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Pandemic Woes Lead Met Opera to Tap Endowment and Embrace Latest Work

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Hit hard by a money shortfall and lackluster ticket sales because it tries to lure audiences back amid the pandemic, the Metropolitan Opera said Monday that it could withdraw as much as $30 million from its endowment, give fewer performances next season and speed up its embrace of latest works, which, in a shift, have been outselling the classics.

The dramatic financial and artistic moves show the extent to which the pandemic and its aftermath proceed to roil the Met, the premier opera company in the USA, and are available as many other performing arts institutions face similar pressures.

“The challenges are greater than ever,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “The one path forward is reinvention.”

Nonprofit organizations attempt to dip into their endowments only as a final resort, for the reason that funds are supposed to grow over time while producing a gradual source of investment income. The Met’s endowment, which was valued at $306 million, was already considered small for an establishment of its size. This season it is popping to the endowment to cover operating expenses, to assist offset weak ticket sales and a money shortfall that emerged as some donors were reluctant to speed up pledged gifts amid the stock market downturn. As more money gifts materialize, the corporate hopes to replenish the endowment.

To further cut costs, the corporate, which is giving 215 performances this season, is planning to cut back the variety of performances next season by near 10 percent.

The Met’s decision to stage significantly more contemporary operas is a remarkable turnabout for the corporate, which largely avoided newer works for a lot of a long time because its conservative audience base appeared to prefer war horses like Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Verdi’s “Aida” and Bizet’s “Carmen.”

But because the Met staged more recent work lately that dynamic has begun to shift, a change that has grown more pronounced for the reason that pandemic: While attendance has been generally anemic, contemporary works including Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” last season and Kevin Puts’s “The Hours” this season drew sellout crowds. (Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” in contrast, ended its run this month with 40 percent attendance.)

Any longer, Mr. Gelb said, the Met will open each season with a recent production of a recent work.

It’ll begin next yr with the corporate premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and the season will feature its first performances of Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X”; Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” and a staged production of John Adams’s “El Niño.” And Mr. Gelb said that the Met was rearranging next season to bring back “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “The Hours,” with its three divas, Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara, reprising their roles.

“Opera should reflect the times we’re in,” said Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director. “It’s our responsibility to generate recent works so that folks can recognize themselves and their realities on our stage.”

Mr. Gelb said that the corporate’s change in strategy was possible partially because major stars are increasingly concerned with performing music by living composers. “It’s a giant shift when it comes to opera singers themselves, embracing recent work and understanding that that is the longer term,” he said.

The Met has drawn a lot of probably the most illustrious singers of the day since Enrico Caruso ruled its stage, and it gave the world premiere of several Puccini operas and the American premiere of works by Richard Strauss and Wagner. It returned triumphantly last yr after the long pandemic shutdown, which cost it $150 million in anticipated revenues. Audiences were back, though still lagging. Donations were up. And the determination of the entire company, including its artists and stagehands and ushers, was on full display: whilst Omicron shut down many theaters last season, the Met never missed a curtain.

By summer, nevertheless, the corporate, which has an annual budget of $312 million, making it the biggest performing arts organization in the USA, began to feel the strains of the pandemic more acutely.

Ticket revenues last season from in-person performances and the Met’s Live in HD cinema presentations were down by greater than $40 million compared with before the pandemic. Paid attendance within the opera house has fallen to 61 percent of capability, down from 73 percent. Donors have stepped in to fill much of the shortfall: Through the pandemic, they’ve pledged greater than $150 million in extra emergency funds. But amid the market downturn, some were hesitant to quickly deliver those gifts.

“When the economy shudders, major donors shudder together with it,” Mr. Gelb said.

The corporate had avoided dipping into its endowment within the early days of the pandemic, whilst many other struggling opera corporations and orchestras did, partly since it had taken the painful step of furloughing employees, including its orchestra and chorus, without pay. But now it has withdrawn $23 million from its endowment and may draw one other seven million.

A recent cyberattack that left the Met website and box office unable to sell recent tickets for nine days has added to the corporate’s woes.

But as more private donations are available — at first of the brand new yr the corporate expects to absorb a further $36 million in money above its normal contributions — it hopes to replenish the endowment before the tip of the fiscal yr, at the tip of July. It’s unclear if that can be possible.

The Met’s decision to show to its endowment undoes a few of the work it has undertaken lately to construct it back up. A number of years ago the corporate announced a fund-raising drive to double the endowment, and took steps to lower the quantity its draws from it annually all the way down to 5 percent of its value, from 8 percent.

The Met is just not alone find it difficult to emerge from the pandemic.

Portland Opera in Oregon, which is battling a chronic decline in ticket sales, has reduced its staff and cut in half the variety of operas it stages each season to 3 from six before the pandemic. “The situation currently facing Portland Opera is just not unique, but it surely remains to be a crisis,” said Sue Dixon, the corporate’s general director, who said that the cuts were obligatory within the short term but would hurt the corporate’s ability to grow back.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has seen paid attendance hovering at around 47 percent this fall, down from about 66 percent before the pandemic, though a recent uptick in sales has provided some optimism. “Many individuals usually are not back within the habit,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, the president and chief executive of the orchestra and the Kimmel Center. “We want to remind them that it’s not only a gorgeous and extraordinary and special experience, but it surely’s also easy and cheap.”

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, a troupe in Ohio, canceled its holiday shows this month due to tepid demand and rising production costs. And the Philly Pops, a 43-year-old orchestra, has announced plans to dissolve next yr, citing mounting debt and a pointy decline in subscriptions throughout the pandemic.

The prospect of a recession next yr is further rattling arts groups and raising fears that weak attendance could extend into next season and beyond. Federal assistance, which helped many corporations survive the pandemic shutdown, has now largely dried up.

“We’re still in this era of great uncertainty and anxiety,” said Simon Woods, the president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras. “The necessity to construct recent audiences is more urgent than ever.”

For a lot of opera corporations and orchestras, the pandemic has accelerated the decline of the subscription model for selling tickets, which was once a serious income.

On the Met, subscriptions are expected to fall to 19 percent of total box office revenues this season, compared with 45 percent twenty years ago. As single tickets change into more popular, and a few older subscribers stay at home due to virus fears, the typical age of the Met’s audience has dropped to 52, from 57 in 2020.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin, who became the Met’s music director in 2018, succeeding James Levine, who led the corporate for 4 a long time, said the corporate would remain committed to the classics whilst it embraced innovation. And he said that the corporate could attempt to appeal to different audiences with an array of works, each old and recent.

“I would like everyone to feel welcome on the Met,” he said. “Will they fall in love with every opera we do? In fact not. But I don’t want anyone to say, ‘The Met is just not for me.’”

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