Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How to Plan an Opera Season

Or, why my fantasy opera seasons are possibly only if you have all the money in the world at your disposal.

San Francisco Opera had a workshop yesterday about opera season planning. I had Tai Chi class, and anyway, I know the basics. If you think about it, it's all fairly obvious. Here's what you have to take into consideration:
  • Available funds. Above all, is there money for it? Are donations coming in? Are times tight? Is there a patron who wants to graduate to production sponsor, and who will toss in a million bucks toward the production of his or her dreams? Is there a community that might do some special fundraising (Arshak II) or which might turn out for a production connected to one of its own (Arshak II, The Bonesetter's Daughter), Harvey Milk?
  • Cash cows versus pie-in-the-sky productions. Every general director and music director has a list of dream productions, operas they'd stage if only they could. Maybe it's Saint Francois, maybe it's From the House of the Dead. Maybe it's an early Verdi opera, or Die Frau ohne Schatten. (My pie-in-the-sky has all the makings of a hit: Swanda Dudak.) For every one of these, where there's no way to predict ticket sales in advance, or where you're pretty sure it's not going to sell that brilliantly on its own, you need a cash cow or two on the season. Look at the last couple of SF Opera seasons to see how this works: long runs of crowd-pleasing standards, double-cast, to support the rest of the season, even though I wouldn't say there were any truly radical operas on those seasons.
  • MD's input/what does he want to conduct. See the above. I bet we would not have had Don Giovanni, Cosi, and Nozze so close together if Nicola Luisotti didn't want to get cozy with them. And that Attila? He conducted the same production in Italy.
  • Trying for some kind of balance. Among German, Italian, French, Russian & English operas; among Mozart, bel canto, 19th c., verismo, and 20th c., etc. No all-Rossini seasons! Cash cow vs. pie-in-the-sky is also finding balance.
  • Available productions / directors / whole package of designers. Who can we get? What do they offer? New production? Existing productions are cheaper and can often be revived by an assistant director rather than the original, expensive director. (I am conjecturing a bit about costs here.)
  • Available singers. "Oh, god, Renee is booked, who else is there who can sing Arabella/the Marschallin/Rusalka? No, they're not in Pat's repertory and we already have her booked for a couple of roles that season!" It's not just availability, but, to some extent, compatibility. Do we think this tenor and this soprano will be good together? Does the mezzo hate the conductor? Can the tenor stand the part? 
  • Available guest conductors. Even in a house with a fairly short season, the music director can't handle everything. He might have engagements elsewhere, he might not have an affinity for everything on the season. So who you gonna call? At SF, for bel canto we've had Riccardo Frizza for a couple of seasons, and he's been quite good. Since Luisotti came on board, there hasn't been all that much German opera, and the biggest chunk - the Ring - was taken by former MD Runnicles. (Wish he were coming back for something.) 

Once you have a single season, start thinking about the four years after that. You need to worry about the same things: money, balance, money, the MD's preferences, money, available productions, money, available singers...you see the point. 

I can almost make up an algorithm for how often Tosca/Butterfly/Boheme will come around, leaving the other Puccini operas in the dust; similarly, take the big/easy to stage Verdi and sprinkle lightly with everything else (Traviata and Rigoletto are the easiest to cast; I've seen Trovatore and Don Carlo three times each, etc.). Throw in some Donizetti or Bellini or verismo. Make sure the Mozart big 4 come around regularly, but not too regularly. (Yes, Magic Flute, you have worn out your welcome with me.)

Once you have those, fill in with Wagner, 20th c. classics, commissions, and oddities, uh, rarities as needed.

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