Is there a future for grand opera in Chicago?
Earlier this month, as Lyric Opera's general director Anthony Freud and music director Andrew Davis announced the programming for next season-eight great operas, including crowd-pleasers like Puccini's La Boheme and Verdi's La Traviata along with the third installment of Wagner's Ring Cycle-the longer-term future was announcing itself.
On the calendar page at the back of the 2018-2019 season brochure—behind the ads for Cendrillon, Massenet's version of Cinderella; Richard Strauss's Elektra; Verdi's Il Trovatore; and operas by Mozart and Handel—the future made its own, unspoken but emphatic statement.
The eight operas that'll grace the Lyric Opera House stage next year will have runs of four to 11 performances each: a total of 56 performances.
A contemporary English-language chamber opera, An American Dream (with music by Jack Perla, libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo), which Lyric will stage at the Harris Theater in March, will have two performances.
And West Side Story, the brilliant 1957 Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical that Lyric will produce at the opera house in May and early June, will run for 32 performances. (The Lyric's tradition of staging a postseason musical began in 2013.)
I love West Side Story. I can't wait to see this coproduction with Houston Grand Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival, though the cast is yet to be announced. But the schedule makes a point as unmistakable as the high-wire high F tenor Lawrence Brownlee's been hitting in Lyric's current, very traditional production of I Puritani: in spite of years of trying to build it, the audience for opera, in comparison to the fans who'll turn out for Broadway musicals, is paltry.
It's also diminishing. As Freud noted, not so long ago, Lyric scheduled 85 or 90 performances in a season. In the 1990s, thanks to patrons who donated their seats when they couldn't make a performance, the company regularly sold more than 100 percent of capacity. Tickets would be in short supply before the season even opened. Scalpers were on the scene.
Now, Freud said, "We have to work within shrinking, less predictable means." He's programming "a cocktail of artistic excitement and fiscal responsibility" in a business environment that's "volatile and unpredictable." Meanwhile, the international singers, directors, designers, and conductors that make the season world-class still have to be booked years in advance.
So here's the hard spot Lyric finds itself in: income from opera ticket sales is down (part of a national trend, Freud said), while expenses are growing. What to do? Tamp down spending? Sure, but to maintain the company's precious standing as one of the great opera houses of the world, it can't be done in any way that'll reduce the quality of the productions. The simplest tactic is to continue reducing the number of performances, since each one represents a financial loss. Ergo: down from 60 this season (when the budget is $77.5 million) to the previously noted 56 in fiscal 2019.
Of course, "opera has never been able to cover the costs from ticket sales," Freud added. It's always required a patron, or contributors, to fill the gap, but, he said, it's "increasingly a challenge to keep on an even keel."
Freud, who's headed Lyric since 2011 and whose contract runs through the 2020-2021 season, said "we're energized by the challenge." But he added, "the larger the organization, the bigger the challenge is."
According to Lyric's most recent annual report, for fiscal 2017 (which ended June 30 and covers the 2016-2017 season), the organization isn't going broke anytime soon: it reported net assets of nearly $209 million. But the 2017 budget was $84.5 million, and the cover letter from chief financial officer Roberta Lane included a sobering comment about how Lyric is balancing its budget: by drawing from an operating support fund established by the recent Breaking New Ground campaign at a rate that could quickly deplete it. The draw for 2017 was $6.5 million, down from $8.6 million in 2016, Lane reported, but "[W]e continue to draw Breaking New Ground funds at approximately twice the rate anticipated."
"We operate from a very strong base," Lane said in a phone interview. "From a balance sheet standpoint, we're very strong. We have an outstanding board of directors, and a lot of civic and community support. But ticket sales have been declining over the last ten years. It's not just us, it's a reflection of how people are consuming entertainment. We're working hard to be responsive, with new initiatives like the musical, and the relationship with the Joffrey, that are making us fresh and interesting. So, while we have challenges, we're being as nimble and flexible as we can possibly be, to adapt."
A major part of those initiatives is Lyric Unlimited, Lyric's innovative community engagement program, whose ultimate goal is to ensure a future for opera by making it relevant to a larger, more diverse audience. This week, there's an opportunity to sample its programming: Lyric Unlimited is presenting Cycles of My Being, a new song cycle about the life of black men in America, by a pair of MacArthur "geniuses," composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes. It'll be sung by Brownlee, at the DuSable Museum. v