San Francisco Opera at the "precipice"

San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley has made some rather startling remarks in the program for the Makropulos Case. I didn't notice if these same comments appeared in an earlier program, Cyrano's for example, because unless it's the season announcement I usually find little interest in what Gockley has to say. However, this is different. This sounds dire and I'm surprised no one is seems to be talking about it- or at least writing about it.

In the program's "Notes from the General  Director" Gockley shares "excerpts from remarks I made at a full Company meeting several weeks ago." After noting the precarious situations many arts organizations around the country are in due to the economy, and his opinion that an end in nowhere in sight, he writes

This reality has pushed most companies towards a precipice, forcing incredibly hard decisions. San Francisco Opera is, however, already there. Exacerbating the general economic pain facing all companies are a unique set of factors that this company has languished under for many years, if not decades.

Well, at least he's not blaming everything on Pamela Rosenberg this time. Among the factors causing the pain are:

  • "a beautiful but woefully inadequate facility that does not afford the technological efficiency of newer stages"
  • eight separate locations of operation
  • a reliance on "12 families for 50% of our contributed income and the majority of these donors are over 70 years old!" [exclamation point Gockley's]
  • maxing out potential ticket sales [Gockley acknowledges the obscene amount prices have risen during his tenure]
  • undercapitalization and an "inadequate endowment and facilities"
  • fixed cost obligations
  • a "major cash problem" which may lead to a "going concern" scenario wherein SFO "may not have the resources to meet its obligations and is typically an indication that insolvency is just around the corner"

Many people reading the program may not realize the implications if SFO becomes a "going concern." First of all, it implies SFO isn't going to get a clean audit this year. This is pretty alarming news, people- I'm not sure this has ever happened to them before- in fact I really doubt it. The timing is suspicious because the numbers for next year are due shortly. It also means the repercussions of such an event could hit the Company where it hurts the most and where the only quick-fix source of income is going to appear out of nowhere- deep-pocketed donors, who fully understand that donating large amounts of money to a "going concern" makes about as much sense as playing the lotto- and these people just don't do that.

Golly, where does one begin? How about with this comment by Gockley on last year's financial audit, posted on the company's website in February, 2010:

"These are the results we more or less expected for FY 2009, a season less impacted by the current "Great Recession" than FY 2010 or 2011 will be. We are presently forecasting a FY 2010 deficit of $2 million and are struggling mightily to balance FY 2011, the season in which we have announced three cycles of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. Contributing to this situation is the recession's effect on ticket sales, annual contributions and the value of our endowment. Looking ahead, only significant modifications to the company's fixed cost structure will permit us to survey the future with reasonable confidence."

Well at least he saw it coming. He did, right? So I guess the question is what have he and the Board been doing for the past year to make the situation better? I'll have to get back with you on that.

My first thought on reading this is that Gockely is about to embark on a Quixotic adventure of either trying to break the unions associated with the Opera or at least attempting major wage and benefit concessions from them. This scenario would be really interesting, but however it plays out everyone is going to be the loser. As I see it (from a very distant perspective here in the stands) one of two things will happen: the unions will balk and a season is going to be cancelled because of a strike. This would be a disaster on so many levels I won't even begin to list them. The other scenario is that somehow Gockley brings the unions to the table and extracts major concessions from them. This isn't going to play well with anyone no matter how it's handled. The press will have a field day, the union members will be bitter, and there isn't any plausible way at this stage Gockely can say with a straight face "take these cuts now and we'll make it up to you one day." If he manages this it's going to hurt, hurt deeply, and for a long time. Significant players will probably look for other opportunities elsewhere- and find them, essentially removing a lot of the cream at the top.
If his statement isn't a shot across the bow at the unions, then what does all this portend? What's Gockley hinting at?

He says they company has been considering "Five Levers" (who comes up with these names, btw?), which are:

  • Recapitalization by borrowing against equity the Indiana Street property
  • Reducing the season starting in 2012 to eight productions [so long, summer season?]
  • Structural imbalance  [he's not very clear with details about what this means but it doesn't sound very positive- something about "reconceptualizing" and a "re-envision" of how the company operates and with what resources. Uh-oh.]
  • Facilities [Okay, this looks like the easy part- so do something already- you've been talking about this for years now.]
  • Grow the endowment [duh]

He then goes on to say "SFO has no preordained right to exist" and how "it will require each person in this theater to participate and recognize their part in re-thinking San Francisco Opera."

Furthermore, "It may mean personal sacrifice, it may mean a re-thinking of traditional norms and expectations, it may mean a different kind of company (italics mine)." Hold on a minute- what the fuck did he just say?

"A different kind of company"? Such as... what?

If you've read this blog for awhile you already know I'm not a fan of Gockley's vision and I dislike a lot of what he's done with the company, but I'll give the guy credit when it's due and acknowledge that when he succeeds, he tends to do so in a big way.

A check on the numbers for last year show production costs have remained mostly static or are actually lower than in previous years, which is a good thing. I don't pretend to understand how they move all that "temporarily restricted" money all around and all of that other accounting wizardry- I'm going to show these numbers to someone I know who actually does this stuff for a living to get a better understanding of it- but for me the big question is why such an alarming statement has come from the General Director with such little advance notice- and includes things that could have been addressed during the past four years (such as the eight locations) and things that really can't be addressed at all- meaning the supposed inadequacies of the War Memorial Opera House? What a mess! Who's in charge here?

However, I am a huge fan of San Francisco Opera and of what it means to the City and our community. Now in this call to collective arms (at least that's how I read it), nowhere did I see a place for the public to make its suggestions/thought/comments known and I also didn't see any suggestions from Gockley as to what we, the audience sitting in the theater, could do to help (besides of course the implied imperative to give money or buy more expensive seats- both of which really aren't viable strategies to most people in the current climate).

But you do want to hear from us, don't you Mr. Gockley? I mean we do go these shows- some of us have for many years now. We are invested in the success of SFO and don't want it to just disappear because it "has no preordained right to exist." In our minds we would have a hard time coming to grips with the idea even as a remote possibility. SFO can't just disappear because the money's not there to run it.

So here are my suggestions, completely given with the knowledge they certainly won't fix everything, perhaps even little in the overall big picture, but it I offer them in the spirit of one who is interested in seeing SFO grow and thrive, respects its history, its place in the opera world, and its relevance to the City and Bay Area:

A season of eight productions? Fine, do away with the summer season altogether. The house is too hot in the summer anyway and eight productions in the fall is a lot more exciting than 5 or 6.

Split those eight into "four and four"- four that maintain your preference for stars, warhorses and glitz and four for the audience that wants more than Butterfly every other year and would be more interested in seeing Edgar before another mediocre Tosca- the audience that is talking rabidly about The Makropulos Case and helped sell out every show of Porgy and Bess. I'm going to label it the "Janus Approach."

The Janus Approach would look like this: four operas that have the stars doing their thing in good productions of the standard rep. Gockley knows how to do this as well as anyone else. But he needs to make sure it hits every time, not just most of the time. Last season he pulled it off better than anyone could have imagined- this year not so much, too be kind.

The star-studded, standard side would feature productions like last year's Trovatore, Fille du Regiment and Elisir and this year's Cyrano. When the standard rep is done at that level everyone wants to see it. When it's not, you lose the press, the bloggers, enthusiasts, dilettantes and most people except newbies, blue-hairs, and the occasionals.

The other side of the Janus Approach has the premieres, Janacek, Britten, Berlioz, and acknowledges the audience that Rosenberg helped develop hasn't disappeared- they are just avidly awaiting what Ensemble Parallele and Urban Opera are going to do next and are not that excited about Aida, Butterfly or next year's Carmen and Turandot. It's the audience that flies down to see LA Opera's Recovered Voices programming. It's the audience that will fly into SF if there's a good reason to- meaning something they can't see anywhere else. Do these have to be super expensive productions? No- they just have to be good, thoughtful and adventurous. You want a younger audience? You'll find it here. Stage the first West Coast production of Die Soldaten, do Zemlinsky, produce niche programming which compels people into the House.

Porgy and Bess was a milestone for the company- a tremendous success on every level and this was all Gockley's doing. Do it again- this time with West Side Story, Oklahoma or even The Music Man for the holidays. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to see The Music Man in the War Memorial with Nathan Gunn and Joyce DiDonato in the leads? Okay, I know I'm on my own personal fantasy tangent here- sorry!

Granted, ticket sales aren't going to be the only way to fix this, but programming is the key to everything because that's where you develop the audience and the audience is where the money comes from. What you do with the money is the Board's decision, but if you want to re-invent the Company, let's re-invent it- and re-invent it for the next generation without alienating the current one.

Chamber operas- put Adamo's Little Women on, and the smaller Britten operas, in Herbst or YBCA. The opportunities here are endless, but  more Three Decembers in Berkeley isn't the answer. It has to happen here in the City.

Maximize sponsorships. My day job contributes a LOT of money to SFO yet hardly any of my co-workers know about the discounts available to them. There are a lot of people you aren't reaching out to in any effective way that can be lured to the house for the first time. Make sure what they see makes them want to return.

Stop dumbing it down. The Facebook page of SFO is often embarrassing. There is a middle path between "elitist" and "high-brow" and pandering to "Gleeks." This is the Western world's highest art form- work it for what it is.

Extend Bravo perks. Take a cue from the Symphony and come up with something like Davies After Hours. Stop letting Sugar and Absinthe get all the money after the show ends- leave the bars open and set up places in the house where people can talk about what they just saw and heard.

Opera in the Ball Park is a huge success. What's next? How about random, unannounced Opera Across San Francisco? Have some heavyweight tweeters letting people know SFO is broadcasting from in front of the Ferry Building, Dolores Park, Union Square or ....

These are my suggestions for now.. I'll have others as I think about it. The comments section is wide open.. have at it.