A numerative comparison of German and American opera houses

January 7, 2002

The article below my signature reports that Berlin is possibly planning to build and operate another opera house, which would bring the total number in the city to four. It will be devoted exclusively to operas written since 1945. The article also notes that Germany already has 80 opera houses. These are all owned and operated by the government and each has a 52 week season.

Since Germany has about 85 million residents, this is roughly one 52 week season opera house for every one million people. The United States, by contrast, only has only *one* 52 week season opera, The Met, in New York City. That is one eightieth the number of 52 week season houses in the US for three and a half times the population. This leads to the somewhat staggering result that Germany has 280 times more 52 week season opera houses per capita than the USA. 

There are a few cities in the USA that have houses with seasons ranging from three to six months. San Francisco and Chicago have houses with six month seasons, Houston has a five month season, and if one interprets the number of performances and productions with the most optimistic and generous analysis, one could say that Los Angeles and Philadelphia might have the equivalent of three month seasons -- though that is somewhat exaggerated. (The Met and the major houses in Europe do from 5 to 8 performances a week, year round, while Philadelphia might do 2 or 3 a week over a total three or four month period.) 

Even if one totaled together the houses with part time seasons it would probably be very difficult to say that the US has the equivalent of ten 52 week season houses. That would still mean that Germany has 28 times more 52 week season houses per capita than the USA. This number is similar to the comparative orchestra statistics for the two countries. Germany has about 23 times more 52 weeks season orchestras per capita than the USA. (See my earlier posts.)

If New York City had the same number of operas per capita as Germany it would have about eight houses. This would mean that each of its boroughs would have a year round house (Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Stanton Island) with Mannhattan having three. (It is also noteworthy that the average price of a ticket at the Met is five times higher than the average opera ticket price in Germany. And it should be noted that commercial theaters doing musicals with a ten person band built around a synthesizer is not to be equated with an opera house.)

If the USA had the 280 houses to give it figures comparable to Germany, there would also be houses in Long Island, Newark, Jersy City, Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Providence, Boston, etc. California would have about 30 houses. Like Germany, the United States would suffer from a serious shortage of good opera singers. There would be no unemployment for these artists. 

With that much creativity, I doubt Americans would stick to European repertoire and models. A genuinely American opera would evolve. One can only dream of what it would be, but it is not a dream to think that this can happen. There is no magic that makes Germany different. It is simply a matter of having the will and vision. The United States has the money, but does not use it for the arts. As Tildy pointed out, the budget for the military's bands is many time larger than the NEA. (I'll try to get the exact number on that.) The annual military budget in the USA is 3290 times larger than the NEA and the Pentagon has just asked for another 20 billion dollar increase.

See the article below of special interest to composers.

William Osborne

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andante - 4 January 2002 

What, a Fourth Opera House for Berlin? Contemporary Music Group Hopes its Plan Will Fly
Shirley Apthorp

It looks like a cross-section of a UFO, and it's causing a sensation in Berlin. Designed by architects Gewers Kühn + Kühn, the "spaceship" hasn't landed yet, but when it does it will become Europe's first venue built specifically for contemporary music theater.

The projected docking bay is the empty space in a bend of the Spree River between the city's new government quarter and the site of the new central railway station. If Berlin's Zeitgenössische Oper, which was founded in 1997 with the aim of performing only post-1945 music theater, has its way, this swampy patch will become home to a completely new kind of venue open, transparent, flexible and consummately modern. Here, music theater would never be limited by the outdated constraints of the proscenium arch and fixed seating of the 18th-cenutry opera house. Everything would move walls, floor, ceiling and performers could meet their audiences in every conceivable configuration.

Nor would the new Center for Contemporary Opera and Music (the venue's less-than-catchy working title) be limited to one performance a day. Its peeled-open shape would invite free public access at any hour, with an undulating walkway leading from the street to the roof via an imaginative series of installation, exhibition and workshop spaces that give passersby a taste of all that is happening behind the building's glass membranes. A café or restaurant would provide refreshments to balance the metaphysical nourishment on offer.

Technology would allow the central performance space to be configured for intimate or large-scale performances and everything in between. The acoustics would be similarly flexible; everything from a small chamber to a cathedral could be reproduced and everything from traditional symphonic forces to multi-media electronic events could be accommodated. A series of galleries could be opened or closed for viewers or performers and stages and pits could be raised or lowered at will. It's a utopian concept, and as befits all grand dreams, it is blissfully removed from the constraints of everyday reality.

There are a few problems. Berlin, which can no longer afford to maintain its three existing opera houses, is probably the European capital least likely to want to pay for another. The national government has already categorically said it will not provide money for the project; Germany already has some 80 opera houses. Private donors remain an option, but without a German tradition of sponsorship it seems unlikely that the estimated 51 million required could be conjured up in this manner. Then there's the matter of operating costs which would surely be higher than the annual 10.2 million hopefully quoted. 

Where will the money come from? Knut Nevermann, second-in-command at the national cultural ministry, cautions that the project fails to recognize the need for existing opera houses to find ways to present new works and he argues that it could lead them to abdicate that responsibility. He questions the assertion that Berlin is devoid of existing performance spaces suitable for the genre.

For the Zeitgenössische Oper Berlin, it's too early for this kind of discussion. In presenting the architectural plans, the company says it is calling for a public debate about whether or not the country needs a center for contemporary opera and music. Details such as how much it would cost and who should pay can be worked out later.

Gewers Kühn + Kühn certainly present a convincing case for their design. As the team responsible for Munich's new rehearsal stage (scheduled to open in 2003), they have the experience to know what they're talking about, and the sense to consult the relevant experts. Their design reflects the curves of the Spree around their chosen site, a vacant patch now held by the German railway organization (Deutsche Bahn). The new central station, when it is built on the former border of East and West Berlin, will represent a crossroads of European culture, where travelers from Copenhagen to Ankara intersect with those from Madrid to Moscow. 

The music center, with its strange, peeled-open look, will present an image appropriate to the European cultural capital Berlin would like to believe itself to be. It should, the architects say, symbolize the flowing border between the arts and society. From the roof, you would be able to see the city's brand-new government buildings and on the way up there, you would experience an exciting expression of culture.

When the architect Hans Scharoun created Berlin's Philharmonie, its revolutionary design of interlocking hexagons brought the audience around all sides of the symphonic stage and exploded traditional notions of what a concert hall should be. It's time, says Gerard Mortier, the former Salzburg Festival Intendant and the future head of the Paris Opera, for the same thing to happen to traditional notions of what an opera house should be. Gewers Kühn + Kühn's plan, if realized, could do just that.

Their plans incorporate research spaces, archives and library rooms, rehearsal areas and flexible technological and electronic possibilities. We don't know today how tomorrow's music will sound, but here, at last, is a building that frees the creative artist from all limitations. The ambitious plans have already been rigorously examined by engineers. Theoretically, it's all feasible. In five to ten years, it could be completed. In practice, it'll take more than beautiful plans, an intriguing model and clever rhetoric to turn this from a quixotic dream into a reality.