Opera: Bullish Wall Street can boost fortunes

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The health of the classical music scene in the United States, and New York in particular, depends not so much on public subsidy as on the bullishness of Wall Street. David Usborne explains the differences in financial culture across the Atlantic.

For now, at least, the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal government body that distributes cash to the arts across the United States, is still breathing. But only just and the Republicans still hope some day to kill it.

This, of course, is bad news for the NEA's beneficiaries. Among them is the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which this year received a sharply reduced grant of $350,000, barely enough to satisfy the cost of a single star soprano in one winter production.

The Met, however, is not quaking (and the Republicans know it). It, like so many other cultural institutions, is used to getting only dribbles of money from the public purse. More important to it by leagues is the money it can squeeze from kindly patrons, ranging from rich individuals and businesses.

And in that regard, the position these days could hardly be rosier. The economy is booming across the country and, more particular to New York, the wealth of many is being exponentially boosted by the bull run on Wall Street. The Met and several other New York artistic centres, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the city library, are reporting record takings.

Donations from individuals has always been critical to the Opera. Indeed, its foundation in 1885 is credited to a certain August Belmont, a Jew who decided to build his own opera house after being denied a box at what was then New York's main opera venue, the Academy of Music.

Diana Beattie, a leading society fund raiser in the city today, underlines the boon that the Wall Street rush brings to the Opera and other institutions. "The ripples from Wall Street just can't be overestimated," she said.

Arlene Schuler, director of development at the Lincoln Center where the Metropolitan Opera is housed, said: "Everyone is riding the wave of the economy. The Metropolitan Opera, Juilliard, the City Ballet have all just launched or are about to launch capital campaigns. We all want to take advantage of this opportunity while it's here."

And then there is the revenue that the Opera can generate for itself, through ticket sales but also through merchandise sales in shops and through its publications departments.

Recent statistics show opera gaining in popularity in most urban centres of America, with fans increasingly willing to shell out huge sums to buy seats for entire seasons. Even with single seats going for $150 a pop, the Metropolitan Opera is a regular sell-out.