Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Answer: Economics

Buffy Baggott (Countess Geschwitz) and Emma McNairy (Lulu)
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Question, for Jeopardy fans: Why can't San Francisco Opera put on seasons as adventurous as West Edge Opera's??

I heard that one a few times last summer from audience members and friends whose jaws were dropping at the audacity and beauty of West Edge Opera's season of Powder Her Face, Agrippina, and The Cunning Little Vixen, not to mention the 2015 season of Lulu, As One, and Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria.

And the answer is a simple one: money money money, which is directly related to the scale of the two operations.

Take a look at the 990 forms for San Francisco Opera and West Edge Opera.

The West Edge Opera 990 covers the year when the summer productions were at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. It shows total revenue of about $303,600 and expenses of about $272,000.

The SFO 990 covers the same year. It shows total revenue of around $75 million ($75,800,000) and expenses of almost $74 million ($73,900,000). The company also has assets of $197 million. I believe most of that is funds in the endowment.

Let's try another few measures. West Edge Opera is now firmly housed in the abandoned train station for its summer season. You probably don't know how many audience members the station can seat. I certainly didn't, and I nearly fell over when I found out that it seats around 500. WEO put on three performances each of Vixen and Agrippina this year, and four of Powder Her Face, so they had to sell a total of 5,000 tickets to sell out.

The War Memorial Opera House seats around 3200 and the company puts on 65 to 70 performances a year. San Francisco Opera is trying to sell more than 200,000 tickets each season.

West Edge Opera hires freelance singers, orchestra members, lighting people, directors, stagehands, etc.

SF Opera has a permanent, unionized orchestra and a unionized chorus. The stagehands and other professionals working behind the scenes are unionized. They get paid salaries and have health and other benefits. The stars who sing solo roles get paid up to $17,000 per performance. (I do not know what the low range for soloists is or how it changes by size of the part, etc.)

David Gockley and Nicola Luisotti both got paid higher annual salaries than the entire West Edge Opera annual budget.

We're talking about very different levels of financial risk for a big opera company and an immense difference in the number of tickets that must be sold and funds that must be raised to keep an institution such as SF Opera financially stable. With the decreasing number of subscriptions purchased and the need to sell many more single tickets, it's easy to understand why SF Opera is more conservative in its programming than West Edge Opera.

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