One of the questions I am most often asked by American operagoers is why major European companies seem to have more stars, more operas per season and more daring programming than the Metropolitan Opera and other American companies.
There are many answers to this and a fair amount of room for conjecture. The Metropolitan Opera announced its 2017-2018 season in February while two of the most important companies in Europe — the Vienna State Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London — both announced their seasons on April 5.
The Met will offer 26 operas, including five new productions and two company premieres: Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel and Massenet’s Cendrillon. Vienna will have 54 operas, nine ballet programs and four operas specifically for children. London will have 25 operas, four of which are in other venues as well as 15 programs given by the Royal Ballet. There will be six new productions—La Bohème, Carmen, From the House of the Dead,Lohengrin, Semiramide (with Joyce DiDonato and Lawrence Brownlee) and the world premiere of George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence. Covent Garden will have all of these performances despite an ongoing project called Open Up intended to reconstruct and expand the facilities of the opera house.
Lyric Opera of Chicago is doing eight operas in its theater, one more off-site and is presentingJesus Christ Superstar as its Broadway musical that is now a tradition each spring. San Francisco Opera will present nine operas, including a world premiere (Girls of the Golden Westby John Adams) and three cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which is always an extraordinary undertaking. Houston Grand Opera presents seven works, one of which is the musical West Side Story.
How is it possible for Vienna to present so much more repertory? I explained this conundrum last year, noting that very few of the operas receive more than four performances. Let’s take as examples those revived works starting with the letter A: Aïda (3 times); Adriana Lecouvreur (4);Andrea Chénier (starring Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, 4 times); Arabella (3); Ariadne auf Naxos (3). New productions tend to get more performances. There will be six: Handel’sAriodante; von Einem’s Dantons Tod; Weber’s Der Freischutz; Prokofiev’s The Gambler; Luluand Samson et Dalila.
What is seldom acknowledged is that Vienna audiences accept revivals that get almost no rehearsal and have little of the theatrical heft and complexity (and occasional silliness) found in New York, London and other cities. Instead, Vienna has a cavalcade of wonderful singers who enjoy appearing in front of enthusiastic, sold-out crowds that admire their artistry. Next season, in addition to the wonderful Harteros and errant Kaufmann, the singers Vienna will have that New Yorkers won’t include Danielle de Niese, Juan Diego Flórez, Thomas Hampson, Ambrogio Maestri, Waltraud Meier, Ricarda Merbeth and Dorothea Röschmann.
Many singers, no matter their origins, live in Austria, Bavaria, Switzerland or Northern Italy. This makes it easy for them to travel to Vienna to perform without disrupting their family lives. In contrast, if they were to come to New York, Chicago or San Francisco, it would represent a major commitment of time away from home as well as the cost of housing for a longer period for rehearsals and performances in America.
When Europeans such as Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala or Karita Mattila come to the States, it costs them in ways that many American audiences do not recognize. The same applies in reverse: if Joyce DiDonato or Lawrence Brownlee spend long periods of rehearsal and performances in Europe, that comes at considerable cost.
Singers and conductors from continental Europe, Ireland and Great Britain can work in London because they are only 2-3 hours away from home by plane. And let’s not forget that European nations provide health care coverage to citizens and some residents, enabling singers to keep more of their paychecks than those working in the U.S. In America we see more foreign artists from Russia, Asia and South America precisely because they do not reside in the European Union and enjoy those benefits.
The Vienna State Opera receives 50% of its funding from the state and therefore can spend time focusing on musical values. Most performances are sold out because the Viennese are passionate operagoers and the city receives many tourists who come specifically for opera. Governmental funding in London covers about one-third of the budget and ticket prices are higher than Vienna and often New York. Performances sell well because opera and ballet are popular and London has such a huge population that demand usually far outstrips supply of tickets. Major American opera companies would be lucky to get one percent of their budgets from governmental funding. It is a national disgrace that the federal expenditure on the arts per citizen is approximately the value of a postage stamp.
It would be nice to have more European artists as part of the mix in American opera companies and I worry that current plans for making immigration, and allowing workers from abroad, more difficult will further limit the supply of foreign musicians. It could be catastrophic for American opera.
We can be grateful that America produces many outstanding singers. I know because I see and hear them. It is something to be proud of and support heartily. Let us treasure our artists and not undervalue them. Our opera companies often stage productions with more craft and care — and rehearsals! — than in Europe. The Met still has the best opera orchestra in the world and its chorus is splendid. Yes, productions are variable in quality in American opera houses but the same can be said about the major European theaters too.
As I travel our country I find superb opera productions and performers in theaters large and small. America has fielded a generation of excellent new composers giving us works that challenge and inspire singers as well as audiences who are open to them.