Sunday, January 12, 2014

Has the fat lady sung yet?

Well so much for my self-imposed exile from writing in January!  I had to take time this weekend to write after a big, juicy arts story broke this week in Hamilton, echoing news from both New York and Italy in recent months.

Opera Hamilton, in spite of having two years in the financial win column, succumbed to the cash crunch this week, cancelling the remainder of the current season.  They were supposed to perform their annual Popera shows this weekend - always a fun event - and the spring production of Bizet's Carmen, which would have been a guaranteed money maker.

According to Executive Director Stephen Bye, there simply wasn't enough money on hand to carry on, meaning wages and other expenses still outstanding after the fall production of Verdi's Falstaff will now be up in the air for at least a while longer.

This is not the first time Opera Hamilton has been in dire financial straits.  I recall several years ago speaking with the then Executive Director and when he was asked how they were planning to alleviate the cash crunch then, his answer left me shaking my head and doubting the financial viability of the company even then.  There just didn't seem to be a decent rescue plan in place, although clearly they did live to sing another day, as it were.

Don't get me wrong:  I have been to many Opera Hamilton performances over the years and always found them to be cleverly staged and well cast.  Audiences were coming out and everything seemed fine.  However, making an opera company viable that close to the shadow of Toronto's Canadian Opera Company might have been part of the problem.

For many smaller opera companies and indeed some larger ones, they share expenses for productions, so the sets and costumes can travel to different cities as needed.  In this day and age, that is the only viable option for smaller companies willing to take the risk on a co-funded production.  It isn't perfect, but it is often the only way they can survive.

News came in Thursday about Opera Hamilton's demise, and the following day the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra issued a statement stating their regret for the Opera Hamilton situation, and in a gesture of camaraderie are offering opera fans in the area who purchased tickets to Opera Hamilton performances cancelled prior to January 8th a ticket of comparable value to any one of four remaining HPO concerts, January 18, February 15, April 26 and May 31.  They must have proof of purchase, obviously, and the tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis as tickets are available.

To claim tickets, Opera Hamilton patrons can call the HPO box office at 905-526-7756.

It's a nice gesture on the part of the HPO, and if they eventually gather in some of those Opera Hamilton patrons for their own concerts in the future, all the better.  But I wouldn't want to bet the bank on that.  Money is tight all over these days, especially in the arts, so I suspect many affected patrons might just keep their money in their pockets for awhile.

Opera Hamilton is not the only operatic casualty these days.  Back in late September, New York City opera announced it would close down after 70 years of providing affordable opera for the masses.  The writing was on the wall quite some time ago for New York City Opera, as they moved out of their long-time home at Lincoln Centre and cut back on their performance schedule in order to cut costs.

But it was not enough, and a Kickstarter campaign the company had launched to try to raise $ 1 million of the $ 7 million it sought fell far short of its goal.  At the end, they had only raised barely over $ 300,000 of that amount.

What a sad end to a company that always prided itself on being, as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia put it at the time, a company that provided "cultural entertainment at popular prices."  Sound familiar?

And it is not a problem just here in North America.  In Italy, considered the cradle of opera thanks to the rich operatic history provided over the years by the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Bellini and a host of other Italian opera composers, the tradition of opera is starting to die off as well.

Recently the staff at Catania's opera house staged a funeral in suitably operatic fashion, carrying a coffin through the packed auditorium.  But this was a funeral for the opera house itself.  That opera house is in deep financial trouble, as is the case in Florence, Rome, Bologna, Genoa, Parma and Cagliari.

The problem in Italy is lack of government funding due to the economic crisis they have been facing the last several years.  But wait.  When we are talking government funding, the model they use compared to North America is as different as night and day.  In North America, generally speaking government funding accounts for about 2 to 3 per cent of a company's total operating budget.  In Italy, the funding is more likely a 50/50 split.  That's a considerable difference, and one that I am sure many North American companies wouldn't mind dealing with themselves.

There are success stories in Italy, as is the case elsewhere, of course, but in Italy according to some sources, the problem is not really money, but incompetent management.  As one writer recently put it, "Italy has kept appointing idiots" as managers, losing money as they go.

Whatever the root cause of the problems in Europe as well as in North America, opera companies of every size will have to come to grips with the new reality that younger audiences are generally not coming to the opera.  It is expensive to produce and patrons willing to shell out considerable sums of money to be seen at the opera are dwindling.

Arts in general have to deal with this as well.  As audiences get older, you have to find ways of getting the younger crowd interested in your product in order to survive.  But in a world where You Tube and other instant gratification is available in the comfort of your own home, there is less and less incentive to spend your money to be entertained elsewhere.  Just look at the music industry struggling to survive in the face of digital downloading.

People are moving away from being willing to pay to be entertained, although the popularity of Pay TV and even satellite radio might seem to contradict that statement; they are also unwilling to invest the amount of time involved in fully appreciating such an art form as the opera, unfortunately.

The future is clouded in uncertainty for many arts organizations these days, but clever marketing and inventive, indeed daring programming could go a long way to help solve the problem and sell the product to a younger generation.

In the meantime, I will now resume my January exile...

January 12th, 2014.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Some random thoughts as a New Year gets underway

Some random thoughts to share for this first posting of 2014, now that the holidays are drawing to a close for another year.  Now, we have to look forward to...snow.  And lots of it, apparently, over the next day or two.

I don't know about you, but all that talk about global warming sounds rather hollow in many parts of North America this winter, including here in Niagara.  Just be careful out there and take it easy if you are shovelling or doing any strenuous tasks in the cold weather.

I have been taking some down time the past week or so before I get back into my part-time routine at the Brock radio station, CFBU-FM, with my show Inquisitive Minds returning to the airwaves this coming Wednesday morning at 11.  The first show will look at math scores, an innovative boxing program in Toronto that helps women come to grips with their abusive relationships and remembering the early days of Brock as their 50th anniversary will be celebrated this year.

The downtime was needed, quite frankly, because I have just been dealing with so much in my personal life the past several months, all of which have caused me to feel totally run down and in need of a rest.  It all began with an eventful summer of 2013 when, a month after my former employer was taken over by a media giant, a number of senior staffers - myself included - were relieved of our duties.

At my age, it will prove difficult to find new, full-time employment, but I am continually searching and trying for that all-important job interview that could bring some financial stability to my life once again.  I am open to any and all offers, by the way, so if you hear of anything drop me a line and let me know.

Along with that, my wife and I had to deal with our little cat Pia taking ill Labour Day weekend, being diagnosed with diabetes.  It was a long and painful recovery process - and very expensive too, I might add.  Ultimately, it ended last week with us having to make the very difficult decision to allow Pia to rest and no longer prolong her ordeal, and our lives have not been the same since.

Tied in with that was the fact, as I wrote about in an earlier posting this month, one of our other cats, Shalom, went missing for 17 days, only returning the very day we said goodbye to Pia last week.  What a relief that was, after a very stressful holiday season trying to juggle job hunting, the holiday season, and Pia's illness.

When Sophie had to go in for emergency laser eye surgery a week before Christmas, we couldn't imagine what else could happen in the month of December.  But by the end of the month, Sophie was recovering nicely, Shalom is almost back to normal and Pia, well, is at least not suffering any longer.

But the upshot of all this is I am tired, and in need of a rest.  I am going to take much of the rest of January to reflect on the previous year, look ahead to 2014 and gather up enough optimism to embark on an even more concerted job search now that the holidays are over.  In addition, I will be reassessing the viability of keeping my online music business, A Web of Fine Music, going or not.

I did the number crunching this week while I had the time and I just concluded the worst sales year since I began the business almost 11 years ago.  The grim reality is people are not buying hard copies of recorded music anymore, at least not in the numbers we once saw.  I still have the small core of dedicated customers I have always had, but beyond that, there is not much to show for the work I have put into the business the past number of years.

So, I will take the month to decide whether I want to continue with it or not, and how much time I want to devote to it if at all.  It is a hard decision to have to make, but perhaps the time is right to let it go.  I don't know yet. but I will give it some thought in the coming weeks and see where my heart suggests I go.

Right now, the priority has to be on finding more work in order to pay the bills, so I will be doing what I can do increase my qualifications for employment in whatever way I can, within reason of course.

Something I started this week was to expand my social media presence and look beyond the obvious main players, Facebook and Twitter, both of which I use frequently.  Now I will be looking at Pinterest, Instagram, and perhaps some others.

Those who know me know I have something of a love/hate relationship with social media and the way some people approach it, so expanding my social media reach is something I have not exactly embraced as of late.  I am still coming to grips with the logic of both Pinterest and Instagram, but I realize becoming more adept at both will perhaps help my employment chances.  So we'll see how the new foray goes in the coming weeks.

One other social media platform, Four Square, is one I cannot embrace, however.  I just don't see the point of it at all.  Knowing one of my Facebook friends is working out at the Y at this moment, for example, serves no useful purpose to me as far as I can see.  What it does provide is less savoury individuals with the knowledge of where you are and the fact you are not at home at the moment.  Hmm, is that such a good idea, do you think?

Anyway, just some random thoughts from your humble scribe this evening.  Since I will be taking a rest for a little while, that will also include writing my blog posts too.  I am just ready to step back, take a fresh approach to some things and come back soon with some new perspectives.

Rest assured, though, if I have any big news to share, you will read about it first here.

Have a great January, and we'll talk again soon.  I promise!

January 4th, 2014.