Burgeoning Opera

by Russ Roberts on July 30, 2007

in Music

Opera is somehow thriving in culturally backward America (HT: Maggie’s Farm). Jonathan Leaf reports in The American:

The U.S. now has 125 professional opera companies, 60 percent of
them launched since 1970, according to the trade group OPERA America.
The U.S. has more opera companies than Germany and nearly twice as many
as Italy. In the most comprehensive recent study, the National
Endowment for the Arts found that between 1982 and 2002, total
attendance at live opera performances grew 46 percent.

Annual admissions are now estimated at 20 million, roughly the same
attendance as NFL football games (22 million, including playoffs, in
2006–07). In part, this reflects a shift toward seeing opera
domestically. “Foreign opera destinations like Salzburg and
Glyndebourne are more expensive, and more Americans are staying
home—and probably feeling safer for it,” says Richard Gaddes, general
director of the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.

Consequently, opera travel within the U.S.—even by foreigners—is
booming. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis drew attendees last year from
42 U.S. states, in addition to France, Germany, Britain, and Canada.
Likewise, the Seattle Opera gets loads of Germans eager to see its
highly regarded productions of Wagner’s operas. Gaddes says his company
is “the major economic engine of tourism in Santa Fe.”

And the number of American opera productions continues to increase.
As of 2005, OPERA America included companies under its aegis in 44
states. They put on 3,012 performances (up by one-third in just four
years) of 420 different opera productions. Opera companies, moreover,
are raising large amounts of money: $387 million in private
contributions in 2005 alone.

I wonder how much of those companies’ budgets come from the taxpayer vs. ticket sales and private contributions.

I also wonder if opera could outdraw the NFL if opera had playoffs.

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Adam July 30, 2007 at 9:59 pm

I agree with your point, but frankly the fact that the US has more opera companies than Germany and double those of Italy hurts rather than helps the argument. Italy has about 20% of the population of the US, so more than double per capita the opera companies (I'm assuming it's about double in the US).

They don't give the figures for Germany but if you assume it's less than double (since they specify double for Italy), it's also far less per capita (Germany having a bit more than 25% of the population of the US).

We'll need some other statistics if we're to buttress the argument with figures.

Adam July 30, 2007 at 10:00 pm

Just to be absolutely clear for the benefit of anyone who wants to criticize my post: I am NOT saying the state should support the arts. I'm just saying those numbers go against the argument (in which I believe).

Keith July 30, 2007 at 10:06 pm

"I am NOT saying the state should support the arts."

How do you feel about state support for professional sports?

Brad July 31, 2007 at 12:15 am

If not a playoff system, at least some bowl games. But seriously, opera needs on-field violence and off-field controversy. And betting. And gear.

mike July 31, 2007 at 7:03 am

I'm pretty certain the rise in popularity of opera in the United States is one of the signs of the impending apocolypse.

Iran is not the enemy. Verdi is.

Adam July 31, 2007 at 7:48 am

"How do you feel about state support for professional sports?"

Er, bad? I don't think the government should subsidize ANYthing, including the arts and sports.

vidyohs July 31, 2007 at 9:43 am

Of course the numbers don't make sense if one is trying to make a "who is the bigger, or who has more per capita" case.

Adam, if it will help ease your mind, I think if you read Russel's piece again you will see that the numbers are brought up more to show that America's taste for opera is growing rather than as a "Nyah nyah, see there we got more than you do" statement.

Either way I cast my vote with the people who say that if it doesn't sell it doesn't belong in the market, don't use my money to pay for other's pleasures.

Frances Smith July 31, 2007 at 11:45 am

The article in The American does give some figures on government funding of opera in the US — about 5 or 6 percent of companies' funding. Also, sounds like some companies believe more in private contributions to finance the opera companies and performances:

Here's a quote (second paragraph below)–

“Aggregated, all government subsidies only come to 5 or 6 percent of the U.S. companies’ funding,” says Marc Scorca, the president of OPERA America. But, he adds that funding from the NEA in particular often has a “leveraging effect. It influences donors” as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Despite the attraction of government money, Smith believes that there is something “healthy about needing to prove yourself to the community on a daily basis.” He says, “Tough as it is, the American system is good in a lot of ways. In France, they have seven or eight companies that get all the money. If you’re not year-round and fully professional, you don’t get any support. Here, it’s a grassroots system, and you have to demonstrate your value.”

Joerob July 31, 2007 at 12:57 pm

I wonder if the flourishing of opera in a society isn't a good marker for the "wealth effect". At the time opera developed and flourished in Italy and France they were among the wealthiest societies in the world. This wealth was deployed to develop a new art form and bring it to the masses. Today that art form is thriving in the society that has the wealth to support it: the United States.

Will C. July 31, 2007 at 8:56 pm

I doubt that the NFL figure includes TV revenues which are BIG.

I also oppose the idea that the government furnishes the Chicago Bears a free stadium in which to earn that money. I also wish the Bears had to pay for all the free space they get in the daily newspapers.

Will C. July 31, 2007 at 9:04 pm

Forbes says that three NFL teams had gross revenues of over $225 million and operating income of over $50 million – each – in 2004. Based on that Forbes valued each team at over $1 billion.

spencer August 1, 2007 at 9:36 am

Assume that Francis Smith's numbers are correct that government funding amounts to some 5% to 6% of the opera companies budgets.

How does this compare with the state & local government subsidies of football stadiums
and financing of minor league footballs and early development of players through the college football system?

I would not be surprised to find that this is significantly less than the support for opera.

Person August 1, 2007 at 9:41 am

Guys, I'll agree that football receives government subsidies at various levels. But *please*, get a grip on reality: this immense cultural tradition is not dependent on government subsidies. Don't bend reality to fit your prejudices.

I certainly *wish* people wouldn't watch more football, but my wishes are not reality.

Ray G August 1, 2007 at 3:28 pm

So who's the elitist crank that made opera the cultural touchstone for a society?

Lavonne Gilliam December 16, 2007 at 7:23 pm

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USS Howard (DDG-83)

Moggio September 10, 2009 at 12:22 pm

According to you, as an economist, what is the (real) interest of the following study by the National Endowment Arts: “2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” (http://arts.endow.gov/research/NEASurvey2004.pdf)?
Thanks in advance.

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