Pandemic troubles cause Met Opera to resort to foundations and accept new works

The Metropolitan Opera, hit hard by a cash shortage and lackluster ticket sales as it tries to lure audiences back amid the pandemic, said Monday it is withdrawing up to $30 million from its endowment next season for fewer performances would give and hasten their acceptance of contemporary works that in one stratum have surpassed the classics.

The dramatic financial and artistic moves demonstrate the extent to which the pandemic and its aftermath continue to rock the Met, the premier opera company in the United States, and come as many other performing arts institutions face similar pressures.

“The challenges are greater than ever,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “The only way forward is reinvention.”

Nonprofits try to only dive into their foundations as a last resort, as they want funds to grow over time while also generating a steady source of investment income. The Met’s endowment, estimated at $306 million, was already small for an institution of its size. This season she is turning to the foundation to help cover operating costs and help make up for weak ticket sales and a lack of liquidity that arose when some donors were reluctant to accelerate pledged donations amid the stock market downturn. As more monetary gifts arrive, the company hopes to replenish the foundation.

To further reduce costs, the company, which has 215 performances this season, plans to reduce the number of performances by nearly 10 percent next season.

The Met’s decision to stage significantly more contemporary operas is a notable turnaround for the company, which has largely shunned recent works for many decades because its conservative audiences like warhorses like Puccini’s La Bohème, Verdi’s Aida and Bizet’s Carmen “ seemed to prefer .”

But as the Met staged more new work in recent years, that dynamic began to shift, a shift that has become more apparent since the pandemic: while attendances have been generally anemic, contemporary works like Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up have stayed in My Bones received last season and Kevin Puts’ The Hours this season drew sold-out audiences. (By contrast, Verdi’s “Don Carlo” ended its run this month with 40 percent viewership.)

From now on Mr. Gelb said the Met will open each season with a new production of a contemporary work.

It begins next year with the company premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and the season will include the premiere of Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X; Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” and a staged production of John Adams’ “El Niño”. Duck Mr. Gelb said the Met would rearrange itself next season to bring back “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “The Hours,” with its three divas Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara performing their would repeat roles.

“Opera should reflect the times we are in,” said Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Met. “It is our responsibility to generate new works so that people can recognize themselves and their realities on our stage.”

Mr. Gelb said the company’s shift in strategy was possible in part because big stars are increasingly interested in performing music by living composers. “It’s a big shift in terms of opera singers themselves, to embrace new work and understand that this is the future,” he said.

The Met has attracted many of the most celebrated singers of the time since Enrico Caruso ruled its stage, and has given the world premieres of several Puccini operas and American premieres of works by Richard Strauss and Wagner. It made a triumphant return last year after the long pandemic shutdown that cost it $150 million in expected revenue. The audience was back, although still lagging behind. The donations came in. And the determination of the entire company, including its performers, stagehands and ushers, was on full display: even as Omicron closed many theaters last season, the Met never missed a curtain.

In the summer, however, the company, which is the largest performing arts organization in the United States with an annual budget of $312 million, began to feel the strains of the pandemic more severely.

Met’s Live in HD ticketing revenue from in-person and live theatrical presentations decreased by more than $40 million last season compared to before the pandemic. Paid attendance at the opera house has fallen from 73 percent to 61 percent of capacity. Donors have stepped in to fill much of the shortfall, pledged more than $150 million in additional emergency relief during the pandemic. But amid the market downturn, some were reluctant to deliver these gifts quickly.

“When the economy shudders, the big donors shudder too,” he said. said Yellow.

The company had avoided diving into its foundation in the early days of the pandemic, as had many other struggling opera houses and orchestras, in part because it had taken the painful step of furloughing workers, including the orchestra and choir, without pay. But now it has withdrawn $23 million from its foundation and can withdraw another seven million.

A recent cyberattack that left the Met website and box office unable to sell new tickets for nine days compounded the company’s woes.

However, as more private donations come in — as the new year begins, the company expects an additional $36 million in cash over and above its normal contributions — it hopes to replenish the foundation before the end of the fiscal year at the end of July. It is unclear whether this will be possible.

The Met’s decision to turn to its foundation undoes some of the work it has done over the past few years to rebuild it. A few years ago, the company announced a fundraiser to double the foundation and took steps to reduce the amount it draws from it each year from 8 percent to 5 percent of its value.

The Met isn’t the only one finding it difficult to emerge from the pandemic.

Oregon’s Portland Opera, struggling with a continued decline in ticket sales, has reduced staff and halved the number of operas it performs each season to three from six before the pandemic. “The situation Portland Opera is currently facing is not unique, but it is still a crisis,” said Sue Dixon, the company’s general manager, who said the cuts are necessary in the short term but will affect the company’s ability to grow again.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has seen paid attendance up about 47 percent this fall, up from about 66 percent before the pandemic, although a recent surge in sales has provided some optimism. “A lot of people didn’t get back into the habit,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, the president and chief executive officer of the orchestra and the Kimmel Center. “We have to remind them that it is not only a beautiful, extraordinary and special experience, but also easy and inexpensive.”

The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, an Ohio-based company, canceled its holiday shows this month due to tepid demand and rising production costs. And the Philly Pops, a 43-year-old orchestra, have announced plans to disband next year, citing mounting debt and a sharp drop in subscriptions during the pandemic.

The prospect of a recession next year continues to rock arts groups, raising fears weak attendance could extend into next season and beyond. The federal aid that helped many companies weather the pandemic shutdown has now largely dried up.

“We are still in this period of great uncertainty and concern,” said Simon Woods, president and chief executive officer of the League of American Orchestras. “The need to build new audiences is more urgent than ever.”

For many opera houses and orchestras, the pandemic has hastened the demise of the subscription model for selling tickets, which was once a major source of revenue.

At the Met, subscriptions are expected to fall to 19 percent of total box office receipts this season, down from 45 percent two decades ago. With single tickets becoming more popular and some older subscribers staying home for fear of viruses, the median age of Met audiences has dropped to 52 from 57 in 2020.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin, who became the Met’s music director in 2018, succeeding James Levine, who led the company for four decades, said the company will remain committed to the classics even as it is committed to innovation. And he said the company could try to target different audiences with a range of old and new works.

“I want everyone to feel welcome at the Met,” he said. “Will you fall in love with each of our operas? Of course not. But I don’t want anyone to say, ‘The Met isn’t for me.'”

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