by Roderick Conway Morris

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Subsidy Cuts Threaten To Darken Opera Houses

By Roderick Conway Morris
MUNICH 9 December 1997


A high regard for music in general and opera in particular runs clear across the political spectrum in Germany, and both sides of the once-divided nation used to spend very substantial sums subsidizing concert halls and opera houses. Opera companies could routinely expect 80 percent or more of their budgets to come from government subsidies.

But the worsening economic situation and cuts in public spending since reunification now threaten many of the country's 90 or so houses with drastic reductions in their programs or even closure -- holding out the prospect that in many places the typical well-attended evening at the local opera house, and all the cultural and social ritual surrounding it, may become a rarity or thing of the past.

'There's still a broad consensus here that opera is really something that makes life worth living, and that far from being a luxury, it is one of the cornerstones of the German cultural tradition,' said Peter Jonas, former director of the English National Opera and now artistic and administrative director of the Bavarian State Opera. 'So, whereas if a politician in Britain gets up and says grants for the ENO or Covent Garden should be cut, there are plenty of people who will say: 'Jolly good thing, too, why should we subsidize seats for toffs?' in Germany the majority still think it's right and proper for the state to support opera.'

Mr. Jonas added, 'And as taxation is very high here, people also feel that if they do go to the opera, they have to a large degree already paid for it. And this makes it extremely difficult to raise the prices of seats to compensate for the loss of help from the state.'

Alard von Rohr, director of opera at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, also said there was very strong resistance to price rises. 'We have already put them up, but if we put them up more we will have empty seats and lose revenue. We have the additional problem in Berlin that people from the former GDR were used to paying 5 to 10 Deutsche marks for a seat at the opera and now have to pay 10 times more,' he said.

The Deutsche Oper presently has a budget of 90 million DM, about 10 million DM of which comes from the box office. Their subsidy has been cut by 3 million to 4 million DM a year since 1994, and the total reduction will be at least 20 million DM by 1999. 'We have tried everything possible to reduce our costs, including hiring less expensive singers and spending less on productions, and so on, but it is very difficult to see how we are going to manage in the future,' said Mr. von Rohr.

The crisis is, if anything, more acute at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin. Once the Royal Opera, it was the leading house in East Germany. With Daniel Barenboim as its artistic and general musical director, the house and its orchestra continue to enjoy an outstanding international reputation. Its total budget is about 114 million DM, 90 million DM of which is received in subsidies. Subsidy cuts between 1994 and 1999 are expected to amount to 55 million DM.

'We have balanced our books for this year, but to do so we have had to cancel three important new productions,' said Stephan Adam, the Staatsoper's assistant director. 'We have already cut 137 staff and, regretfully, scrapping new work was the only way we could make ends meet without sacrificing the quality on which our name depends. We have already increased seat prices, but don't want to create a situation where only the rich can afford to go to opera.'

As the cuts have bitten deeper, Mr. Jonas and his colleagues in Munich have adopted a strategy of offering their own detailed cost-reducing package rather than waiting for cuts imposed from above.

'The general edict from the Finance Ministry is that every area of the public sector must cut its spending by 10 percent by the year 2000. But how do you cut 10 percent of two harpists or a horn group?' Mr. Jonas asked.

Mr. Jonas said that the Bavarian State Opera was in an unusual position because it was written into the Constitution that one of the primary objectives of the Bavarian state is to promote culture. Nonetheless, its subsidies were cut by 2 million DM in 1995 and 2.5 million DM in 1996. Mr. Jonas said they had proposed to make their own cuts of 2.8 million to 3.8 million DM, losing 22 jobs over the next 3 years. Bavarian State Opera's case has been helped by an exceptionally healthy box office. He said, 'During the 31 days of our opera festival alone we took 8.3 million DM, a rise of 1.5 million over the record festival takings of the year before. We also have the advantage of having 2,100 seats, whereas the Deutsche Staatsoper, for example, has only 1,225. So we're on course to hit 40 million DM in revenue this year, out of a total budget of 128 million.'

'Our package has been accepted by the Bavarian cabinet,' Mr. Jonas added, 'but something of a tussle has developed between them and the Finance Ministry, which argues that there should be no exceptions to the 10 per cent across the board target. But we're cautiously optimistic that our solution will be accepted as reasonable.'

'To our minds there is nothing worse than letting the opera house go dark,' said Mr. von Rohr at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023