Is America’s third opera company changing its DNA?

Is America’s third opera company changing its DNA?


norman lebrecht

July 31, 2015

Questions have been asked about Chicago Lyric Opera ever since it failed to produce the usual financial returns at the close of its season.

Fears have increased since word leaked that the company is putting on cabaret shows in the run-up to Christmas, traditionally a busy time for family-suitable operas.

What’s up at the Lyric? We await those delayed balance sheets in trepidation.




  • Christy says:

    What is the second company? I thought Chicago Lyric was considered the second? San Francisco?

    I love all of these new initiatives. It’s about time opera houses joined the community fully instead of sitting there like monuments from the past.

  • william osborne says:

    Ha! Chicago is America’s 3rd and the world’s 82nd.

    I notice that Chicago has edged ahead of San Francisco for performances per year. Broad shouldered Chicago now ranks a puny 82nd in the world for opera performances per year, and mega-rich San Francisco a whimpering 89th. Both cities are outranked by smaller European cities like Regensburg, Karlruhe, Linz, Nuremburg, Novosibirsk, Lubeck, Brno, Bremen, Wiesbaden, Kassel, Perm, etc.

    Speight Jenkins, the former Director of the Seattle Opera, has a blog on ArtsJournal. He mentioned a recent Ring production in Sofia, Bulgaria. In a comment, I noted that the average monthly income in Bulgaria is only 356 Euros ($390,) but that Sofia ranks 91st in the world for opera performances per year, while wealthy Seattle ranks 258th.

    He blocked my comment. Too much reality for the American opera community’s fraudulent facade.

  • GONZALEZ says:

    The obvious possible reason for Mr. Jenkins’ censorship is that as the former Director of the Seattle Opera he was (is?) once rather part of that facade instead of being part of a solution. Conveniently so, perhaps.
    On the other hand, for as nice as it may sound that some opera companies around the world (with insulting low salaries) put on a considerably bigger number of performances per year than any American company, not everything is bright and shiny. The Opera in Ruse, Bulgaria has an even lower average salary at around 300 euros per month and I know in fact that they have absolutely no vacation period whatsoever, having daily double rehearsals and working from Monday through Monday. They work ALL YEAR LONG! They even play for some “conducting competitions and/or courses” where the management (and their Music Director) get to charge big fees to all applicants, after which the musicians get NOTHING. That is modern slavery on behalf of “cultured (Eastern) Europe”.

    • william osborne says:

      For tens of thousands of American musicians, the possibility to work all year would be a dream come true.

      • Violist says:

        Pretty sure any of those Bulgarians would rather be making $72,000 living in Chicago playing 20 hours a week for 24 weeks.

        • william osborne says:

          The USA only has three cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year, so Chicago is very much an exception. Shall we talk about the ridiculous lack of opera in major cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Portland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Minnesota, etc.? Or shall we smugly look the other way?

          And given the cost of living in Bulgaria, national health insurance, and other advantages, the salaries in Chicago and Sofia probably even out. I’m sure American musicians would like to have the standards of arts support found in even the poorest of European countries. The problem is that American musicians are their own worst enemies because they so ignorant about the higher standards of arts support in virtually all other developed countries. Your post, of course anonymous, is an example.

        • Ducadiposa says:

          This topic always interests me as I’ve recently been able to hear performances in two major “eastern” European centres (in quotes as I was corrected on my last trip by a local that insisted Budapest is in “central” Europe – they were quite tetchy!): Prague and Budapest. As a North American I marvel at the sheer number of performances; the scale of the productions; the inclusion of large corps of dancers; huge choruses etc etc. It’s obvious none of this could happen without much lower fees than singers, musicians and dancers would make in North America. The downside for us is that we end up with “major” opera companies that can only put on 6 operas a year at most! Part of the equation also is the higher cost of living in say Chicago, Houston, Seattle,Toronto etc (to use cities which have similarly sized opera companies). Believe you me, I think artists should be paid as well as any other professional who had spent 15 years honing their skills (doctors, lawyers, etc) but our society isn’t set up that way (another debate not for here!). There must be some happy medium between the shockingly low wages and difficult working conditions in Eastern Europe and the situation we’ve got ourselves into in NA where large, wealthy urban centres can only see 4-6 operas per year!

          • william osborne says:

            The musicians in Eastern (central) Europe are paid more-or-less average wages for their societies.

            There’s a problem when the Met’s budget is twice that of comparable European houses, and when tutti string players and chorus members make $190,000 per year while other major American cities have almost no opera at all.

            The wealthy service themselves luxuriously while telling the rest of the country to go to hell. That’s the problem with our private funding system, which is entirely unique and isolated in the world. And yet we have no political options for voting for alternatives. This obsession with the market as virtually the sole arbiter of culture gives our system a totalitarian character.

        • william osborne says:

          Chicago is one of the world’s largest and richest cities, so here are some comparisons for opera performances per year:

          Berlin 581
          Vienna 556
          Moscow 539
          London 511
          St. Petersburg 501
          Budapest 360
          Paris 352
          Hamburg 302
          Dresden 287
          Munich 287
          Madrid 263
          Chicago 82

          Chicago trails so far behind it would be charitable to describe it as in the B-team. And this even though it’s been pumping up its numbers by performing musicals. The classical music community should be having constructive, open discussion about these problems. Instead, posts are blocked, and denial is prevalent.