The “fat lady” has to slim down

Italy cuts opera subsidies by 40 percent

"It ain’t over till the fat lady sings" is an American proverb that comes from the fact that there are so many decidedly well-fed sangers in this genre. But those who are well cared for can tighten their belts more easily than those who are only skin and bones.

In Frank Capra’s classic film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Gary Cooper, as Longfellow Deeds, unexpectedly inherits a million-dollar fortune. Shortly after receiving the inheritance, the board of the opera elects him president in succession to his deceased uncle. When Cooper, a simple man of the people, unexpectedly wants to hear the business figures of the institution, he discovers that it is running a large deficit, which he is supposed to make up. According to the other members of the board, this is quite normal and must be so. Deeds, however, does not want to accept this as normal and tells them that they either ran the opera as a profitable business or had to stay that way.

Later, he decides to give the bulk of his uncle’s assets to starving farmers who have been dispossessed by banks. The law firm, which had managed the estate of the deceased with a great deal of self-interest, tries to have Deeds disinherited. The latter has to explain in court why he does not subsidize the opera with his money, but rather helps poor people to build up a new existence. He does this by comparing himself to a drowning man who would rather take his boat than someone who has his own boat and is just too lazy to row.

A lament similar to that of the opera lovers in the 1936 film is currently being heard from the "German Cultural Council", the "the umbrella organization of the", which finds the remarks of Bonn’s mayor, Jurgen Nimptsch, about a possible abandonment of the Bonn opera "extremely alarming" and is "very concerned" about this. Nimptsch had said last weekend at a cultural-political conference in Koln that there was an opera in Koln, which is closer to Bonn than many a suburb is to the center of a metropolis, that could be attended by lovers of the theater genre in his home country.

Olaf Zimmermann, the managing director of the German Cultural Council, in his press release spreading his concern, used the slogan "Strong cities need strong cultural power" "Strong cities need strong cultural power plants!" at. When a city "has to tighten its belt" tightening its belt, Zimmermann said, then this must "the cultural profile of a city to become increasingly watered down, because the", because "the identity of a city is directly linked to its cultural achievements".

There is no real argument against opera lovings in this revision. However, it can be inferred indirectly that Zimmermann apparently would rather save money in all other areas than in the subsidization of opera houses. This is the path taken by the city of Wuppertal, for example, which, despite its proximity to the Ruhr region with its numerous venues, continues to finance its own opera house, which is hardly visited, with debts. Instead, it is cutting back on aid for the homeless, among other things.

The Italian Minister of Culture, Sandro Bondi, a former member of the Communist Party, is currently taking a different approach: he has cut state subsidies to the operas, which account for about half of the cultural budget, by 40 percent. On average, ticket revenues cover only about 20 percent of an Italian opera’s expenses. But not all of the 14 relatively autonomous opera foundations are affected to the same extent by the cuts.

In the past, some of them carelessly spent much more money than they had available, reckoning that the taxpayers would have to step in to fulfill their wishes. This is the reason why the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa is threatened with closure. The theater’s directors managed it so carelessly that it accumulated millions of euros in debt, which even a receiver capitulated to this summer. Other candidates for closure are the Teatro di San Carlo theater in Naples, the metropolis of corruption, and the opera house in Bologna.

The'fat lady' muss abspecken

La Scala in Milan. Photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto. License: CC-BY-SA.

The situation is different at Milan’s internationally renowned La Scala, where only 40 percent of its expenses come from state subsidies. It has the potential to cover its costs in the long term or even to be profitable. And at the Fenice Opera in Venice, Fortunato Ortombina demonstrated how a third less money can be used to give a third more performances.

Nevertheless, Stephane Lissner, the director of Milan’s La Scala, complained about the shortages and compared the privatization of operas to that of hospitals in an interview. But the elaborate operas are neither necessary for survival, nor are they natural monopolies like the water supply, in which no competition could be formed. What harm could be expected if, in the age of the cheap DVD, opera tickets were offered at the price from which a good part of the visitors otherwise swarm – the market price?

That members of this group were quite willing to resolve the cognitive dissonance by paying a higher entrance fee was demonstrated by audience reactions to the protests against the subsidy cuts, with which the participating singers and musicians did not necessarily achieve what they had in mind. Instead, they were sometimes booed and told to get to work already.

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