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    February 21, 2009

    The Economy and Opera: a tragic end or new beginning?

    As part of my ongoing goal to include posts about pertinent to our colleagues in the arts, this week a story on NPR reported on the increasingly dire straight Opera houses around the country are finding themselves in. Worst his is the close to my home Baltimore Opera, which as it turns out, has had to file for bankruptcy, but even the all-mighty New York Met is having troubles figuring out how it's going to meet its $280 million (yes, you read that right), budget.

    Here is the thing about Opera. It is not cheap. Historically, to go to the Opera, you almost by definition had to be a household with "discretionary" income. Tickets to the opening of the season at the Met, as I learned from watching "The Real Housewives Of New York City" apparently run in the thousands of dollars.

    In an economic downturn, we generally expect those who don't have much to spend in the first place to cut back, but the rich seem to stay afloat. Not so this time around. Some of the wealthiest individuals have been hit the hardest, what with the Wall Street layoffs, the 50% slide in the market, and a certain Mr. Madoff making the investments of many wealthy Americans disappear faster than a magician ever could. Many of us feel this in our fundraising on a daily basis-those $10,000+ donors are slim pickings, but they were also the season Opera ticket holders.

    While some in the story on NPR take an optimistic view that as the economy bounces back so will the Opera-going crowd, it is possible that times will never again be as high for traditional Opera houses.

    But a few years back, Opera, the NY Met in particular, starting doing something that might be its saving grace in this crisis.

    Check this out tho: a few years ago, the Met started showing limited engagements of live simulcast performances in HD at movie theaters around the country and around the globe. The prices they charge are higher than that of going to a movie-$22 for a showing of Madame Butterfly at my local movie theater-and while some doubt whether this will ever replace revenue generated from "house" shows (in 2008 these broadcasts contributed $1 million of the $270+million Met Budget), they are certainly growing in popularity (the first two movie theaters in my area I checked to find out ticket prices were completely sold out).

    I can't find where I read or saw this, but some news report noted that up to 10 million people have already watched an Opera or even Broadway musical in their local movie theater. The Met Website even has a link to their HD livecast schedule on MySpace! And Opera houses around the globe are getting onboard.

    The Gen Yer in me is very excited that an industry as "established" and "set in its ways" as the Opera is trying to reach out to new audience and generations, using channels that are appropriate for those audiences. Will the next step be performance staged entirely for movie-theater audiences? Will Opera, like so many other things today, become a global event over a local one? Will the "community" of Opera lovers now be connected digitally? Is it possible that the "Opening" of the season will become an online event? Maybe not, but it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility!

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