In this episode of the Steiny Road, the Poet will peer gingerly into the ledger books to give a glimpse of what money is required today to develop and produce a new opera by a small opera company.
THE OPERA TAX
In her essay "Money" first published in the Saturday Evening Post (June 13, 1936) and later in How Writing Is Written, Gertrude Stein said, "When you earn money and spend money every day anybody can know the difference between a million and three. But when you vote money away there really is not any difference between a million and three." The Poet immediately brings up this problem of tax because whatever money there might be for a new opera is always meted out in such a way that not one of the collaborators (composer, librettist, stage director, dramaturg, music director) feels that she or he has been properly paid, let alone reimbursed, for the work delivered. In theory, opera money, like personal income taxes, is dispersed (spent) for the greater good.
Because politically the subject of money smells like dirty laundry and is best not trotted out unless it is going directly into the washing tub, the Poet is poised with her pins to hang up the sheets with the following caveats. As far as the Poet knows, no individual or organization has done any studies on what the average cost of developing and producing a new opera by a small opera company is. Opera America keeps a database on new North American operas, but the data, which sometimes include development and production costs, are probably conjecture and not actual amounts. An Opera America representative who spoke with the Poet also offered that few opera companies would be willing to reveal what their costs were in premiering a new opera. Therefore, this discussion is about the components that make up those costs and some of the pitfalls. With the caveats disclosed, the Poet offers that for, a small opera company, numbers to work with might be $50,000 to $100,000 for development costs and $100,000 to $200,000 for production costs.
COST OF DEVELOPING AN OPERA
Development costs might include commissions to the composer and librettist (sometimes known as the poet), legal costs for drawing up agreements (and perhaps advice later), numerous workshops where segments of the opera under development are tried out and reworked, and other miscellaneous costs such as, but realistically never do include, travel, accommodations, food, communications, and minor advertising for workshops. The reality is that the composer may receive a commission that ranges from absolutely nothing to an amount that exceeds what the Poet has provided as the range for development costs. The Poet has heard it whispered in New York that the average commission for a composer should be $25,000.
The librettist usually gets a commission that is less than the composer's. Even when the composer gets nothing, the librettist, who is usually treated as a second class citizen to the effect that his or her name may be downplayed so much that no one knows that name, may get less than nothing. This happened to poet J. D. McClatchy for his work with composer Tobias Picker on Emmeline. The recording of Emmeline does not have McClatchy's name on the CD cover. The only antidote to this inequity is if the librettist already has public recognition. For example, novelist Toni Morrison, who teamed up with composer Richard Danielpour, wrote the words to the runaway success Margaret Garner. The Poet would venture to say that most of the Margaret Garner audience members know Morrison's name better than Danielpour's. As to the course of history, who is remembered (versus a commission paid) may be what really counts.
Usually the composer and the librettist pay for their own travel expenses and the collaborators are willing to do this for the sake of moving the project forward. In the case of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump EarlyOn, Bill Banfield and Karren Alenier received no reimbursement for travel to New York City, hotels, food, or anything else they required to accommodate the work done away from home on their Stein opera. In New York City over a period of more than five years, the Stein opera counted several developmental sessions of several days each, four workshops that included several days each usually for rehearsals and feedback afterwards, and a two-week period in preparation for the four days of the world premiere. So if one estimates there were 9 days of developmental work, 12 days for workshops, and 18 days for the premiere, totaling 39 days times at an estimated conservative cost of $200 per day that would be $7800 for all expenses for one person. Of course, the Poet knows that staying with friends or family who live in the Big Apple helps mightily, for both financial and moral support.
DON'T SKIMP ON THE AGREEMENT
Legal costs can be an ongoing situation, particularly if the collaboration requires mediation. Lawyers usually charge by the hour and their rates vary. Achieving a clearly stated agreement does not guarantee that more legal advice will not be needed later. To avoid collaboration problems, some composers opt for writing their own librettos or using texts that are in the public domain. However, composers as talented as Mark Adamo, who wrote his own libretti for Little Women and Lysistrata, Or The Nude Goddess, are the exception.
Should collaborators agree to forego a written agreement either written and/or reviewed by legal counsel? The Steiny Road Poet says no emphatically. The Poet knows of one collaboration where the composer pulled the music away from a libretto. The work had already premiered, but the composer formed a new partnership to recycle the music. The original collaborators had no written agreement and, therefore, the librettist had no clear legal recourse.
WORKSHOPS, PREMIERES AND PATRONS
Costs for workshops vary depending on the number of singers and musicians required. Small theater productions tend toward ten or fewer singers and a similar number limitation for musicians. Because the music of new opera tends to be difficult, singers often require extra coaching and some of that extra coaching cost comes out of the singer's pocket. Another important question is must the theater hire union performers, who must be paid more? Rehearsal halls need to be rented if the theater company does not own or have access to free space. Will the stage and music directors be paid or donate their time? Usually workshops address only a segment of the work-in-process opera. This might mean only some of the characters in the cast are required and that some singers might sing more than one role. Usually a pianist is the only musician required for a workshop production.
Costs for a full production expand from those discussed for workshops. Additional considerations—besides paying singers, musicians, directors, rents for rehearsal halls—are rent and services associated with the theater that will host the production (many small opera companies do not have their own stages and must rent space particularly in New York where real estate costs are high), scenery, lighting, recordings (audio and video), advertising, program brochures, libretto copies, and miscellaneous costs that might include a cast party. All these other costs bring in a whole new group of people who hopefully are expert in these various disciplines of theater arts.
The Steiny Road Poet does not claim to be expert in detailing the bottom line of a small opera. Even if the Poet is all wet about what the average costs of developing and producing an opera within the confines of a small opera company, she does know that corners have to be cut and deals have to be made to make the magic on stage financially possible. Small operas companies are a bit like small presses, they both do it for the passionate love of the art form despite the drain on resources. Always there is the hope that a patron will step forward and help, making truth of what Gertrude Stein said, "Money is always there, but the pockets change."