Bills and Business Models

Bills and Business Models

Jenna Simeonov

2013 was a bad year for the business of classical music.

New York City Opera was North America’s big story in the ever-widening category of struggling or bankrupt opera houses. Seattle Opera suffered large cutbacks in order to stay alive, and the Minnesota Orchestra’s standoff with the board has cost them at least a season and a half. And although outside of our stated calendar year, Canadians certainly felt this week’s closure of Opera Hamilton.

Italy struggles as well, with only three houses in the country currently able to pay their bills: the Teatre Regio in Turin, Venice’s Teatro la Fenice and, of course, La Scala. Across the pond, restrictive unions and mismanagement of the companies result in bankrupt houses and lower regulated fees for artists.

The theme in common? A poor business model. Says Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times: ”Any institution, big or small, old or new, must have a clear artistic vision, a purpose that connects with audiences and the community. But the performing arts have never been profit-making endeavors. It is more important than ever that all institutions, from a fledgling string quartet to the lofty Metropolitan Opera, have an effective business model.”

Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive. (Molière)

The solution seems to be simple: don’t put on too many shows in a season, and don’t try to grow more quickly than the market demands. Two success stories of moderation in America are the Riverside Symphony and Gotham Chamber Opera, both with sparse seasons full of quality that attract a legitimate returning audience. In Canada, I see one of those sparks in Against the Grain Theatre. With two or three productions a season, intimate and refreshing performance spaces (not to mention cheaper than a 1500-seat theatre), and small artistic and creative teams, AtG is focusing on creating productions that warrant attention on their own. Cost-efficiency plus a good product equals profit, right? Am I being naïve?

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