Opera Is Suffering From A Supply-Side Crisis
The recent announcement by the Metropolitan Opera that it will take a midseason hiatus in January 2005 confirms the rumors and leaks that, for some time now, business has been bad at the nation's leading opera house. The Met blames its bad box office on a drop-off in international tourism. But the crisis goes much deeper than implied by this superficial explanation.
Opera today is suffering from a supply-side crisis. The supply of great voices -- especially in the Italian repertory -- has dried up. The recent passing of the great Italian tenor of the '50s and '60s, Franco Corelli, reminds us that not only are the glorious and glamorous voices like Mr. Corelli's absent from today's opera scene, but so, for want of suitable casting, are many of the operas in which Mr. Corelli and his contemporaries made their reputations.
Verdi's "Ernani," Ponchielli's "La Gioconda" and Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" are three examples of operas virtually ignored nowadays because the supply of talent in this repertoire has fallen off. While never operatic mainstays, these works nonetheless served to showcase the great stars doing favorite arias (e.g. "Andrea Chenier," a mediocre opera, contains one of the greatest baritone arias ever written, "Nemico della patria").
A greater loss to opera aficionados are the bread-and-butter operas -- the masterpieces -- that have been dropped from opera billboards because they no longer can be adequately cast. The most important of these has been Verdi's "La Forza del Destino."
The history of this glorious opera at the Metropolitan Opera goes back to the days of Caruso. In the '50s and '60s, when such greats as Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Richard Tucker, Renata Tebaldi and Leonard Warren (who actually died singing during a Met "Forza" performance) held forth at the Met, performances of Verdi's saga of love, honor and revenge were commonplace. Now they are nonexistent. The Met did try a revival in 1996 after a 12-year hiatus, but it was not well received. "Forza" has not been done since at the Met -- or at any other major opera company in this country.
Dropping an opera from the repertory is not the only response opera managements can make to the drastically diminished supply of operatic talent in the Italian repertoire. They also can continue on with inferior casts -- in which case the opera is harder to sell to audiences -- or they can try to develop "cast-proof" productions that are so spectacular the inferior singing is overlooked. By and large, opera companies have chosen the muddling through option for the great classics.
Cast-proof productions are expensive and difficult to pull off. The Met's Franco Zeffirelli production of "La Boheme" is a successful example. The Puccini opera recently overtook Verdi's "Aida" as the most frequently performed opera in Met history -- 1,137 to 1,066. ("Boheme" has been the most produced opera in North America during the past 10 years according to Opera America.) The Met tried to have Mr. Zeffirelli cast-proof "Aida" some years back, but the project proved too expensive and was dropped.
Despite current difficulty in casting both the soprano and tenor leads, "Aida" never will share the fate of "Forza" -- it is just too popular. Nonetheless, performances of the Verdi classic clearly are on the decline in this country -- and the reason is not because the elephants have unionized.
"Aida" does not even appear in the top 10 most- produced operas in North America during the past 10 years. Since 1996, it has been mounted for two seasons in San Francisco, not at all in Chicago, one season each in Washington and Los Angeles, and seven seasons at the Met. Even at the Met, the number of "Aida" performances has fallen, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total performances of all operas performed.
During the '60s, for example, "Aida" was given every year at the Met except for the 1968-69 season -- a grand total of 116 times. For the 1993-2003 period, "Aida" was in the Met repertory for only seven of the 10 years -- a total of 92 performances. Because the season has been extended, and thus the total number of performances of all operas increased, "Aida" now is allocated a smaller relative share of total performances at the Met than in the '60s. This is what happens to a classic when opera companies muddle through.
Many of the Verdi favorites are experiencing a similar decline. Of Opera America's top 10, only two are by Verdi -- "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto." Neither, it should be noted, needs a great tenor voice to succeed. "Traviata" needs a soprano; "Rigoletto," a baritone. The top 10 list shows that while many of the great masterpieces continue to be performed, they are not the ones whose success critically depends upon the availability of a Corelli-like Italian tenor.
While Italian opera has been suffering a decline in recent years, other opera genres actually have enjoyed an upsurge. In particular, Russian opera has benefited enormously from the increased availability of Russian opera singers plying their trade in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This may be called a positive supply-side effect.
Not only are there now better performances in the West of old-time Russian favorites, the upgraded casting in the Russian repertory has made it possible to perform Russian operas previously unknown here. This infusion of Russian talent and repertory has given opera in the West a badly needed boost. But, as the Met's historic hiatus amply demonstrates, the crisis in opera remains nonetheless. Russian opera does not have the box-office appeal of Italian opera.
Neither do Janacek nor Berlioz operas -- of which there have been several strong productions in recent years. The combination of muddling through in the classics plus the limited drawing power of many of the nonconventional operas has created seas of empty seats at all major U.S. opera houses this season. Even the Met's cast-proof "Boheme" wasn't drawing crowds.
The Met's unparalleled midseason hiatus signals a deeply embedded crisis that will take more than an upturn in international tourism to put right.