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the rejuvenation of opera


Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive -- Molière

Compared to the thriving operatic activity of the mid-twentieth century, the present musical institution appears somewhat degenerative; opera houses worldwide battling financially to attain individual, state and corporate endowment. Further doubt has recently been cast on the dwindling tradition, through instrumental music's present vogue and Joan Sutherland's remark that 'the teaching of singing seems to have degenerated.'

Pertinent to the discussion remains the contentious issue of whether the Arts need be self-supporting or State funded. German theatres remain the financial liability of local Government, whereas US opera houses are reliant on corporate and individual patronage. Annual US Government contributions to the Metropolitan Opera accounted for a mere 7% of the overall budget in 2005, with individual donations amounting to US$ 69,477,000: roughly 86%. The financial deficit of $833,000 at the close of the fiscal year was justified to board members, impressing that the 'season continued to languish below its pre-9/11 levels.'

More aptly, deficits may be attributed to the extravagant legislature attached to opera companies; thus the recent administrative centralisation of Berlin's three opera houses into a public foundation. The financial burden of the genre is repeatedly emphasized on the San Francisco Opera webpage, impressing that 'it is impossible to make enough money from ticket sales to cover the actual costs of producing it.' Indeed, whilst the San Francisco Opera concluded the recent fiscal year with a surplus of half a million dollars on an annual budget exceeding $60 million, more than $31 million was received from donors.

Arguably, with changing tastes and preferences, opera has become less of a vocally dominated genre, its staging/production superseding the musical element. Debussy's assessment that 'in opera there is always too much singing' has come full circle with the former stature of vocalists being replaced by that of directors, lighting technicians and conductors. Zeffirelli's recent La Scala 'Aida' première typified this, the spectacle of a 350 strong chorus, eight ceiling suspended trumpeters and 200 kilograms of gold dust surrounding the head of Tutankhamen, somewhat detracting from the vocal virtuosity.

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Copyright © 9 September 2007 Ciaran McAuley, Berlin, Germany


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