Opera as a plaything of the rich

July 22, 2000

Whether or not opera is a "plaything of the rich," wealthy donors receive special benefits at the Met and most other US opera houses. The Met website states this plainly when soliciting patrons, "In addition to the satisfaction of giving to a treasured institution, Met Patrons enjoy priority ticket service, significant recognition and greater overall involvement in the life of The Met."

Should "overall involvement in the life of The Met" be based on the amount of money one has, or on one's dedication to opera? Is a "priority ticket service" inevitably linked to wealth appropriate for a "public" institution receiving tax breaks and governmental funds? Is the patron system a reflection of music's patriarchal, feudalistic traditions? Or is it merely capitalism at work? 

The minimum donation for a Met patron is $1500, but membership is broken into categories of special privileges based on sums ranging up to $15,000 (see their website.) In reality the privileges and corresponding sums go into the millions. The situation is compounded by exorbitant ticket prices. Interestingly, the Met does not list ticket prices on its site, but a few months ago I happened to see a special "Millenium" event with tickets ranging from $500 to $2500. The two top price categories included a gala banquet--the more money you gave, the closer you were allowed to sit near the artists at dinner. The prices of regular season tickets are also enormous.

There are some affordable tickets, score desks with no view at all, or the top balcony where the sets are often not visible and one looks only at the tops of the singers heads. Opera tickets are not cheap in the subsidized European houses either, but they do not reflect the extravagant prices charged in America. And no one is allowed "priority ticket service." In Germany and Austria demand exceeds the numbers of tickets, which are distributed using a lottery system. "Priority ticket service" that inevitably benefits the wealthy would be repulsive. (There are some exceptions, such as the Salzburger Festspiel, which is noted for catering to the upper classes.) 

I think it is very important for Amercian society to question how public its "public" operas really are. From time to time the question is raised here in Germany of ending government subsidies for the arts and moving to an American model. The notion has always been rejected out of hand, because it so unfair and seriously damages cultural expression and reception.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think the Met is the only opera house in America with a full year season. The season in San Franciso is only three months. Chicago is up to eight or nine months if I remember right. Santa Fe is a summer opera. What about Boston and Houston? Can someone layout the facts for us? The lack of opera houses with full year seasons is also scandalous.

I think the American model is dead wrong and that discussions about live opera performances being essentially for the rich are very appropriate. The term "plaything of the rich" is too imprecise, but the point is well taken. This is not to demean the generosity of wealthy patrons; it is the model itself that is wrong. 

Why are these issues so often ignored? Where are the Adorno's of American musical thought?

William Osborne