The other Volpe puts his finger on Met’s woes

The other Volpe puts his finger on Met’s woes


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2014

We’ve been hearing some interesting remarks by Joe Volpe, the former Met chief, about the conduct of his successor, Peter Gelb, in the recent union showdown. Very interesting comments, indeed, and made to several trusted sources, each of whom asked us to respect confidentiality.

So we will. (Until Joe goes public, which could happen at any time.)

Meantime, we’ve been sent an interesting post by his namesake, Michael Volpe, the capable and enthusiastic founder-manager of London’s Holland Park Opera.

Michael had a coffee with Peter Gelb early this year on matters of mutual interest. Gelb said is audience demanded big stars, and they demanded more or less the same big operas all the time. Michael writes: ‘I felt a sting of sympathy for him when he said that; he is locked into a model of mega stars, lavishness and conservatism and his audience hold the keys.

Read the full post here.

Wagners Das Rheingold Metropolitan Opera 2010



  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    Well that is all very well BUT I am now 61 and have only ever seen ONE traditional Wagner production and that was The Ring at the MET. I saved up for years to see it and was not disappointed – it was fabulous. How many times do we, the paying public have to tell the wankers that run these institutions that we want to see something beautiful that sometimes is so gorgeous (The Met’s Manon – Ponelle). We don’t want a green bed halfway up a wall that obviously means nothing. We go to the theatre to be visually stimulated not offended. Yes the MET does – well did, have lavish productions and THAT IS WHY WE GO TO THE MET, It makes no sense to replace such a beautiful production with the CRAP one that came from the Royal Opera house which I will NEVER see again. if you want experimental operas let the students do them but for goodness sake the very best should be out on at such an institution. The Boheme, Tosca, Turandot and Aida where FABULOUS and well worth travelling there for better than any I have seen elsewhere. It is not surprising that the audience is deserting the MET as that Gelb is putting on productions that people go to once and never want to see again. If he had stuck to the trusted ones the paying public would still be attending in droves. It is his own fault!

    • Ethel Whitehead says:

      So you can see from the above just a small part of what Mr. Gelb is up against.

      That Ponnelle Manon, by the way, was violently booed on its opening night. (I was there.) The talk among the cognoscenti at the time was that a radical director had deliberately destroyed the charm and beauty of this opera. (The final act was literally set in a junkyard, and at the end of the opera, Des Grieux did not kneel weeping next to Manon’s body, but rather ran away, leaving her corpse to rot.)

      • Robert Garbolinski says:

        I cannot see how the Ponelle Manon was booed at all, the final scene was set on a quayside with a long flight of stops going down to the water. This is the one that is on DVD from the Vienna State Opera.
        I think you are referring to the horrid production from The Royal Opera House Covent Garden from 2010 terribly badly designed by Chantal Thomas which had a bad reception here. I do belive I actually e-mailed the MET management and begged them NOT to use the production because the MET audiences would boo it. And so it proved the case, replace a beautiful virtually perfect production which would be difficult to improve on for Manon by any house – by a piece of crap!

        • Ethel Whitehead says:

          No, I am talking about the Ponnelle, which premiered at the Met on February 5, 1987.

          “Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who produced and designed this production, has so encrusted Massenet’s pathetic love story with stylistic sequins and painterly images that poor Manon emerges as hardly more than one more theatrical prop in the service of a directorial star-turn…. Certainly the ugliest and least explicable scene is the Parisian room of Manon and her lover, a monstrous, grayly grim loft. The street fair at Cours-la-Reine, impossibly cluttered, featured live dogs, a tightrope walker and a veritable ‘Hello, Dolly’ entrance by Manon, in blond wig and scarlet gown…. The effect is striking, but the dramatic point is elusive. The whole oddly Expressionist spectacle throws the human drama of Manon into a secondary position…. Perhaps in part because Mr. Ponnelle’s conception of Manon is a peculiarly heartless one, [Catherine Malfitano] rarely manages to engage one’s sympathy, as Manon must in spite of her greed and childishness. Even her big dramatic moment, when Manon seduces the Chevalier des Grieux in the seminary chapel of St. Sulpice, does not come off. Here, as elsewhere, the director seems unable to decide whether he means the scene to be genuine drama or a parody of an operatic scene…. On the whole, however, singing was hardly the point of this evening.” — New York Times

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Michael Volpe’s post is very enlightening. Will the Met audience engage in a reflection on what it wants? I fully agree with Michael Volpe: it does not have to be a big star night each time. There are indeed lesser known, but not lesser qualified singers who deserve to be heard and seen at the Met. It will take colossal efforts to wean the hard core Met audience from their addiction to sumptuous, star-studded opera. The tanker indeed has to change course. Maybe a well working team of General Manager, Artistic Manager, and Music Director could accomplish this. Time will tell. Meanwhile, smaller house will use the opportunity to do daring and new things, brimming with life and artistry and taking opera into the 21st century…

  • william osborne says:

    A key point in this article is that private funding systems have a conservative aesthetic bias. Being rich does not quality people to lead arts organizations. The Met has thus developed a reputation for parochialism and superficiality.

    Ironically, this went so far that even the Met’s wealthy Board became embarrassed. Hence the moderate attempts to modernize the Met’s productions.

    Volpe says that all big opera houses are extravagant and excessive, but this overlooks that the Met’s budget is over twice that of European houses with comparable quality and number of performances. He fails to analyze or even mention that this too is a result of funding the arts by circles of wealthy people. The worst effect is that regions removed from financial centers where the wealthy live are culturally neglected.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    Richard Wagner: ‘Kinder, schaft etwas Neues’ or ‘Children, create something new’.
    What A Wisdom!

  • Hasbeen says:

    Whatever Joe Volpe said or thinks is conjecture or at best here-say. I am sure most executives have views of there successors and usually they are irrelevant. I am pretty sure Bruce Crawford had a few thoughts on Joe Volpe’s decisions too.
    Michael Volpe’s post was fair and well balanced. He knows on a smaller scale some of the problems that Peter Gelb has faced.

    • Ethel Whitehead says:

      You mean the Joseph Volpe whose ideas for running the Met consisted of a) sending out Luciano Pavarotti regardless of the superannuated tenor’s vocal estate or physical ability to walk; b) plunking down $5 million or so for yet another Franco Zeffirelli production; and c) naming things after the soon-to-be-convicted felon Alberto Vilar?

      Oh, I can’t wait to hear what sort of innovative plans he has!

  • Michael Volpe says:

    Mr Osbourne, you make a fair point regarding the size of budgets. The point, I suppose, is that one could look at the budget of a major opera house, how it produces, how it plans, how it spends and find a way to achieve the same with less expenditure. That applies to one with a production budget of say £100,000 or £1,000,000. But in saying that, I am not making an inherent criticism; models develop, so do habits and practices. When a house is as big as the Met, it takes nerve to change that model, those practices etc.

    Gelb, the Met, the board et al are there to serve the audience ultimately. My overarching point is that nobdy -audience, staff, performers, supporters – are without a role in both how the Met became what it is and more crucially, what it will end up being.

    • Andrew Patner says:

      Thank you, Michael Volpe, for finding a way to present a thoughtful reply to the automatic and automated criticism Mr Osborne presented you with.

    • william osborne says:

      Fair enough, Mr. Volpe. I also like your point that the Boards of specific institutions are there to serve that institution’s audience. In some respects this presents another problem with the American funding system. It’s every arts institution for themselves. No one provides an overview of how *all* of the cultural institutions in a city or region work together to serve the public.

      NYC’s 18 million metro populations needs at least 3 or 4 opera houses, but the Met consumes so much money that it is difficult to funding even a second small house like the now defunct NYCO. Public funding systems, by contrast, allow professionals to formulate an over-all strategy of how cultural funding is distributed. This includes creating proper balances in the amount of funding a region’s institutions obtain. Larger European cities thus often have two state owned and operated houses — a large and a small one. Among many other things, this allows for works to be assigned to a house with a suitable size.

      The downside is that small independent companies are largely ignored. They can even be intentionally neglected since they compete with the state owned companies. I wonder to what extent the hybrid system of both private and public funding used in the UK helps solve this problem. Opera Holland Park seems to be well served by this hybird system, so you must have some interesting insights.

    • william osborne says:

      I should also add that I very much agree with you that most all parties involved must share responsibility for the Met’s budget being so large (and out of proportion to international norms.) As I said many times in earlier posts, there were no innocent parties in this dispute. I’m happy to see that they worked together to find some solutions, but the Met’s budget would have to be cut in about half to reach international norms. I can’t imagine any way this could ever be achieved.

      • Andrew Patner says:

        These last two paragraphs (the ones beginning “The downside is that small independent . . . ” and “I should also add that I very much agree . . . “) contain many very important observations and questions. Thank you, Bill O.

  • Nick says:

    Certainly a well-reasoned article from Michael Volpe. And it is only fair that a degree of balance is given to the adverse comments about Gelb’s policies and the way he handled the Union negotiations.

    Yet . . . by misstating the amount of the increased spending during the Gelb era – Mr. Volpe suggests from $222 to $300 million (35%) whereas several published articles have put the numbers at $209 and $327 million (56%) – he does not help his own case. It would also have been much fairer to have added that this increase was more than double the rate of inflation and it took place at a time when the world was going through the worst recession in several generations.

    Yes, I totally agree that the Met is a bit like a supertanker and it cannot move at speed. Yet we all know the recession really started to bite in 2008. Instead of economising, as virtually every other company had to do, and putting some of their plans from, say, 2010 onwards ‘on hold’, he and his Board continued Titanic-like to continue full speed ahead with their policy of more new productions and greater spending. Doing this in the knowledge that relative incomes of the vast majority of their thousands of individual donors were declining and then to slap ticket buyers with an increase in 2012 as the recession continued was, frankly, absurd! Indeed, the increase had to be abandoned! Gelb cannot escape with a mere mild slap on the wrist for such profligacy!

    I do agree with the later comment, “I imagine Gelb, with the enormous body of private money keeping his company afloat has a more acute need to walk a razor sharp line than any of us really understands and the sheer size of his organisation means that small changes have big results or consequences.” But . . . and again this really is a big ‘but’ . . . surely Mr. Volpe must agree that Gelb and the Board were therefore quite wrong to put into place a policy of very radical change at the start of his administration. Would it not have been far more prudent to introduce change over a number of seasons, and then assessing the results before continuing?

  • Michael Volpe says:

    Some interesting replies. I agree with you Mr Osbourne, that funding models and culture make much of this debate hard to pin down. The hybrid model of the UK must at times be viewed with envy by companies in the US and we in turn, in the UK, view Germany with green eyes! OHP is actually in a category of its own since we get funding from a local authority rather than the central Arts Council pot. That funding is about 20% of our budget. There are entirely privately funded companies in the UK of course, like Glyndebourne for example. Levels of philanthropy in the US are extraordinary and I do appreciate the “every institution for itself” scenario. The funding here is under pressure of course but there are smaller companies who are given money which helps them stay afloat but it is easily withdrawn and philanthropy is not as embedded here as it is in the US so the holes in the budget can appear quickly. Much of the big private money (be it individuals or Trusts and Foundations) often follows money into the bigger organisations. I have written a bit about the issue of hybrid funding here – although it is not entirely specific to your point, it does offer an insight into how many of us see the issue.

    Nick, Yes, the figures were broad because there seemed to be varying numbers around. My referencing it was really to posit the theory that the growth indicated a period of success and development – with hindsight it can easily be called profligacy. It is only recently that the deficit appeared whereas previously the books were balancing. Hence the discussion of the size of the organisation and how even slight downturns have a major effect. I recall an interview with Gelb some time ago in which he acknowledged that those rises in 2012 were wrong but I did mention hubris too!

    I am not Peter Gelb’s friend. I have met him once. I am not privy to the running of the Met but just feel there is a wider issue here; that it is easy to look back and say “that was wrong”. A great collective enterprise like the Met can’t really be simplified and it is probably natural for me to wonder at the scale of issues the management faces when the status quo involves such huge sums of money and costs. As I say in the piece, these things become adversarial very quickly and, as ever, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    • Nick says:

      Like you, I have met Peter Gelb only once, in my case some years before he took over at the Met. My comments on his administration are based primarily on what I believe are the mistakes he has made – presumably most with the overall blessing of his Board. Much as I’d love to get into an in-depth discussion about the pretty dreadful way non-profit performing arts Boards in the USA exercise their fiscal and other responsibilities, it”s too big a discussion for this thread. Hopefully NL may open one up eventually.

      However, I have spent a part of my working life occupying several positions in a full-time professional opera company. Nowhere near the size of the Met but larger than every other US company (provided you discount the musicals now being included in seasons), and I do appreciate your points. Equally, I appreciate the points raised by the Met’s technicians, chorus and musicians. To take just one example, I remain convinced – until proved wrong, in which case I shall certainly apologise – that a good part of the overspending in the production departments was caused by pure bad management at the original planning stage. And this degree of bad management simply should not happen, if only because there are so many examples from which those making the decisions should have learned.

      Some readers may recall a similar situation at the Royal Opera House in the late 1990s in that fascinating, yet ultimately (for the ROH) ‘disastrous’, 6-part TV expose of its daily life, “The House”. As a result of dreadful planning, the production and wardrobe departments were way behind schedule for two new productions opening just 4 weeks apart – Káťa Kabanová and the ballet The Sleeping Beauty (both designed by the late Maria Bjornson). At one point, the GM Jeremy Isaacs addressed a meeting of his staff. When complaints were made about the huge amount of overtime the wardrobe staff were having to work, he lamely said, “I know. I am grateful. I assure you that we have every freelance maker in London working on the shows trying to get them ready on time.” Is it any wonder that sheer inefficiency was the cause of most of the $400,000 overspend on just these two productions?

      Thankfully, such a situation no longer seems to happen at the ROH. Reading about and listening to those who worked on the Lepage Ring and the recent Prince Igor (to take just two examples), though, I hear somewhat similar tales. Decisions postponed, postponed again and then again, all because Gelb wants to give as much support to his directors and designers as he can. Yet does anyone dispute that a manager’s primary duty is to manage? In opera that generally means allowing no production to get into such a late stage of chaos! If necessary, it means firing a production team (and I have in a past thread instanced the case of the Director of the Edinburgh Festival insisting on a new design for a Carmen production, or the designer would be fired and sent back to La Scala).

      You, Mr. Volpe, have to work on a relatively tiny budget. I am sure you would never permit your production manager and wardrobe supervisor to get so disastrously behind on your productions.

    • william osborne says:

      You describe well some of the problems with hybrid systems. The culture of philanthropy remains tentative while public funding remains limited. The continuum you describe between the USA, the UK and Germany is interesting. The numbers show fairly conclusively that public systems work best for expensive forms like opera. For opera performances per capita, Germany ranks 4th, the UK 21st, and the USA 39th. Other factors also shape performance numbers, but funding and funding systems are certainly among the most important.

  • Dr. No says:

    When one gets down to it, there are effective managers and ineffective managers in not for profits. There are effective boards and ineffective boards. The problem with the Metropolitan Opera today is they have a generally ineffective manager and a board who swallows his Kool-Aid without much blow-back. (Giving him the double job of general manager and artistic director without experience, as well as a 10 year contract was a lack of visionary thinking and just stupid business practice.) The fact that he will now be managed by an auditor and employees of the Metropolitan Opera will either tie his hands, or give him an excuse if something goes wrong, as they will have approved what went wrong. But the board also has an effective tool, as the employee board can tie his hands tightly enough that he becomes frustrasted and leaves of his own accord. I would not believe any statements the board makes publicly post union negotiation, it may not be the reality of the situation behind the scene. For all practical purposes, Mr. Gelb and the Board lost the arguement despite the small cut in salary.

  • Andrew Patner says:

    While one must play a guessing game as to what opera company “Nick” worked for, and as what and when, and where his expertise (which may be wholly legitimate, we just don’t know) on “non-profit performing arts Boards in the USA” might come from, let’s just clarify where the next rank of opera companies after the MET is in the U.S. and what they present. There are two companies that trade off over the years on their place on the second rung on the budget size ladder — Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera. In the last fiscal year, Lyric had an operating budget of $69.4 million and San Francisco of $68.7 million. Lyric currently does present a new production of a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical *after and separate from* its subscription season of eight operas. Neither company has “musicals . . . included in seasons.”

    • Nick says:

      Sorry, Andrew, I should not have referred to seasons. I meant to say the number of annual performances. These, as you note, include the Lyric’s on-going R&H seasons, and SFO has recently concluded a run of another great musical, Showboat.

      • Andrew Patner says:

        Thanks, Nick. Kern and Hammerstein’s “Show Boat” (two words, 1927) is a unique case and has indeed been presented by U.S. companies in seasons, including the Francesca Zambello production first given by Washington National and then Chicago Lyric and SAn Francisco. It has also been given by opera companies in the UK and South Africa. Hard to classify as so different from things that had come before. Some might say that it is American operetta. The Grove categorizes it as “the first musical play of the American theatre.” It certainly was well done at the three U.S. houses above and it certainly is great in many ways.

        • Nick says:

          In April the Lyric presents what I consider the finest of all the R&H musicals – Carousel. I saw Nicholas Hyntner’s glorious production at London’s National Theatre in the early 1990s, the same production that eventually came to the Vivian Beaumont Theater with a cast including Audra McDonald and Shirley Verrett. If the Lyric’s production is anywhere near as good, I’d be sorely tempted to fly over to see it!

          There was a comment on another thread to the effect that musicals should not be part of any opera season. Frankly, I don’t agree. A good musical well presented is pretty close to operetta (and better than some)! From the figures recently released by the Lyric, they draw in a new, younger crowd, many of whom had never been to the Lyric before. They might not then be tempted by a Trovatore or a Tannhauser, but I’ll bet some would think about getting tickets for The Merry Widow.

          • Ethel Whitehead says:

            Besides, adding a musical to the season allows the opera company to inflate their attendance figures and pretend that all is well, nothing to see here, our numbers are UP UP UP from last year’s record lows.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Exactly, Nick, and no not at all Ethel/Joan/George whoever you are this afternoon. It’s a chance to sell (this spring$ 71,000-plus *additional* tickets to a very high level largely to people who have never even been inside of the Civic Opera House and then work hard on getting them to look at the opera season offerings. Lyric is extremely open about these efforts and the time that they might take to have an effect on overall sales. You are, as ever, barking up the wrong tree.

  • Andrew Patner says:

    * Should be “(this spring),” the income was indeed good and supports the overall budget but I did not mean to type a $. 😉

  • Carla says:

    Peter Gelb doesn’t necessarily have to go “smaller”, but he does need to go “smarter.” One small example…There are weeks after the regular season ends that have always been set aside for the musicians to do other things: touring, parks concerts, etc. Maybe not money makers, but outreach to newer, broader audiences. And the musicians are paid to do these things. Those weeks are part of the ‘outrageous amount of paid vacation time’ that were so thoroughly derided during negotiations. They are under contract to perform during that period, and yet are paid to do nothing. With James Levine all but gone, I do believe that one thing the Met desperately needs is an artistic manager, someone who has a viable (and realistic) operatic vision, thus leaving Gelb to attend to the business aspects of the company. He might know money, but he definitely does *not* know opera.

    • Nick says:

      Welcome to the group of posters who have been claiming for some time that no one man can do the job of running an organisation as large and as complex as the Met. The organisation needs a strong Artistic Director and a strong CEO. Gelb is certainly not the former. Sadly, I suspect neither is he the latter, for I get the impression from his interviews over the years that he prefers the artistic side of the work to that of highly detailed and complex general management.

  • Carla says:

    I’m not one to look back with rose-colored glasses, because god knows management and workers had their ‘moments’, but I remember the days of Joe Volpe’s and a strong James Levine’s joint stewardship of the Met as being some of the most successful and musically satisfying in its history. Mr. Levine had the artistic vision, and the love of opera, while Mr. Volpe had the nitty-gritty knowledge of the inner workings of the company from years spent working there, and yeah, also a passion for opera. Someone needs to tell me if he ever said that ‘opera is dead’ in a published interview, because I don’t remember having ever heard such a sentiment from him. And perhaps Michael Volpe can cure me of my burning desire to have the Metropolitan Opera led by people who live and breath the form by telling me that my perception of the Volpe/Levine years is not accurate.

    • Michael Volpe says:

      Ha, well I admired Joe Volpe (and not because he might be related to me!). He just got in with it and took no shit (so it seemed to me). In any case, I am reluctant to criticise or praise anybody to vehemently since my experience of the New York scene is scant beyond knowing some of its history and rep. My comments have been based on what I think are universal principles. There are clearly many on here who can knock my knowledge of the Met into a cocked hat.

      But you are right; there has to be a passion for the artform, even if at times there isn’t the passion for a particular work.

    • Ethel Whitehead says:

      Someone needs to tell me if he ever said that ‘opera is dead’ in a published interview

      Someone needs to tell you that no GM of the Met has ever said that.

      • Nick says:

        Semantics entered the Met discussions with another poster, now banned.

        I am certain Peter Gelb never stated the specific words “Opera is dead!” But without going through a lot of old quotes, he certainly stated words to the effect “it is a dying art form.” In The Guardian interview he gave on 6 June, he stated it was “on the edge of a precipice”. The article starts,

        “Grand opera is dying along with its increasingly ancient audience, according to Peter Gelb, general manager of one of the grandest operas in the world, the Metropolitan in New York. The renowned 3,800-seat opera house is fighting a losing battle on many fronts, and could face bankruptcy within three years, he says.”

        Aha, claim the naysayers! That was a negotiating tactic. Well it did not seem so to a great many people. If it was, then it was a lousy one which pushed negativity up to new highs across the broad spectrum of the world’s media. And it will have done little to appeal to his existing audience base whose average age, as he kept on telling us, is “increasingly ancient”!

        • william osborne says:

          Gelb’s candid discussion of opera as a dying art form is honest and refreshing. It does more to qualify him as the General Manager/Artistic Director of an opera house than most anything else he has done. Opera is indeed a dying art form, even if a chorus of blinkered necromaniacs howl otherwise.

          We need to develop our own forms of music theater more directly connected to our own world and time. We especially need works that create a fuller integration of music, text, and acting. Ironically, this will not happen in an opera company like the Met that does not have a smaller venue for new and experimental productions. More of the Met’s parochialism. And of course, any attempts to change that will meet with the usual howls of provincial ignorance.

          • Carla says:

            Pretty sure that what some people consider ‘common knowledge’ (i.e, “opera is indeed a dying art form”) is not always factually accurate. (And FWIW, I’ve never been partial to having sex with dead bodies. : / )

          • william osborne says:

            Not always factually accurate? Then I suppose it is dying only some of the time. Now that opera appears to be a bit less than immortal, maybe we can go back to the the Klinghofer brouha where it can be killed once and for all…


          • Nick says:

            William, what an extraordinary statement! Indeed, I regret to say I find it is quite ridiculous. How can anyone with any real interest in how opera companies are managed suggest that Gelb’s discussion of opera as a dying art form is not only honest and refreshing but also “does MORE TO QUALIFY HIM him as the GM/AD of an opera house than most anything else he has done.”

            That basically implies he is an utter incompetent! Anyone can make that statement. However, the figurehead of any opera company, as Gelb has become in Levine’s many absences, has public relations duties as well as those of pure management. And when the head of any arts organisation admits to the world that opera is dying is a gross incompetence. If anyone should be trumpeting a brighter future for the art, it is he – whether or not he believes it.

            As for the state of the art form itself, I also disagree. The history of opera is full of great works which opera companies are and should be presenting regularly. That’s the same as theatre – although the economics of theatre and its public certainly make new work far more economical, publicly accepted and thus far more frequent. But let’s not forget that quite a few of those operas we now call ‘great’ were virtually moribund for decades, if not centuries. How long did it take before the public regarded Monteverdi as a great opera composer? Where would Gluck’s operas be if Berlioz had not championed them? How often was Handel performed even 50 years ago? Come to think of it, how often was Cosi fan tutte performed 70 years ago? Rarely!

            It’s a sad fact that there are literally thousands of operas which enjoyed their brief moment in the sun only then to be forgotten or rarely performed. A few years ago, I saw Marc Blitzstein’s Regina (1949) in the little theatre on Vancouver Island. To me it was a revelation, seemingly an attempt to build that elusive bridge between opera and Broadway. I am sure the audience had never heard anything by Blitzstein before. They loved it! Instead of merely trying to find a new avenue for opera, should we not also be looking for the forgotten gems of the past?

            As far as new opera is concerned, I have my own ideas which I fear are not very complimentary to many contemporary composers. But opera certainly needs new creative infusions which, I suggest, are not necessarily built around iconic figures (as I believe you suggested elsewhere) – e.g. two of the 1950s Britten operas, Turn of the Screw and Midsummer Night’s Dream, are both superb works in my view. We also need to accept – like it or not – that many of the more traditional audiences need time to accept more recent compositions.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Thanks again to Nick! (Although I am sure that *everyone* in that Vancouver Island audience had heard various performances of a little 1928 German song that Marc Blitzstein rewrote as “Mack the Knife” and that a number of them had also heard or seen Blitzstein’s 1952-54 standard English-language reworking of “The Threepenny Opera” as a whole. 😉 )

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Thank you for responding without accusations, Bill. It is indeed a great shame that there are cities with little or no serious opera.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            The Pforzheim visit and operetta sound like great fun. I can certainly believe the quality of the orchestra. We hear his often in the U.S. with symphony orchestras (no, not opera companies) in such places with populations of just ten or twenty thousand such as Waukesha, Wisconsin, or Marion, Indiana. The conductor of the Lucerne (which has 555 seats) Cenerentola was probably Howard Arman who has been music director there for the past three seasons. Not sure if he is continuing:

            Lucerne is extremely wealthy as you note, in both raw terms and, especially, per capita. And in addition to cantonal and city support, the banks and other firms there provide tremendous funding and in-kind support (even sponsored physical therapy and sports medicine for the artists!) to the house. The list of “sponsors and patrons” takes up three computer screens:

          • william osborne says:

            In 2010 (the last year for which I find numbers) government arts funding in Switzerland was 1,855,973,339 Euros. That’s $2.4 billion for 8 million people, or $303 per capita. Combined Federal, state, and municipal funding in the USA for the same year was $3.60 – about 1% of the Swiss sum.

            That’s why Switzerland ranks 2nd in the world for opera performances per capita and the USA 39th.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            No doubt! And bully for them. A very different sort of country than many others and a very wealthy one. It will be interesting to see how these things go as the Swiss deal with their mixed feelings about immigration, “Europe,” a changing society, etc. It would also be interesting to know: the cantonal and city arts expenditures in Lucerne, the total and the percentage of private money at the Luzern Theater, etc. We do have breakdowns on the enormous international Lucerne Festival, highly dependent on private money and some of the world’s highest ticket prices (of course an orchestra and instrumental festival, not one of opera).

        • william osborne says:

          A dying patient cannot be healed if the doctors involved refuse to admit he or she is dying. The duty of a GM/AC is to tell the truth and provide solutions for the problems involved. We need more leaders in opera addressing the poor health of opera and possible remedies. We need honest discussion. This would include noting the massive loss of status and position opera has faced in society over the last century.

          This is especially true for opera in America which tends to hide its extreme poverty and lack of innovation behind a market facade that borders on fraud — like San Diego claiming to be be world class when it only did 15 performances per year, like Chicago ranking 97th in the world for opera performances year, like the USA ranking 39th for performances per capita, like so many of our companies working with pickup musicians in rental facilities for two or three productions a year, like Boston claiming to be such a cultured city when it ranks 252nd, etc. So I believe the future of opera (and other forms of music theater) will be found in less PR and more truth. Our patient is mortally ill. Gelb is right, and I suspect his sudden and beneficial outburst of honesty was a slip of the tongue made under duress…

          Other than that, I agree with you about our unnecessarily limited repertoire and the value of Britten’s work.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Bill O.: Your obsessive repeating of this wacky nonsense about these “rankings” by “numbers of performances” — Chicago 97th, your cousin Stanley 304th, Bermuda 11th, the world’s cultural capital except for its blatant artistic sexism and racism Vienna NUMBER 1 — make it very hard for anyone — not just your perceived-as-right-wing fellow American — to take the serious things that you do have to say seriously. Really, do you ever attend or perform in the opera in the U.S.? Do you ever meet or talk with the audience members, critics, board members, teachers, artists, intendants? Is it really 3,527th in the world? Do you ever engage in conversation or exchange? Or do you just insult — or perhaps accurately describe — all of us as frauds and idiots? It’s a real headscratcher. Sad even.

          • Nick says:

            Thanks for that information, Andrew. I had never heard of Blitzstein before friends took me to see Regina. Since I enjoyed it, I should have taken the time to learn more about him and his work. I certainly had no idea about his rewriting of The Threepenny Opera. I note that the Musical America critic wrote of the translation, “The Blitzstein text is a glorious success . . . the song lyrics border on the miraculous.” Why do we not hear more of his works?

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Nick, I am sure you have heard the full “Threepenny.” The Decca recording of the original NYC production (with Lotte Lenya, Jo Sullivan, Charlotte Rae, Bea Arthur, Ed Asner, et al.) is a classic and has never been out of print in 60 years:

            Blitzstein himself — a complicated subject: leftist, Jewish, much more openly gay than Copland or Bernstein, murdered in 1964, in Martinique, at 58, in a pick-up gone wrong or a gay-bashing. The uproar over 1937 “The Cradle Will Rock” — book, lyrics, and music — was a key part of U.S. New Deal theatre and labour history — directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman as a part of the Federal Theatre Project. (It also inspired the 1999 fictionalized Tim Robbins Hollywood film “Cradle Will Rock.”) There is a new biography by Copland’s biographer, Howard Pollack, “Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World” (Oxford UP), worth getting. And, of course, “Regina,” produced by Chicago Lyric, the world ‘s 431st ranking opera company, in 2003.

          • william osborne says:

            Exactly what I expected from Andrew. He doesn’t like the numbers so he pretends they don’t count. (Don’t play cards with this fellow.) Sorry, Chicago, 97 is 97. Clean up your act.

            And of course, I attend opera in the States, especially Santa Fe, since I live in Taos in the summers.

            One can see the Santa Fe Opera from the porch of my wife’s house. In fact, the season just closed and they rented the house out to Tony Bennett. Due to the amplification we could hear wafts of song while chatting on the porch.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Sigh. No. 97 is only 97 on a list that posits that the only measure of artistic quality, importance, cost, benefits, involvement in the fabric of life, etc., is “number of performances in a city” of each art form. Poor Santa Fe! Does it rank ahead of or behind that other “part-time” summers-only outpost, Bayreuth?

            How about weight? I would posit that both the houses of Santa Fe and Bayreuth are among the least heavy in the world. To our shame — we in Chicago should lose weight — the Civic Opera House must weigh more than the METropolitan Opera, what with an entire office tower on top of it and builder Samuel Insull’s heavy 1920s taste! San Francisco War Memorial — also HEAVY!

            Santa Fe Opera is a wonderful organization despite its number-of-performances insignificance — its apprentice program highly influential and productive and Brit Harry Bicket now on board as chief conductor. And of course a beautiful part of the world — Taos a bit precious, but for those 1-percenters wealthy enough. . . We did not go to SFé this summer, opera line-up did not grab us. But very much enjoyed our times in 2012 and 2013. Perhaps 2015? (We stay in the motel.) And we are members of the exceptional Folk Art Museum there, too.

            I am going to go on to my front porch now and perform an opera. Maybe I can push Chicago up to 96!

          • william osborne says:

            No, the number 97 posits exactly what it says: number of performances per year. The number is important because it tells us something about access, the number of people being reached, the amount of employment for the house’s employees, budgetary restrictions, and the general activity and integration of the opera community in the city.

            We also see how American houses claim greatness because they buy a few star singers for a few lavish productions with very high ticket prices. “Weight” they might call it, but it doesn’t make up for paltry seasons. Too bad so many music journalists play along with this fraudulent facade.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Bill, think about it. All that you do here is demonstrate that there is no point in attempting to discuss these things with you. Let’s play the game. Why didn’t you multiply the number of seats and tickets sold? The Civic Opera House seats 3,560. Vienna 2,100. Bayreuth 1,925. The more typical Badisches in Karlsruhe 1,002. The numbers and “rankings” as related to “access” and “numbers being reached” and, in fact, *all* of your other criteria, would come out completely differently. What is your expert knowledge about any of these things beyond these ranking lists? About outreach, community involvement, integration, varied and smaller opera companies and productions?

            And what cities are you even talking about with these “few star singers” and “few lavish productions” and “paltry seasons”? About pricing? Student, senior, and other reduced tickets?

            And then the repeated accusations that I and my colleagues are fools, stooges, and supporters of frauds. Did someone once hurt you very badly? Is there some reason that you lash out at people with such venom?

            And for those bothering to read any of this thread, just for the record, I have been a longtime supporter of William Osborne’s criticism of and parallel campaigner on the Vienna Philharmonic and its sexist and racist hiring and employment policies and its anti-semitic history and cover-ups of same, and of his wife the greatly talented trombonist Abbie Conant’s past battles with the Munich Philharmonic over blatant gender discrimination. For my efforts, Mr Osborne has regularly dismissed me as yet another blind tool of American corporate media and a foolish lemming. Somehow I wrote and had published by two major publishers a book on one of the strongest critics of U.S. media, the late I.F. Stone. In the U.S. my work throughout my life of criticizing elitist practices in the arts and working with, covering, and broadcasting independent and minority artists and arts presenters is well known. It is a defining part of what I do and who I am. (See my other, edited book, “Alternative Futures: Challenging Designs to Arts Philanthropy.” No, I get not a penny for sales of either book.) What’s with all the anger?

            No one but myself to blame, I suppose, for trying to engage with people who know everything and have no interest in any sort of dialogue or good faith discussion.

            Have a fine day, all.

          • Carla says:

            I’m still not over being accused of wanting to have sex with corpses. 🙂

          • william osborne says:

            Seating capacity times number of performances still shows that the USA falls behind. And that is assuming the houses are sold to capacity which they often aren’t. The Met is now below 70%.

            Since Andrew asks, here’s a sketchy breakdown of the cities I’m speaking about.

            Only 3 cities are in the top 100 for performances per year. NYC, San Francisco, and Chicago.

            Santa Fe, Seattle, and Houston form a middle ground. Their seasons amount to about 1/6th to 1/5th of the 300 performances per year that genuinely major houses do like Vienna, Paris, Munich, and Milan.

            Then come the cities whose numbers are quite saddening like Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The follow what has become almost an American norm – something like 3 performances each of 5 productions a year using star singers and pickup orchestras.

            Then come the cities that are appalling like Atlanta, Boston, and many others which come close to having no opera at all.

            That’s a rough overview. Much more detail could be added to get a more precise picture.

            Performance per year by city is only one number. Other data sets corroborate the poor image.

            +The USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita – behind every European country except impoverished Portugal.
            +We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. (Chicago barely makes the list in the 97th position.)
            + The geographic distance between our genuinely functional houses are often enormous – such as from Los Angles to Santa Fe to Houston.
            + The budgets for our houses are often very small. Major houses in Europe average around $135 million per year. The Met’s is $327 million. The Houston Grand Opera’s budget is only $20 million even though Houston is the 4th largest city in the USA and has a GDP equal to the entire country of Austria. The San Diego Opera essentially collapsed even though its budget was only $15 million – about 1/9th that of a major house and less than 1/20th the Met’s.
            + The price of our opera tickets average 3 or 4 times higher than in Europe.

            A picture evolves that cannot be discounted because it is based on widely varied data sets that corroborate each other.

            For additional interest, we might add to this that we have some of the best opera schools in the world. Indiana University, for example, probably has the best in the world. And yet it churns out highly trained singers into an economy that provides them poorer job prospects than almost any other developed country in the world.

            Maybe a limited set of stats could be “damned lies” as they say, but a wide set of corroborating data sets becomes less disputable.

            And BTW, I really appreciate that many journalists support my advocacy efforts for women in orchestras, but that doesn’t mean I will stop saying what I think are important truths about the status of opera in the USA. It’s part of a larger effort to promote thought and discussion about our isolated and troubled private funding system for the arts.

            I’ve already written a great deal about opera and its funding on this blog, so forgive me if I avoid a back and forth on this topic unless there’s some genuinely important and new point made.

            And if “Carla” smells a bit ripe, don’t worry, she’s just been having some fun at the opera… That’s the big irony in all of this. We struggle to fund opera, and yet it is dying as we debate. Much for complex and differentiated discussion there…

          • william osborne says:

            As an interesting aside here, 47 of the top 100 cities for opera performances per year are in Germany. Germany’s 22 conservatories have not been able to produce enough good singers to keep these houses running. From about 1970 to 2000 many of those houses were only able to keep running by hiring many American singers who fled to Europe almost like economic refugees. To this day, going to Germany to try to find work is almost like a rite of passage for many young American opera singers.

            After unification the situation changed because houses were eliminated and there were many good East German singers looking for work. But even today these 47 houses still hire quite a few Americans. They have also become reliant on Korean singers trained in Germany.

          • Carla says:

            “Carla”, Carla Bond. (Really.) Mezzo Soprano, singer of Early Music. You know, that vocal art form that’s even “riper” than opera…

          • william osborne says:

            Thanks for letting us know your name. I admire your work. At what point does music become “early music” — something we consciously perform and listen to as a historical practice, something from another era and worldview? Isn’t a lot of opera like that, hence all the Regietheater to make it seem new? Isn’t Regietheater a kind of apology for our cultural death, a campy sort of necrophilia? Isn’t it important that we at least try to find a music theater for our own time? One of my many if perhaps futile efforts:


          • Carla says:

            Although your question was undoubtedly rhetorical, I will give a literal answer. The music I sing ranges from the Middle Ages to the mid Baroque. It being ‘ancient’ makes it no less beautiful and worthy of preservation and performance (not, I know, your point). It is the earliest written music, upon which all that followed was based. Ironically, grand opera is not my favorite musical vocal art form. All of that vibrato makes me nuts. 🙂 I like to say that my husband and I have the entire history of music covered. I take care of it until ‘Papa’ Bach, and as a trumpet player working in an opera house, he takes over from there. (Although interestingly, it seems that us EM folks are generally the performers of choice for very contemporary works. Something about the quality of sound seems to click better with it.)

            For all of history, people have lamented that the music they have loved to listen to is dying, that all of the things being written during their time is killing all that is good and beautiful in the art. It happened at the beginning of the Renaissance with the advent of polyphony, during the Baroque with the abandonment of the very set, formulaic forms that immediately preceded it. And on, and on. It’s happening now. And if we don’t destroy ourselves or the planet first (neither being unlikely possibilities), eventually a certain style will come to define our era. Unfortunately for us, it won’t be until we’re long gone. There are composers writing stunningly beautiful music today. My husband and I have both performed the music of Eric Ewasen. He’s just one example of so, so many composers who are creating the musical legacy of our time. Some of us, however, also choose to perform, and thereby honor the music that has brought us, over the centuries, to where we find ourselves now. In a very good place, IMHO.

          • Nick says:

            William – we have discussed some of your views in a thread some months ago. I don’t want to bore readers by revisiting them here.

            I do agree with you, though, that for far too long far too many fine young American singers have had to travel to Germany to find work in their Houses. It seems Gelb has recently risen in your estimation as an opera manager because he calls it as it is! Why it is, though, that the Met now hires so many singers from abroad for comprimario roles that some time ago were taken by Americans? Why is there no sense of ‘company’ now at the Met? Even in the 1980s the House used to employ a core of American singers, some as stand-by covers who would also sing the smaller roles and sometimes take over the role at an occasional performance – artists like Joann Grillo and Rachel Mathes? There were even regular principals like John Macurdy. I realise that singers such as these also filled in sometimes on the now abandoned Met tours. But surely every permanent House needs a core of artists to provide a proper ensemble? Why, as I have asked here before, should a European be engaged to fly over for a string of Marcellinas in a recent revival of Figaro?

            But I also want to ask you about Germany. You have frequently mentioned the number of houses in the Ruhrgebiet. I am curious. How many performances have you actually seen there? I once saw a splendid Falstaff in Cologne, an average Giovanni in Dusseldorf followed the next evening in Essen by the most dreadful Entführung I have ever seen. This was a typical repertory production slotted in for the convenience of an odd subscription system and which had obviously had at most one rehearsal, if any. Elsewhere I have seen less than average performances in Berlin (Deutsche Oper) and Karlsruhe, balanced by several splendid ones in Munich, Stuttgart and Hamburg.

            As another poster questioned in another thread, the number and location of companies, size of companies, budgets and number of performances have little bearing on excellence of performance. Indeed, surely the number of performances is immaterial if the quality falls to an unacceptable average. With Germany having so many Houses, in theory it should have more performances than the USA above that acceptable average. In theory, it should also have more that are below that average. But I believe that those in charge of performing arts organisations wherever they are based can not – and should not – be aiming for the average. If you are not passionate enough to be aiming for the highest standard of performance every time, you should not be in the business. Even though it is rarely achieved, that should be the objective. With some German companies, I get the impression of factories simply churning out productions to fill a quota.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Agreed, Nick. For the past 25 years I have regularly interviewed dozens and dozens of international opera singers, stage directors, and conductors of every career level for radio, newspaper, and magazines. In both on and off the record discussion, and in general conversation with the many artists who are also friends or colleagues, none has ever referred to her or his work at any of these many regional and local houses as anything beyond training — essential training in many cases, good training for some, but training. Most of these artists are grateful for these experiences — some find them dull, makework, and grinding — but these are their “galley years,” as Verdi put it. And I am not referring to boastful or status conscious people, rather hard-working, art-driven ones. But what one hears, sees, and experiences as an artist in many — not all of courses — productions and performances at the Staatsoper Berlin, Munich, Covent Garden, the Bastille, Zurich, Hamburg, and in the summers (sometimes) in Salzburg, Bayreuth, Bregenz is something else again.

          • william osborne says:

            Interesting points and questions, Nick. I especially agree with the idea that ensemble houses have a lot of value over star houses and that the Met could beneficially move a little more in that direction.

            Germany has 83 full time houses so I can’t claim to have seen work in even a tiny number of them. (Almost all are ensemble houses.) I specifically went to a house that I thought would be bad as part of my study of these issues. Pforzheim has a population of 118,000 and has a fulltime opera house. I saw Lortzing’s Czar und Zimmerman, an operetta done a lot in the German-speaking world but rarely done elsewhere.

            Technically, everything in the house is state of the art including the on-line ticketing system. I was also very surprised at the performance quality. There are so many opera singers looking for work that even small houses have good people. The chorus was good and so routined in the piece (done dozens of times) that they were even having a bit of fun on stage with inside jokes. I’m not sure most of the audience noticed, but the cast kept things fun. What totally surprised me was the quality of the orchestra. Germany has 133 fulltime orchestras, so competition for players can be rough, but the ensemble was great, especially the brass players. I felt the performance overall was rather routined, and the staging too literal, but the audience didn’t seem to care one bit or even notice. They had a good time.

            The house was packed. It has an extensive marketing system. I noticed a lot of tour busses in the parking lot. There are a lot of small farm towns and villages scattered all around Baden-Wurttemberg (as everywhere in Germany.) Travel agencies make package tours for those townsfolk to go to the opera. Czar and Zimmerman is popular and exactly to the tastes of those folks.

            The house also does very adventurous programs like a double bill of Neikrug’s “Through Roses” and Turnage’s “Blood On the Floor” which was also excellent. There weren’t, however, too many farmers there for that one.

            I recent saw La Cenerentola in Lucerene, also in a 500 seat house. I loved it. The staging was centered around a ping-pong tournament. First time I’ve seen singers rattling off Rossini’s virtuosic chatter while also playing ping-pong. The effect was hilarious and totally entertaining. And the orchestra was fantastic. The piece has very difficult, fast string passages which were done perfectly. I forget the conductor’s name. He’s British and was a perfect example of a regional house Kapellmeister. All business, little flash. There was no way a singer could miss an entrance. And he internally sang and breathed with every passage. I saw the premiere. The performance was totally secure. I had one of the cheapest seats, but the sight-lines and intimacy were perfect because the house is so small. The stage director was also British and his wife was the costumer. I felt the production reflected the best aspects of British theater. Lucerne is so rich it can buy what it wants.

            Freiburg has a population of 200,000 and a fulltime opera house. This summer they toured to the UK for performances of Tannhauser and Parsifal in Norwich. I haven’t seen the productions, but people in the UK were raving about the performances which were apparently poorly attended.

            So I’m not so sure that the we-do-only-a-few-performances-but-they-are-good argument holds up all that well. And it presents a lot of social problems in a cultural plutocracy like the USA where the arts are centered around rich people while most common folk will never see a live opera performance in their lifetime. If only the USA had the “problem” of routined opera performances or regional houses with the quality of Pforzheim, Lucerne, or Freiburg. I know Germans ain’t too popular in the world, but there are still things we can learn from them.

          • william osborne says:

            No doubt that people have always complained that the music the love is dying, but the idea of music as a historic, cultural, and nationalistic heritage mostly evolved with the rise of cultural nationalism in the second half of the 19th century. We thus had composers like Mendelsohn and Schumann rediscovering and promoting Bach as a Germanic genius. Or Brahms promoting the emulation of Beethoven. The rediscovery of much of the work of Mozart was also a part of this. In contrast to earlier eras, the main repertoire of classical music began to move from the present to the past. Inevitably, that trajectory runs more-or-less parallel to the historical sense that classical music is dying.

            “Early music” is a little different because it is so removed from our time that it has an avant-gard quality. Maybe that, along with high levels of musicianship, is why EM and new music performers find so much common ground. It is important to curate the past in our programming, but problems evolve when contemporary culture is pushed to a specialized niche.

  • Michael Volpe says:


    Yes, we tend to run a very tight ship – but that is easier when you are not in the international public eye of course with enormous pressures so it is understandable that things can be allowed to go beyond budget in order to achieve the right show…but then…ooops. Again, hard to comment but yes, there is clearly mismanagement but it is certainly not exclusive to any one house.

    I have enjoyed the discourse with everybody.

    • Carla says:

      Same here. It is nice to have calm, (usually) reasonable conversations on these issues after the heat of the negotiation period we just went through. Thank you.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Peter Gelb has spent his entire career involved with the musical arts. I don’t think you can accuse him of lack of passion. You may not agree with his decisions but please don’t question his commitment.

    • Michael Volpe says:


      I didn’t question Peter Gelb’s passion or committment. I was making a general point in response to a comment.

    • Dr. No says:

      Would you put a psychiatrist in an operating room to do open heart surgery? His commitment does not come from knowledge, nor experience. He’s also a known hammer head, a descriptor for a business manager who will not listen, nor learn from experts or from his mistakes. Ask anyone who has ever sat in a meeting with him.

    • Nick says:

      With all respect to Hasbeen, you can spend your entire career in the world of professional musical arts organisations and yet be totally unsuited to the very specific requirements of managing any Opera House, let alone one the size and complexity of the Met. I doubt if anyone can accuse Gelb of lack of passion. However, I believe you can certainly accuse the Board of appointing a man with a massive lack of the required expertise, and accuse Gelb of considerable mismanagement since then.

  • Carla says:

    You’re right, and I’m sorry. It’s one thing to still be a little bit angry after months of public battle, but quite another to misstate facts. (Or paraphrase using quote marks.)

  • Andrew Patner says:

    *” . . . for Arts Philanthropy.” I mistyped “to.” Apologies.

  • Nick says:

    William – I am not sure how to respond to your last two posts without their getting lost earlier in the thread. I am therefore posting here.

    Your example of Pforzheim is admirable and certainly illustrates your point about opera companies being relatively close to each other in Germany as Karsruhe and Stuttgart are virtually only 60 kms or so either side of the city. However, with all respect, I do believe you have chosen an example that can not and should not stand in any way as a comparison to any full time Opera House or any full-time opera company – for it is neither. Indeed, it actually presents very little opera!

    Pforzheim is clearly a civic theatre in which opera, musicals, plays, dance, ballet and occasional rock concerts are presented in the main theatre (the Grosses Haus). I have studied the Spielplan for the 2014/15 season. There are in fact only three operas being produced and presented regularly – Tosca (16 performances), Entführung (14 performances) and Lohengrin (6 performances). Slotted in to the schedule is Rusalka which, being just one performance, I suspect is presented by a visiting company. The season ends with an open air concert performance of Turandot. So, including the two single performances, that totals a mere 38 opera performances!

    What of the other works being performed? Well, there are three Broadway musicals during the season. My Fair Lady (17 performances), Chess – the show written by Tim Rice with music by the Abba boys (12 performances) and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (12 performances). Thus there are 41 performances of musicals – more even than of opera!

    I have not made an exact count of the number of seats on the seating plan but it seems to be roughly 500. So, next season Pforzheim will hopefully sell 19,000 seats for opera! That amounts to around just 5 sold-out performances at the Met or around 8 1/2 at the Royal Opera House.

    This all takes place in a 10-month season spanning the period September 14 until July 18. Sadly, though, the Spielplan also illustrates the problems I have highlighted in other posts about opera in many German Houses – massive gaps between performances. For example, Tosca runs from September 19 until March 25. In the middle of the run, there is one performance on November 9. The next is on December 10. The next after that is on December 28. These performances will get at most one rehearsal, I believe. Entführung has similar scheduling problems, with the gap between December 14 and January 6 being the longest.

    So, whilst I fully respect the earnestness of your study, I suggest that some of your conclusions need to be seriously reconsidered and a much greater study involving quite a few more Houses conducted before they will be able to stand up to serious scrutiny.

    • william osborne says:

      I don’t compare Pforzheim to major houses – as if a house in a city of 118,000 people would do 300 performances per year.

      As you note,Pforzheim does 38 opera performances of opera per year, and 41 of musicals. That’s about the same number of opera performances as Los Angeles which had 41, even though LA has a metro area of 15 million and the third large GDP of any city in the world. Too bad that pip squeak Pforzheim is giving LA such a run for its money.

      Pforzheim also has about the same number of performances as Houston, Seattle, and Santa Fe – all called major American companies. In fact, Pforzheim has MORE performances than huge cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, San Diego, Washington, Miami, Kansas City, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Dallas. I hope you now better understand my point. A little barely known German town has the same number or more performances as mega cities in the USA.

      I refer to Pforzheim as fulltime because its musicians have fulltime positions while the musicians in those American houses do not. The Met is the only house in the USA that offers its musicians a fulltime job, while Germany with a quarter the population has 83 houses that do. Even the San Francisco Opera (our 2nd largest company) plans its season just long enough so that its musicians will qualify for unemployment benefits from the government for six months a year.

      There are 9 fulltime houses within two hours of where I live in Germany. Two big houses, Zurich and Stuttgart, do a large number of performances, while the smaller houses, Karlsruhe, Ulm, Pforzheim, Freiburg, St. Gallen, Lucerne, and Basel do less and in proportion to their populations.

      Surely you see my point and aren’t thinking I’m comparing Pforzheim with major houses. But what a strange situation that I can compare tiny Pforzheim in number of performances with huge cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas, Miami, and Atlanta. These cities should not be little leaguers. I hope you now see my point.

      And please, let’s not re-kindle the absurd argument that number of performances is insignificant.

      • william osborne says:

        One other point. If the Los Angeles Opera sold all its seats for its 41 performances it would reach 3.3% of the LA population. If Pforzheim sold all its tickets for its 38 performances it would reach 16% of the city’s population.

        In reality, I suspect Pforzheim has a significantly higher sales ratio than LA, so the discrepancy is probably even larger.

        Also I calculated this solely on the population within city limits. Since the LA opera has almost no competition and actually serves a metro area of 15 million while Pforzheim is surrounded by other opera houses in near-by cities, the ratio for people reached becomes even more extreme.

        • Andrew Patner says:

          One could mention Long Beach Opera, one of the most innovative companies in the U.S., and its general and artistic director Andreas Mitisek, who left Vienna (he is Viennese) to run LBO after having worked with both the dull and hidebound Vienna houses as a keyboard player, conductor, and stage director and having co-established and run an independent company there. But that would mean that a) numbers of performances as counted, multiplied, divided, and interpreted by one person and one person only would not be the only way to determine the significance of an opera company or of opera itself as an art form, and b) that a man who is obviously clinically insane — an Austrian who left Europe and NUMBER 1 PERFORMANCE COUNTED capital of world culture Vienna to come to Evil Ignorant America to run a company in and around Long Beach/Los Angeles and then and now another one, Chicago Opera Theater (previously run by the former head of Glyndebourne, equally insane Brian Dickie) — is somehow someone worth mentioning or who might have opinions and experience worth considering. So one better not do so.

          • william osborne says:

            LA has 41 performances, and Vienna 578.

            Long beach has 4 times the population of Pforzheim and does half as many performances (19 vs. 38.) Add in musicals and its 19 vs. 84.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            Right. And therefore Long Beach Opera is inferior to Pforzheim. We all get *that*! And obviously the fact that the Austrian economy is built largely around tourism and cultural tourism in particular — fine things! I am for them! — has nothing to do with the government subsidies and the enormous number of frequently meaningless and even dreadful performances.

          • william osborne says:

            Yes, we all know that the performances in Long Beach are better than in Vienna. Whatever. I hope readers will understand the importance of public funding systems for the arts, and especially for expensive forms like opera.

          • Andrew Patner says:

            As a matter of fact, many of the productions and performances at Long Beach *are* better and more interesting than the dullness alternating with randomness at the Wiener Staatsoper. And as another matter of fact, I’ve been a busy advocate of *increased* (but not exclusive) public funding of the arts, including opera, in the U.S. for decades. It is just not either a sine qua non or sufficient to assuring either artistic quality or variety. And there we are. To all a good night!

  • Andrew Patner says:

    As a matter of fact, many of the productions and performances at Long Beach *are* better and more interesting than the dullness alternating with randomness at the Wiener Staatsoper. And as another matter of fact, I’ve been a strong advocate of *increased* (but not exclusive) public funding of the arts, including opera, in the U.S. for decades. It is just not either a sine qua non or sufficient to assure either artistic quality or variety. And there we are. To all a good night!

  • Nick says:

    William, believe me I see your point! I also noted that you chose Pforzheim because you thought it was a bad example for your study. And you were more than pleasantly surprised. I’m delighted.

    But what, I wonder, is your study, barring pure numbers? How can you seriously talk about quality of performances in Germany when you live in a country where you admit there are 83 opera companies and yet you “can’t claim to have seen work in even a tiny number of them”? You live very close to several, and others like Augsburg and even the much bigger houses of Munich and Frankfurt are just a relatively short distance away? What do you mean by “tiny”? Less than 10%?

    I love opera and have had the pleasure and good fortune to see a wide variety of performances in many parts of the world. I have never lived in Germany. Yet I have visited many more of the Houses than you and experienced a wide range of performance quality. You have never explained why you seem to accept that the quality is so uneven, given the tendency in many Houses to throw on performances (and I mean that quite literally) with such massive gaps before and after.

    And you now seem to suggest that having a full-time orchestra qualifies calling an opera company “full-time”. But you rather conveniently to forget that the orchestras in most German Houses are “full-time” only because they fulfil the function of a city orchestra with a variety of duties – also playing a season of symphony concerts, as well as playing for many ballet and dance performances, for example.

    To amplify my argument, let’s assume that Pforzheim’s 3 main opera productions next season are each given 3 orchestra alone rehearsals, 2 sitzproben (could be 3), 3 stage orchestra rehearsals and 1 general rehearsal. Make that 10 rehearsals. Even throw in, say, 4 more each prior to those performances with massive gaps between them. So, to those 36 performances you add 42 rehearsals. That means a total of 78 sessions are committed to opera next season. Now I do not know the Union regulations in that House. Assuming orchestral services are limited to 7 per week, that represents a fraction over 11 weeks committed to opera! Add in a week’s paid vacation and you are still left with an orchestra performing opera for less than 1/4 of a year! Again with respect, you simply do not compare like with like!

    • william osborne says:

      Nick, you’re assigning me statements and conclusions I haven’t made. I would not say that the quality of opera in Germany is exceptionally uneven. Even regional houses have good standards, especially considering that the musicians aren’t paid very well – though far better than in the States.

      And I wouldn’t presume to make such grand judgments myself. I would corroborate it with reviews and with a wide range of observations form people in the profession. Journals like the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and Das Orchester are very useful for this, as well as Germany’s many newspapers. Even small regional papers in Germany, like the Schwarzwalder Bote in my neighborhood, have ample arts and culture sections. And big papers like Die Zeit and the Süddeutscher Zeitung have wide ranging opera reveiws across the country. It’s not too hard to keep up with the reports about productions. I have not seen any reliable publications taking issue with the quality of Germany’s opera houses.

      The debate about repertoire houses is on-going. There are sometimes large gaps between performances. And in big houses that often do 8 performances a week, the musicians are rotated so that they aren’t over-worked. The Wiener Staatsoper , for example, has 149 musicians. The Gewandhaus has around 170, as does the Paris Opera. Conductors will rehearse with a group of musicians only to find that many of them have been rotated out for the performance and that their colleagues are playing who weren’t at the rehearsals, or only at part of them. Opera orchestra players consider the ability to do this well as part of their profession. It’s also a big problem for new employees, because they have to sit in the pit and play long operas with little or no rehearsal and no experience.

      Unfortunately, this is an accepted part of the business, and largely unavoidable if demand is to be met and musicians are to not be exhausted. And the audiences do not seem to know the difference. The Wiener Staatsoper has sold 98% of it tickets for about the last three decades. Even with Europe’s generous public funding systems, these problems have not been avoided. It’s amazing that the opera world does as well as it does.

      The Santa Fe Opera just did the US premiere of Huang Ruo’s “Dr. Sun Yat-sen which is almost three hours long (and sung in Chinese) with only 6 rehearsals. One was a dress rehearsal and one a tech rehearsal, so the orchestra only had 4 rehearsals to itself for three hours of music. I’ve never seen a new opera performed in America or Europe where the musicians weren’t grasping at the notes like people basically sight-reading. The quality of orchestras have become so good that they can get away with this, but it isn’t true music-making in my view.

      Santa Fe premieres a new opera every summer. (Santa Fe only performs in July and August.) It gets away with limited rehearsals because its orchestra is one of the best in the world. Many US orchestras only have limited seasons and don’t perform in the summer. Santa Fe can thus get its pick of the very best musicians from across the country for its season. They read like fiends and can pull off all those new operas with little rehearsal. But again, I don’t consider it true music. Nuance, intelligence interpretation, depth, and phrasing all remain limited. That’s why I would never bother writing an opera and instead explore small forms of music theater where I can literally work for years refining works and their performance. For me, music theater is far too complex and meaningful to subject it to the superficiality that too often defines today’s opera world.

      These problems are only made worse in the States where there is only one fulltime opera orchestra in the entire country – the Met. I don’t know the exact number or details, but there are maybe four or five other houses that offer their musicians a contract and try to work with the same musicians each year for their short seasons. (The musicians will go 6 to 9 months without playing together at all.)

      Most American companies work with pickup musicians who have no contracts. They are paid by the service and have very little rehearsal. They only work together a few weeks a year, and the personnel can vary each season. Orchestral cohesiveness becomes a large problem.

      Nevertheless, people will tell you that opera in Long Beach with pick up musicians is better than the Wiener Staatsoper where the Vienna Philharmonic is in the pit. One can only ignore such nonsense.

      Many small German houses use their orchestras in both an operatic and symphonic capacity. This can actually be quite advantageous because both types of work help build the orchestra’s quality. And unlilke in the States, the musicians are working together for the whole year. Sometimes even big houses have large symphonic seasons. The Vienna Phil has a large season even though it does 300 performances a year in the opera pit. The Gewandhaus works in a similar manner, though I don’t know the details.

      And even if some small German houses divide their seasons, Germany still has 47 of the top 100 cities for opera performances per year. I don’t know the exact number, but I would say that about two thirds of Germany’s opera houses use their orchestra in a dedicated opera capacity with only limited symphonic work – a model similar to the Met’s limited symphonic concerts.

      And let’s remember that tiny Pforzheim does the same number of opera performances as LA which has the third largest metro GDP in the world. And about the same number as Santa Fe, Houston, and Seattle. And more than Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, and any other major American city you can name.

      So anyway, please do not assign me simplistic conclusions for problems that are impossibly complex. One general conclusion I can make, because the data makes it obvious, is that public funding systems are better for supporting expensive forms like opera than private systems, and that hybrid systems such as used in the Commonwealth form a middle ground. There might be small variances and exceptions, and various problems and advantages evolve in every system, but the general observation remains true.

      • william osborne says:

        I’m still thinking about Nick’s interesting question about what defines a fulltime house in a city of 118,000 like Pforzheim.

        If the house did 38 opera performances and 41 performances of musicals per year, and added to that a symphonic season, I would call it fulltime for a city that size. That’s a music theater performance every 4.5 days in a city of 118,000. I give credit to the musicals because many are just as substantial as operettas, and because small German houses perform these musicals with their full orchestra and trained opera singers which greatly enhances the artistic quality.

        Most musicals in the USA, even on Broadway, are now done with a synth and around 7 or 8 other players. (The union stipulates the minimum number. I forget what it is but it is around that.) The musicians are sometimes not even in the pit but in another room in the building and their sound is piped into the hall by microphones. There have been cases where they are not even in the same building. The performances in German opera houses with full orchestras in the pit of a real opera house thus often have higher artistic standards.

        This definition is also sensible since the combination of operatic, musical, and symphonic work creates a practical situation that allows small communities to have live performing arts that small US cities could not even dream of having. For that matter, imagine if even LA, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, or Denver had a dedicated opera house that did 80 music theater performances a year and added to that a symphonic season for its orchestra. Imagine all the musicians have fulltime jobs and full benefits including pensions. That is why my definition of fulltime makes sense – though as Nick suggests, the definition for small cities should be explained. It’s a matter of practicality when creating a genuinely substantial opera landscape that includes smaller communities.

      • Nick says:

        To your specific points:

        “I have not seen any reliable publications taking issue with the quality of Germany’s opera houses.”

        My reference was not to the Houses themselves but to the specific issue of anomalies within the subscription systems particularly of the smaller Houses. The lack of media comment on that issue is hardly surprising, given that German newspapers, like their counterparts nearly everywhere, generally review premieres or first nights of revivals. I doubt if any has ever reviewed a single performance in the middle of a run with a gap of several weeks either side of it.

        Incidentally, I have also looked at the Freiburg Spielplan for next season. Certainly more operas (7) and more performances (74). Yet once again huge gaps between certain performances. The 17 performances of Tosca open on October 4. The penultimate performance is on January 10. Then, inexplicably, there is a single final performance on May 8 – four months later! Die Tote Stadt has the end of its 8 performances on February 13, Then, again inexplicably, there is a single final performance on March 20!

        I am not against repertoire houses. What I want to see in an opera performance is quality. And you absolutely cannot get consistent quality when managements schedule single performances up to 4 months apart! It’s not just the orchestra who have to remember a great deal in the interim – in the case of Freiburg there are endless performances of four other operas between these final two Carmens. What about the principals, chorus and technical staff?

        “people will tell you that opera in Long Beach with pick up musicians is better than the Wiener Staatsoper where the Vienna Philharmonic is in the pit. One can only ignore such nonsense.”

        You are referring to Andrew’s comment – and not only do you twist it, you take it right out of context into a different planet! Andrew’s only reference to Vienna is the fact that the Long Beach MD is Viennese and worked in Vienna. Absolutely nothing about the VPO! And I tend to agree with Andrew that a pick-up orchestra of good musicians who are together for a few weeks playing just one or two operas under a decent conductor will perform far better than the Freiburg orchestra at that lonely stand-alone Carmen performance!

        I will conclude by saying I do not doubt most of your figures. You are clearly good at numbers. I have also just read what I assume is your paper – In fact I read it twice. As with your posts on this blog, as far as I can see not one phrase anywhere deals with the issue of quality! And that surely is of far greater importance than number of musicians, salaries, number of performances and all that hooplah! Goodness, your passion for numbers even extends to Philadelphia having “14,000 abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and has lost 75,000 citizens in recent years.” You then make one of your staggering non-sequiturs –

        “The populations living in our dehumanizing ghettos are measured in the tens of millions. It seems very likely that the problems with arts funding in America are closely related to the same social forces that have caused the country to neglect its urban environments.”

        “Very likely?” How these two are related utterly beats me!

        • Andrew Patner says:

          Thank you, as ever, Nick. Your patience and thoughtfulness here are models of civilised discourse. This person seems incapable of discussion or conversation, at least in such a forum, and insists on distorting and dismissing what those say who do not parrot his weird numerology and pseudo-political non sequiturs. Certainly what I said about Long Beach and the Vienna State Opera was not at all what he twisted it into saying. (And I said nothing at all there about The One and Only World’s Greatest Orchestra The Vienna Philharmonic.) There are many small and experimental companies all over the world that present more interesting, exciting, and convincing performances and productions than many of those one experiences at Vienna, the MET, Covent Garden, the Deutsche Opera, Scala, etc. That is the beauty and excitement of committed, creative, non-bureaucratic, non-clock-punching art! I am increasingly convinced that Mr Osiborne is actually a character — or perhaps more than just one? — out of Lewis Carroll. Perhaps he is nicer and more collegial in person. I have never met him. He has a very nice and talented wife. Life and people are ever mysteries, no?

          • Nick says:

            Erratum: In my most recent post there are two references to Carmen. These should in fact be to Tosca performances in Freiburg. I must have been thinking of the Pforzheim Carmen which I mentioned in the earlier post and which also had major gaps between performances.

        • william osborne says:

          Nick, I could respond to your points, but as is so often the case with the Internet, the dialog has descended into bad faith and ridicule instead of meaningful discussion. I didn’t even bother reading Andrew’s latest posts since I’m already familiar with his methods. The law of diminishing returns was reach some time ago in this discussion.

          I will just note that if quality were a significant issue in German houses publications would obviously write about it and not focus just on premieres. And in any case, the issue of quality seems to be mostly an attempt to change the subject and evade the actual issue of funding systems and how they contribute to access, affordability, and the treatment of artists. Adios amigos.

  • Andrew Patner says:

    We are ALL now always thinking of Pforzheim, Nick. In fact ‘The Pforzheim Carmen’ might be the name of a revived Sherlock Holmes story or an opera driven play such as ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Cornet’ or ‘The Lisbon Traviata’!

    • Nick says:

      To paraphrase the immortal words of Professor Henry Higgins, “By Jove, I think we’ve got!” The title of this little comic opera clearly has to be “The Pforzheim Pfenning Pfiffle”!

  • Andrew Patner says:

    He knows *everything*! He doesn’t even need to read the posts of others! And he knows “the actual issue” while everyone else here will “change the subject.” The subject, of course, was Michael Volpe’s very interesting set of comments. But here on William Osborne’s personal website the subject is whatever he says it is. Oh, wait. This is not his website. Hundreds of people, if not thousands, must be lined up to participate in a discussion site that he would host! I can’t imagine why he has delayed setting one up.

    And “publications” in the German-speaking countries and regions are not interested in or concerned about “quality”! How about that. Of course when “publications” in the U.S. address anything that must be of tremendous importance, too! Except that Mr Osborne says that it’s not because we’re all . . . Yes, on this we can agree. This all petered out long ago.


  • CB says:

    Good lord boys, enough already…

  • Nick says:

    I will round off my participation in this discourse with a comment from Wagner, “Imagination creates reality!”