Lawrence W. Levine's book Highbrow Lowbrow, published in 1988, tracks the standardization of "high" or "classic" culture, including opera, from the days of changing works for public or lower-class appeal to the contemporary artistic canonization that borders on snobbery. About a decade earlier, Rosanne Martorella examined the specifics of, and the process leading up to, the standardization of opera repertoire in her own era, the 1970s. In this article, she takes a close look at the tradition of opera performance in the United States and the statistics of repertoire choices and box office success.
Martorella starts the article by summarizing the history of the status of opera, and classical music in general, in society. She points out that in the nineteenth century, opera was part of popular culture rather than separate from it, and that the American opera tradition increasingly favored foreign singers and productions instead of local American or English language works. To introduce her economic analysis, she describes the changing music patronage from the clergy to the aristocracy to the middle class.
The meat of the article revolves around five tables, each analyzing a different facet of the four opera companies' repertoire choices. First, Martorella focuses on the Metropolitan Opera alone. The first table she includes shows the top ten operas in terms of box office percentage in 1972 and 1974. Verdi and the bel canto composers dominate the 1972 table, while two of Wagner's operas are on top in 1974. The second table shows the top five composers by number of productions in each season from 1971 to 1976. Verdi is always on top, Puccini being second in three seasons out of five. Neither chart contains any mention of an American or contemporary composer. Martorella quotes a previous manager of the Met as saying, "Opera depends for its prosperity on Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini."
The next two tables compare the number of standard (defined as "premiered before 1930") and contemporary operas in the United States using a number of variables. Martorella examines the number of performances, composers, productions, and reappearances of each type of opera, as well as the average number of performances by composer. In the case of performances and reappearances, the percentage balance favors the standard operas. In the case of composers and productions, however, it favors contemporary operas. This suggests, as Martorella points out, that although many opera companies wanted to premiere or perform works by contemporary composers, none of their productions lasted very long and they were overshadowed by the "change-resistant" permanence of the standard repertoire.
The last table considers the economic side as Martorella focuses on four American opera companies: the Met, the New York City Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the San Francisco Opera. At the time of the article, the Met and the Lyric, she notes, depend
mostly on box office sales and donations, while the New York City and
San Francisco operas receive more dependable funding from the
government. This proves to be a big factor in the data she shows in the table, which charts the percentage of contemporary opera in each company's seasonal performances between 1971 and 1976. With the exception of one season at the Met, the big-budget opera houses put on far fewer contemporary operas than the subsidized ones. This has to do with public appeal. The big-budget companies must depend on the box office and their sponsors to bring in the money, so they produce operas they know the public is familiar with. On the other hand, the subsidized companies have stable enough funds from grants and the government that they can accomodate smaller box office sales for a more diverse and non-standard repertoire.
These principles carry over to today's American classical music scene, but as my previous post pointed out, the audiences are older and smaller, so the money has become more scarce. Some opera companies may still be able to use the "perform more standardized opera" tactic, in addition to promoting celebrity appearances such as Renee Fleming or Anna Netrebko. But opera companies are struggling and dying. Somehow, the opera business has to find new ways of attracting new audiences and patrons, but the question might now be if they have to sacrifice their supposed artistic integrity to do it.
Info on the article:
Martorella, Rosanne. "The Relationship Between Box Office and Repertoire: a Case Study of Opera." The Sociological Quarterly 18, no. 3 (summer 1977): 354-366.