Opera and the Arts in the Age of Novel Coronavirus

The world is suffering through a terrible pandemic, the most catastrophic in a century. Apart from the impact the virus has had on public health, the effect on the arts, particularly the performing arts, has been devastating. Museums and performing venues have closed, performances have been canceled, and the very survival of arts organizations has been put at risk.

In this country the model is for limited public funding of the arts. While arts organizations, particularly those that stage performances, cannot survive on ticket revenue alone, neither can they survive for long without ticket revenue.

Impact on the Met

The cost to the Metropolitan Opera of canceling the remainder of its season is estimated by Peter Gelb, its general director, to be in excess of $60 million. Even for an organization with a budget the size of the Met’s, absorbing that loss of revenue jeopardizes its future.

The Met will survive. Its huge donor base, comprised in part of patrons with sizable resources, will keep it alive. It remains to be seen what effect a revenue loss of that magnitude will have on its future productions and artistic vision. Smaller organizations are in even greater peril.

Impact on La Scala

In Europe some arts institutions are so bound up with a country’s identity that failure is unthinkable. They receive substantial state funding, but it remains to be seen whether and to what extent the political will to continue that support survives the pandemic. Milan without La Scala is unimaginable, but the city and the State of Lombardy have been so devastated that the level of public support could be affected.

The problem of public funding

In this country, the arts are an uneasy marriage of culture and commerce. There are those in Congress who believe that arts organizations warrant no public funding. They are playthings of the rich, and if private funding cannot sustain them, so be it. That view, of course, is at best short-sighted, since our lives are immeasurably enriched by the culture brought to us by the arts.

The way forward?

The pandemic may force us to reconsider the value of the arts to us and to rethink the model for arts funding. Perhaps smaller, locally-based organizations represent the future. That may foreclose live performances by highly compensated, well-known artists for many smaller venues.

It is possible that a blend of live and broadcast performance on the model of the Metropolitan Opera in HD will be the way to go in the future. Consolidation or joint funding ventures may be another model.  Arts organizations in this country must innovate to survive.

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