Economy Puts Pinch On WNO's 'Ring'

Plácido Domingo, WNO's general director, said the
Plácido Domingo, WNO's general director, said the "Ring" will be postponed until "the financial climate becomes more positive." (By Neilson Barnard -- Getty Images)
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By Anne Midgette and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 8, 2008

The economic downturn has scored its first high-profile casualty on Washington's arts scene. The Washington National Opera has indefinitely postponed its performances of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, which was to be a highlight of the 2009-10 season.

"The dramatic changes in the nation's economy have made all of us who are responsible for WNO's welfare reluctantly come to the difficult decision to postpone the 'Ring' cycle until the financial climate becomes more positive," said Plácido Domingo, the company's general director, in a statement.

"Postponing the 'Ring' protects the long-term financial health of the company," said Mark Weinstein, the company's executive director.

Only a few companies in America -- San Francisco, Seattle and the Metropolitan Opera among them -- have staged a complete "Ring" cycle, comprising four lengthy operas. Because of the tremendous cost of mounting new productions on consecutive nights, many companies (like the Vienna State Opera) roll out one of the operas per season before presenting the cycle as a whole. For example, WNO has already mounted the first two of the "Ring" cycle's operas; the third, "Siegfried," was already postponed once for a year because of budget considerations, and will have its belated premiere later this season, in May 2009. "Götterdämmerung," the final opera, was to have been premiered as part of the complete cycle next fall. The company will offer two concert performances of the opera -- that is, without sets or costumes -- instead.

WNO estimates that postponing the "Ring" will mean saving $5 million to $6 million, which would have been spent in addition to the normal operating budget of around $32 million. The cycle is so costly primarily because of the many singers required and the need to rehearse four separate operas, which are put on only a few times each. (Washington had planned three complete cycles.) But WNO will still have to pay the singers who are under contract. Next season will be modified to accommodate some of them; it will now include, Domingo said, Ambroise Thomas's "Hamlet" (with Diana Damrau), Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" and a revival of "Porgy and Bess."

A survey of a half-dozen arts organizations in the region yesterday found that most are feeling the impact of the economic downturn. Ticket sales are down slightly for some groups. Unless the economy improves soon, some institutions say they may have to scale back programming for the 2009-10 season.

Still, none of those interviewed reported any curtailing of arts and education programs this season, which runs from the fall through the spring. If there is any good news, they say, it is that the economic crisis hit right at the beginning of the new season, when most subscriptions had already been sold and many fundraising pledges had already been banked.

"We've been rather fortunate in the sense that we pre-sold the season early and it sold well," said Neale Perl, president of the Washington Performing Arts Society, which presents more than 60 music and dance events at several venues.

Perl said single-ticket sales for top classical music acts continue strong, while sales for other well-known performers are down about 10 percent. Sales for lesser-known jazz, world music and dance performers are being hit harder.

"That puts more pressure on fundraising to make up the difference," Perl said. "We approached one of our most generous donors to see if they would substantially increase their support for next year. If they don't, we might have to cut back." For example, a concert series might have only five concerts instead of six, he said.

Other organizations are coming up with coping strategies. The Washington Ballet cut expenses by 7 percent this year while maintaining programming, said Laura DiSerio, the company's co-director of marketing and communications.

Arena Stage has announced a "one-day-only bailout plan": From midnight Thursday to midnight Friday, all tickets for the first week of performances of the seven remaining shows this season will be $25 each, a savings of 50 to 60 percent off regular prices.

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