If opera houses declare record results, why are they in trouble?

If opera houses declare record results, why are they in trouble?


norman lebrecht

July 02, 2015

A few days ago, London’s Royal Opera House announced an impressive 12 percent income upturn, reaching a ‘record’ £127.5 million.

Today, the Vienna State Opera declares ‘record’ income of 34.01 million Euros.

Both companies are, at the same time, cutting costs and seeking savings wherever they can. Both demand more subsidy and private donations.

So, if there’s more money coming in, where is it all going?

Expensive new productions, apparently.  New production costs at Covent Garden rose from £97.1m  in 2013 to £104.6m in the year ended December 2014. That’s in a near-zero inflation, no-interest charge period.

Clearly, directors are making excessive demands. Rein them in, and opera can play to its strengths.

william tell


  • Olassus says:

    Walk tall, walk straight, and look the world right in the eye!

  • Anonymous says:

    Whilst it is indeed valid to look at the cost of new productions, it would be remiss if we did not also consider the cost of large administrations in many theatres and orchestras.

    We should further look at how little singers are valued.

    The media is very good at pointing out when an opera singer is highly paid; but such instances are, sadly, rare. Many opera singers, even some of those appearing at Covent Garden, have seen their earning potential cut drastically, in real terms, since the 1970s and 1980s. A further complication is that longer rehearsal periods mean that a singer performs less often and carries a greater amount of expenses.

    Once an international singer has paid withholding tax (often at a greatly increased percentage in relation to tax in their home country), their commission, their accommodation, their subsistence and their coaching fees, they can be left with a sum that can be somewhat less than that earned from a mundane career in middle management.

    And we wonder why opera singers have become so negative about the industry that they used to love?

  • Robert says:

    The stupid thing about this is that they say a new production costs X amount – BUT MOST OF THOSE PRODUCTIONS ARE SHARED WITH OTHER OPERA HOUSES! So who is actually paying for those productions. Also, some of them are so bad they cannot possibly be revived. They need to get real!

  • La Donna del Largo says:

    The linked article does not say “new production costs.” It says “production costs.” That very large figure must refer to what in America we would call “program costs,” i.e., the amount of the budget that is devoted to everything that is not administrative costs. Thus that figure would include fees for soloists, compensation for orchestra, chorus and stage technicians, refurbishment of older sets and costumes and so forth.

    A new production costs on average £2 million, and the ROH presented seven new productions last season, say £15 million spent. There were also some small-scale studio productions, at a guess surely no more than another million or million and a half all told. So the actual amount spent last season on new productions was almost certainly not more than about £17 million. That is about 13% of the theater’s budget.

    No opera house in the world spends £100 million on new productions in a year.

    • La Donna del Largo says:

      On reflection, even the numbers I guessed at above are probably grossly inflated. The Metropolitan Opera spends around $15-$20 million each season on new productions, and the costs of set and costume construction are higher in New York City than almost anywhere else in the world.

      A quick email to the ROH’s press office I am sure would yield an actual figure on how much was budgeted for new productions this season.

      • Jimmy says:

        So then why didn’t you send off that quick email, instead of just making up numbers? And I’ll point out that budgets are plans and we all know about the best laid plans… They go down in flames to costumes built that never reach the stage, sets that don’t function the way they should and have to be altered, stages that have to be reinforced for productions, old productions that have to be rebuilt so they stand up to HD broadcasts…

        • La Donna del Largo says:

          I am neither writer not editor of this blog and as such it’s not my proper job to check facts. Lebrecht is a familiar name to the press department at the ROH which is why his email would likely be answered far more quickly than one from some anonymous nobody like myself.

  • Peter Smith says:

    I once worked in the accounts department of a well-known opera house. I remember the local tax inspector saying, in connection with guest singers’ fees: “These ****’s earn more for one performance than I do in a year, and I’m going to screw them for every penny I can get.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Except that they don’t. There are many singers who end up deeply in debt, because the fees are nowhere near enough to cover their costs.

    • Anne says:

      I trust he adopted the same attitude towards footballers?

    • A colleague says:

      Mr. Smith, perhaps this anecdote is from a by-gone era!

      With very very few exceptions, most singers today (even many who are considered “stars”) are not earning enough to support the lifestyle required of them in order to work in the industry – traveling usually during high season, securing furnished short-term lodging near the opera house, which usually sits in a high-rent district, all while paying for their empty lodging back “home” and for the care of that place in their absence, travel insurance, out of pocket medical expenses in a foreign country, the costs of maintaining relationships and family connections while on the road.

      The hardest part is that singers pay up front for all of these expenses (plus the cost to prepare their role and maintain their voice) and then are often paid late once the performances are over – so add finance charges to to tally, plus tax, tax preparation in multiple countries and agency commissions (which have increased recently). Forget any efforts to save for retirement, or even a rainy day.

      Many major houses have decreased fees in the past few years for the same roles, or are asking for donation or reduction of already negotiated fees, and there are no payments for recording or broadcasting anymore.

      Singers’ fees are not the budget line item to worry about!

  • pooroperaman says:

    Rape and paedophilia are so much more expensive than they used to be.

  • MacroV says:

    Opera, even when it’s well managed, and all the seats are sold, is expensive. A lot of things that go into it, and not that many seats to generate revenue. There is no contradiction between a house having great box-office and revenue results and still being strapped for cash.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In the past, the ROH was criticized many times for wasting money on emtirely unnecessary props, like expensive deer leather boots, real fur coats, velvet etc. where simpler and cheaper materials would do as well since audiences don’t touch the stuff during performances to check their qualities. You can produce any opera (except Wagner) with a minimum of materials.