Economy Puts Pinch On WNO's 'Ring'
Cycle Postponement Saves Opera Company Up to $6 Million

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.

"We all recognize that ticket sales are softening, and we want to make sure we are addressing it on the front side rather than being in a place where we have to be reactive," said Chad Bauman, director of communications.

Financing for Arena's move into new space in 2010 does not appear to be in jeopardy. The theater has collected more than 80 percent of the $108 million pledged so far in the $125 million capital campaign, and the money is invested safely, Bauman said.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is glad to be presenting comedies and well-known plays at a time like this, Artistic Director Michael Kahn said in a statement. Sales for the upcoming "Twelfth Night" are above projections, he said.

Fundraising, so far, has not sunk dramatically. "Like many arts institutions, we have seen some change in the level of donations, but at the same time, our annual gala just a few weeks ago was more successful than any others in our history," except for the celebratory opening of a new hall last fall, Kahn said.

The Washington National Opera also reports extremely strong fundraising and ticket sales. Postponing the "Ring" only demonstrates that it was impossible to raise extra money in the current climate.

Dubbed "The American Ring," Francesca Zambello's production frames the operas in an allegorical American setting, with Indians, gold prospectors and black slaves. Critics have been ambivalent about the staging, but Tim Page, in The Washington Post, raved about the singing in "Die Walküre," calling it "simply spectacular."

The cycle is a co-production with the San Francisco Opera, which plans to stage the entire cycle in 2011. It is unclear how Washington's postponement will affect San Francisco's plans. David Gockley, the company's general director, said through a spokesman that it was impossible to respond so quickly.

"We are truly sensitive to what the Washington National Opera is going through," said Jon Finck, the opera's director of communications, "because we are all in this. It is affecting everybody nationwide."

The postponement is not the first belt-tightening move WNO has made since Weinstein's arrival in February to oversee the business side of the operation. But Weinstein denies that it sends a negative message to the world.

"I think it sends out a message that we're being smart," he said.

As for potential sponsors, "I think this will reassure them that we are a smart company that responds to market conditions. People invest in us. They're not giving to a charity, they're investing in our future." The postponement, he said, indicates that "we're not wasting their money. We have a valid artistic vision, but we're prudent." And given the current state of the economy, "if we didn't react, you would have more concern."

But the savings will bring costs of its own. "Ring" cycles tend to draw international audiences; there are people who travel the globe to see a new "Ring." Ticket sales, said the WNO statement, were already "exceptionally strong" and "undoubtedly would have resulted in sold-out performances."

A "Ring" is also a statement of a company's artistic stature. In 2007, Zambello told The Post that "it's a great benchmark." She added, "This demonstrates that Washington National Opera is an international company on the level of many of the great companies of the world, and you wouldn't be if you didn't have your own 'Ring' cycle."

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