Classical music is not a means for getting rich, but is an art form to positively contribute to human life…. which is the opposite of parasitism.

  • jk says:

    can we please get rid of the notion that ‘overpaid’ singers are the cause of the problem?! Singers are the least paid entity in the whole business…

  • Don Ciccio says:

    What Dominique Meyer needs to do is to MANAGE! His predecessor, Ioan Holender, did not have any more subsidies, and yet left about $8 million surplus when he ended his term in 2010 – and this in the conditions of the worst recession since WW II.

  • Hasbeen says:

    When Holender took office with Eberhard Waechter they did not mount new productions for about 18 months in order put the VSO in better financial order. Holender then micro managed every aspect of the houses administration. Some of his decisions were not popular but the artists and audience still came. Let Dominique Manage instead of threatening to resign.

  • Stereo says:

    Conductors and star soloists are probably the cause as throughout the music profession. Also in this case the VPO aren’t exactly badly paid and they are the core of the opera orchestra.

  • LC says:

    Dear Stereo and all the others who are saying soloist fees are the thing draining the music profession: Do you have any idea what percentage of the pie soloists’ fees take? They are the people on the stage, making the music. Is that really where you think you need to cut? I am so sick of people thinking that singers and orchestra musicians are all just replaceable cogs in a machine and should just be paid pennies after continually honing their craft a LIFETIME in order to be at the top of their game. Of course the VPO is well paid – as they should be, as they are top musicians in their field.

  • The issue is not the Performer per se but those who have hijacked the choreography or productions of the operas. It is my impression that a post-modernist cabal has gained control over many of the Opera Houses. They are not able to recognize real classical talent. In addition, I believe that they have the tendency to anachronistic choreography and post-modernist interpretation which has had a negative impact on the Opera World atlarge. Textual accuracy is is no longer given paramount consideration. This is also the case in relation to the historical aspects of classical sagas of antiquity such as those retold by Richard by Wagener. Moreover many of the best performers suffer disrespectful and traumatic treatment at the hands of the indendants and managers. There is a real need to get back to the basics, to put on the performances the way the author/composer intended. Currency may apply in the business world and communications industry but it has done real damage to the Opera World.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The expenses of ‘modern regietheater’ are often much less than traditional staging because of ‘abstract’ visuals instead of elaborate costumes and decors. But the often very ugly and pointless ‘updating’ of ‘old’ operas indeed reduces audience interest and thus, negatively influences ticket income and thus, creates financial problems. But the Staatsoper does not have reason to complain about attendance, they have full house most of the time. If all collaborators would have the same dedication to the content of the art form, it should not be too difficult to find items where expenses could be reduced. But given the normal regular inflation everywhere, it is also reasonable to expect state subsidies to compensate for it, which seems not to have been done over a long time. The Wiener Staatsoper is not some commercial entertainment company but an intrinsic part of Austrian and Viennese cultural identity… If anything has to be kept on the best footing, it is such an institution.

      As for the staging styles and the damage they can cause to the art form: opera is not about star singers presenting their famous colloratura but about the drama as presented musically. ‘Old’ operas have their own context and atmosphere and indeed, ‘updating’ it to make it ‘more accessible’ to contemporary audiences is an idea, based upon a grave misunderstanding of both opera and contemporary audiences, who are perfectly capable of understanding plots and drama that happen in other times than their own, because opera is most of the time about universal human situations. It is the fear of being suspected of conservatism / traditionalism, which justifies the attempts to undo the original character of ‘old’ repertoire. As soon as ‘tradition’ is understood as something dynamic and free, stage directors will be able to be ‘up-to-date’ while respecting the original character of an opera that has come to us from the past. Regietheater is one of the disastrous results of postwar modernism in culture.

  • The cult of the Opera Stat, and the Impresario that is asking singers to sing roles unsuited to them is not helping here (as elsewhere).

    Maybe it is time to think about what is really needed in singers in order to stage some of the standard canon (and pretty young things is not necessarily it). The voices need to suit the roles. 35+ The age many competitions have as cut-off point is not “past it” especially with the larger vocal fachs.

    In order to protect singers and spread the roles around the available talent rather than the celebrity few, the old-fashioned idea of casting according to type rather than name may be the way forward. Fees are likely to drop with lesser names too, and I do not believe there will be any drop in standard – the converse, I think they will rise.