High and Low Notes

Seattle Opera marshals Wagner's Ring—and fights a small budget battle on the side.

The quadrennial staging of Wagner's Ring cycle marks a time of mounting excitement at Seattle Opera—it's the company's proudest achievement, one that earns global attention. But this summer, the exhilaration is tempered just a bit by financial concerns. At its July 12 annual meeting, SO General Director Speight Jenkins announced that the company's 12-year string of balanced budgets was broken by a shortfall for the 2004–05 season. At this writing, the final audit is still under way, but the shortfall is somewhere in the $250,000 to $280,000 range (with a total budget of $18.5 million), reports SO's administrative director, Kelly Tweeddale.

The shortfall is the result of lower-than-expected ticket sales—$7 million against a projection of $8.2 million. One opera in particular was a surprising underperformer: last October's Rigoletto. Due to the demand for top singers, opera company schedules must be set years in advance, and the run dates of Rigoletto were determined in 2001. (FYI, Jenkins is currently planning the 2009–10 season.) Jenkins' best guess at that point, naturally enough, was that a beloved repertory staple starring a name singer, Metropolitan Opera tenor Frank Lopardo, would be a hit, and 10 performances were scheduled—on the long side for a Seattle Opera run. It turned out to be a rare instance of overconfidence. (For an example of a gamble that hit the jackpot, see their January 2004 Carmen—the opera banked on 13 performances, the most for any production in its history, and all sold out.)

Jenkins now says, "It's a bit of a mystery to me why Rigoletto did so badly. I can tell you that other opera companies reported that Rigoletto did very badly with them last season. It may be that although Rigoletto is very familiar to us, operagoers simply don't know the work as well as they used to know it. . . . We would have done fine, or OK, with eight performances." The resulting $1.2 million deficit was reduced through belt-tightening—the staff took salary freezes, for example.

How does the Ring fit into all this? "There's a reason many companies do the Ring every 25 years," says Tweeddale—"you can easily go broke." Not here they don't; SO's Ring, with its international prestige, is a top seller (all three cycles have been sold out for a year). Typically, ticket sales account for about 40 percent of the company's revenue (on the high edge of the industry average), the rest coming from individual and foundation support. But thanks to higher demand and higher ticket prices, Ring ticket income provides just over 60 percent of the production's costs ($4.8 million of a $7.8 million budget). A fund-raising campaign conducted separately from the rest of the season also earned about $2.4 million in Ring-specific contributions.

But this season's shortfall is a bump in the road at worst for SO, hardly a course correction. No doubt there are several opera impresarios around the world dreaming enviously of a shortfall of only a quarter-million dollars. To cut costs, San Francisco Opera, for example, has recently had to cancel productions. And in the Ring, of course, when Wotan builds an extravagant castle he can't pay for, it leads to nothing less than the gods' downfall. Luckily, Seattle Opera does not take him as a money-management role model.


Seattle opera's Ring runs Aug. 7–28 at McCaw Hall. Sold out. Information: 206-389-7676, www.seattleopera.org.

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