Vital statistics on the state of American opera

Vital statistics on the state of American opera


norman lebrecht

March 26, 2014

David Gockley of San Francisco Opera has been delivering some home truths after the collapse of San Diego.

He called San Diego ‘one of the best-run companies in the country for decades’ and outlined a parallel decline in his own company’s finances. His figures, below, make essential reading:

san francisco opera


San Francisco Opera

Operating budget:

1980: $11 million (equates to around $31m today)

2015: $75m

2022: $92m


1980: 165,000

2015: 93,000

2022: 80,000 estimated

Ticket sales providing percentage of budget:

1980: 58.7%

2015:32% (close to the current San Diego figure)

2022: 29%

Full story and analysis here on San Francisco Classical Voice.




  • G Ell says:

    As I said, tip of the iceberg.

  • Peter Szep says:

    I don’t know what the downfall of one civic opera company says about the state of American opera. Here in New York there are 45 independent opera producers performing in a variety of venues (churches, bars/clubs, outdoors, alternate theater venues) that are not captured in the usual opera audience numbers. The audiences are packed with energetic, dedicated, and diverse supporters that are not being served by traditional opera companies. I don’t know if these audiences will morph into the standard opera audiences which are normally counted by the sky-is-falling establishment, only time will tell. I believe there is an unreported story here.

    • Janey says:

      Yes there is! There are dozens of such companies in cities all over the US. But all we hear is the “woe is me” crowd. Frankly, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and it has to stop. It’s a warped and unbalanced view.

    • Hi Mr Szep,

      A selfish question: I wondered if there’s a centralised resource to find performances by those same companies/professionals which you reference. I am asking as I will be in New York next week and want to see opera beyond the Met. (I have tried Bachtrack and TimeOut to little success.) Thanks!

      • Peter Szep says:

        YES! There is a ONE STOP SHOPPING solution for opera in New York City! I am glad to say that the New York Opera Alliance has been in existence for a little over 2 Years now, and with the help of OPERA AMERICA, we have a Joint Opera Website which has a calendar with upcoming performances:

        I think that this can be a model for other cities. We started the organization thinking that the dozen or so opera companies that I knew of should get to know each other and find ways to elevate our join profiles. It turned out there were more opera organizations in the city than we realized. We currently have over 30 Participating Opera Organizations. There are probably more out there that haven’t been counted in my 45 mentioned above. Feel free to email me if you want to know more.

  • Nick says:

    I can’t help feeling that the basic statistics offer their own solution if companies like SFO are to continue. Subscription sales were once the be-all-and-end-all of opera marketing, thanks largely to Danny Newman and his success in Chicago. Opera managements have been far too slow slow to realise that changing social habits and particularly the huge rise in alternative leisure activities, along with constantly rising ticket prices, have reduced most of the incentives for booking tickets up to a year in advance. More effort and new techniques have to be found to encourage those whom Danny Newman used to call the “enemy – the single ticket buyer.

    Yet surely Boards and managements also have to examine their costs far more seriously than in the past, and this includes level of staffing, repertoire and stagings. Does SFO really need the several hundreds of full-time staff listed on its website – all for around just 65 performances a year? Is it any surprise that a company having recently presented a Ring cycle and about to present The Trojans sees its costs soaring? Gockley talks about audiences wanting to be “wowed every time”, quickly adding he means “with singers, conductors, productions, and we have to deliver or die.” He then lards it on in the next paragraph, “I told the board that next season, 2014-2015, we must return to undisputable greatness even though it would increase the budget.”

    As Peter Szep implies in his earlier post, the “wow” factor does not necessarily depend on individual stars and Zefirelli-like spectacle. Nor does it depend on ever-increasing costs.

  • Glocky says that the San Diego Opera was one of the best run companies in the country, but he doesn’t mention they only averaged about 15 performances a year – about the amount major European houses often do in two or three weeks. The SDO’s budget was only 15 million, about 1/7th the budget of houses in European cities the size of San Diego.

    Never mind, let’s declare the SDO among the top ten companies in America while San Diego ranks 296th in the world for opera performances per year. This is the façade of fraud that is opera in America.

    The real truth is, the SDO was very little to begin with, and its no surprise it disappeared so quickly, but Americans will keep up the façade of fraud by claiming the company was some sort of big deal.

    With such small budgets, and the taste for star singers and extravagant productions, American opera is a ten ton dump truck with a 12 horse power motor. They rev it up and charge on with their heavy loud of famous singers and Zefirellism and when the motor burns out they act surprised.

    No one has noted that the SDO was spending about one million dollars a performance for its miniscule season. Americans have become accustomed to star singers, lavish budgets, and short runs. The wealthy donors get a few extravagant performances and then its over. No money left for performances for the rest of society, no children’s operas, no budgets for outreach, no educational programs, no studio theater productions, and so on.

    But Glockly is right. He will need to bet the ranch, to continue the star singer Zefirellism with his half-season in one of the richest cities in the world, or the fat cats will bolt and his house will go under.