Fundraising in the Age of Coronavirus

Lisa Houston on June 23, 2020
The Metropolitan Opera has canceled performances through December 2020 | Credit: Metropolitan Opera

This week has been a sad one for opera lovers. The Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, and now San Francisco Opera have all announced the cancellation or postponement of fall seasons. Projected losses for companies of this size are in the tens of millions. Of course, much more than money is being lost. “It gets lost sometimes in larger communities how many people opera companies employ,” said John P. Nuckols, executive vice president and chief strategic officer of LA Opera, in a recent conversation with San Francisco Classical Voice. “People think it’s these rarefied singers, these elites: It’s tailors, it’s craftsmen, it’s electricians, it’s builders, it’s the technical side. It’s a whole city of employees from every walk of life. We are a generator of jobs and income.”

In certain ways, LA Opera has greater financial resilience at a time like this. “We do six [productions] a year and do them throughout the year,” Nuckols says. “The Met, Lyric, and SFO have a full-time orchestra and a full-time chorus. Our structure is that they are hired by performance, fee for service. So we are able to retract. During the Ring we can get larger, for other things, smaller.”

Simone McIntosh is an Adler Fellow at SF Opera

One might imagine it is a time of belt-tightening even for a big company like San Francisco, but that belt is already pretty much as tight as it can go. “Even pre-COVID-19, we had negative fat,” says Kyle Polite, deputy director of development at San Francisco Opera. “A year ago we went through administrative consolidation, including communications, and I think the development team is probably the smallest team we’ve been in a decade, while also being taxed with raising more money than we’ve raised in our history. There is no fat, and more than enough to do.” At the time of our conversation in May, San Francisco Opera had not furloughed or laid off any of the administration staff. “Through the fiscal year we’ve been able to support everyone with minimal impact,” said Polite. “Some of our highest earning administrative staff have taken a modest compensation decrease but that’s been the extent of things so far.” In a recent SFCV interview, Adler Fellow Simone McIntosh was grateful for being kept on at a time when most if not all of her contemporaries are out of work. “The amount of support we’re getting from the company is just incredible.”

The story for other, smaller arts organizations, and opera companies in general is less encouraging. One might even say dire. A 2018 white paper from Southern Methodist University found that the amount of working capital varied widely among arts organizations, with museums faring better and thus skewing the average upward. When looked at specifically, operas, theaters, and orchestras displayed the most “precarious liquidity position,” averaging a single month of liquidity, or less.

A crisis in arts funding is hardly a headline. “The reality is the arts have been in crisis for my lifetime in this country,” Polite says. “But this shutdown does pose a great threat to the performing arts institutions in the U.S.”

On June 16, SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock announced that the 2020 fall season is canceled | Credit: Cory Weaver

According to philanthropist Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the University of Maryland’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management, those in the middle may feel the brunt most. “That midsize organization which has an overhead — their productions are not cheap,” Kaiser said, speaking to The Washington Post. “They just opened something or were about to, on a budget and now with no revenue; they don’t have fancy donors. They’re the ones who have the biggest problem.”

In a letter to arts organizations in March, the DeVos Institute outlined steps for surviving the crisis, one of which was “Ask donors of restricted funds to relax those restrictions, freeing capital for general operating needs.” This is one way the arts landscape is adapting, as grant deadlines are extended or requirements altered. Dan Cooperman, chief advancement officer for Opera America, explains. “With some grant programs where applications had already been submitted but not adjudicated, staff have spoken to the applicant companies about the viability of their projects given the new landscape. For the inaugural applications to our IDEA Opera Residencies, the submission deadline for the full applications was extended for those who had already submitted letters of intent to allow artists more time, given competing priorities during these challenging times.”

In the Bay Area, the Zellerbach Family Foundation, a funding organization devoted to innovation and diversity, is shifting priorities to help ensure the survival of organizations. Its “Community Arts COVID-19 Response Grants,” were announced in May. These grants “will provide general operating support to arts and culture organizations in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties suffering revenue loss due to the closure of venues and cancellation of events.”

For midsize and smaller organizations, this “organizational stability” and “general operating support” may be the only priorities at this time, but for San Francisco Opera, Polite says the shutdown has provided an opportunity for reflection on the company’s core mission. “There has been a lot of excitement and momentum in recent weeks. Since the world has changed, conversations have been not about how do we get back to normal, but what do we want to be when we come out of this,” he told SFCV. “That is allowing us to accelerate our thinking around the new mission vision that we launched about a year ago, which has to do with cracking the code of how to create art in the 21st century. For better or worse, we are now fully focused on that question in a way that we weren’t, and probably couldn’t have been if we were still doing business as usual.”

Both Nuckols and Polite report an inspiring level of support from donors, from relatively small actions like donating the value of tickets back, to larger gifts coming in, sometimes unbidden.

San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House

Talking about philanthropy means talking about millionaires and some recent articles on the topic have been more than tone deaf to the moment; they have strayed into full-on dissonance. A recent Q&A in a major paper asked one donor “how things are going” from their ski house in Vail, and another about the hardships of sheltering in place from a second home in Southampton. The whole article was wince-worthy, though one can sympathize with style writers who suddenly have no glittering galas to comment on. That reporter might have done well to check in with either Nuckols or Polite, both of whom are more articulate and truly sympathetic about addressing the genuine needs of donors. They recognize that people are scared right now. Scared about many things, including what will happen to their beloved opera company.

“How do you hold hands?” Nuckols asks. “We are trying to stay engaged. Out of the gate, I commend LA Opera at Home, and we quickly adapted our education program to provide content for parents and teachers, because all of a sudden, parents are educators, so we are giving as much content as possible.” Focusing on what the company can do for its supporters is a commitment Polite shares. “During a crisis, it’s not really the time to go out and ask for those five-year campaign pledges. It’s the time to say, ‘how are you’ and ‘how can we as an arts organization be of support during this time?’ ‘Is there anything you need from us?’ ‘What are your ideas and thoughts?’ And among the people we’re close to, that we’re asking those questions of, those who are able to do something are stepping up, in some ways unasked, to support us in meaningful ways.”

Francesca Zambello’s production of Aida is on the schedule for LA Opera in 2021 | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“People who love opera really love it,” Nuckols says. “You can raise a lot of money from people who love opera because it’s a secular religion. If you look where most people give their philanthropic dollars, it’s religion. Then, I think, are education and healthcare, and the arts is a very small piece of that pie. I think the reason opera raises more, even than ballet and in some ways symphony orchestras, is that there is something about the ritual that ties back to its theatrical roots, which are Greek. Even in Monteverdi’s day, they were harkening back to the Greeks and the idea, ‘let’s recreate this ritual.’ That’s been the longstanding thread through opera throughout its time. When you have a commitment to it, it’s deep, and it’s profound,” says Nuckols, who was “a graduate student in Balcony B for 15 dollars” and stood his way across Europe in the great opera houses, so he understands the intense passion opera lovers have.

“In the recession of 2008, counterintuitively, you would say people are going to put their philanthropic dollars towards the needy, but our donors thought, ‘well, the government will do that, or other organizations will do that. I worry about my opera company.’ And that’s happened with Covid as well. People will say, ‘OK, everyone’s going to give their money to healthcare and science, so I worry that you’re not going to get that support, so I’m going to increase our support.”

Just as this crisis has given individuals a painful reminder of the need to save for a rainy day, organizations are faring well or poorly at this time in part based upon the size of their endowments. After the Royal Opera visited Los Angeles during the Olympics in 1984, LA Opera was born “ex nihilo,” as Nuckols puts it. By now it is in possession of a sizable endowment, seventy million and counting. For San Francisco the number is higher, roughly triple their annual operating budget, which alone is over 70 million.

SF Opera canceled its 2020 production of Fidelio, with sets by Alexander V. Nichols

“We’re able to approach our situation more strategically and more thoughtfully because of our stronger financial footing. Like other organizations, we’re looking at every single thing we do and trying to find a balance supporting the company, being flexible, adaptable, knowing we’re going to have to do things differently for a long time.” Polite says. “We see, and I think will continue to see, that the organizations that can make it through this are successful not only in short term fundraising but in having a model that is more sustainable.”

The three companies to announce this week are what Nuckols refers to as the “anchor” companies for American opera, companies which, in the case of San Francisco and the Met, used to tour, developing those regional audiences which later in the 20th centrury would provide the demand for their own companies. But there was a time in the last century when audiences were, to a degree, built in because the population of European immigrants was already interested in the art form. “Now,” Nuckols says, “we don’t just have to develop the art form, we have to develop the audience. I always ask people how they got involved in the art form. The number-one answer is a family member; for me it was my mother.” (And a high school teacher who brought in a record of Pavarotti.) “The number two answer is the Met Opera broadcast, so it’s about exposure.”

Development is site-specific. One must understand where the money is to be found. In the Bay Area, a lot of it can be found in Silicon Valley which is why, Polite says, “For many reasons, it is a deep blow that we’re not able to do The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs this summer.” But they continue to try to crack that code, pun intended, just as LA Opera strives to inspire the film industry to join them at the opera.

The SF Opera premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs would have been this summer | Credit: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

Both the interview with Nuckols and the one with Polite took place before the death of George Floyd and the subsequent wave of protests and social action, but one thing Polite says rings particularly true in the wake of those events. He said, “Like other organizations, we’re looking at every single thing we do and trying to find a balance supporting the company being flexible, adaptable, knowing we’re going to have to do things differently for a long time.” Whatever you call this era, it is a time of almost incalculable change, and preparing for that change takes work, and vision.

Any arts organization is only as vibrant and adaptable as its board. In San Francisco, Polite says, “our board has also been even more engaged and involved, including our medallion society committee. Members of that committee have personally helped us to call about 400 donors just to check in and see how they are doing, answer any questions, be a peer, a resource, a sounding board.”

A recent “trends in philanthropy” study revealed that the number-one motivation for giving is to “make a difference,” but what does that mean for operatic giving? For those in development jobs, it is important to understand the why. “I personally believe donors and investors and other people are more interested in supporting a vision of where we are going than purely a crisis, short-term, save-the-opera need,” Polite says. Ann Meier Baker is the director of music and opera at the National Endowment for the Arts. In a panel for this year’s Opera America Conference, which was held entirely online in May, Baker said, “Our assignment today is to move out of the tyranny of the moment and to reflect about what opera can mean going forward.”

Difficult as it is, this period may also be stoking the fires of our need for opera.

“I think it plants more our longing to be together in person,” Nuckols says. “What I mourn right now, a bar, a restaurant, a full auditorium of shared experience with strangers. There’s nothing more powerful than that communion. There’s always a moment at the opera where there’s this rapt silence. That shared experience can’t happen this virtual way. The thing opera has that no other live performance has — not even Broadway, because Broadway has become so amplified — as an unamplified art form it is unmediated. You’re hearing like Wagner heard it. Or Verdi heard it, experiencing it as Monteverdi heard it with that person on the stage communicating directly with you, without anyone mediating it or balancing it. We will need it more than ever, we will long for it more than ever. Opera houses have burned down. Plagues have taken out people for centuries and opera keeps coming back.”

For Los Angeles and San Francisco, there are indications that things will go well. Still, the only reliable characteristic of disaster is volatility. Surveying the national opera landscape these days is much like surveying our friends and loved ones. We can see who, in theory, looks weakest or strongest. But we can’t really know who will survive, or how well. It is both morbid and realistic to say that not everyone will make it through.

Writing for The Washington Post, Peter Marks and Geoff Edgers, put it this way: “The short- and medium-term prognosis for public gatherings — the veritable circulatory system of live performance — is so uncertain that arts organizations are scrambling to figure out what to salvage and what to abandon. They are compelled to game out multiple survival strategies that change with each update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” This myriad of possible futures is woven in to Nuckols’s strategizing. “We have models,” he says. “We have a model that we’re back in the house in the fall, we have a model if it’s January, we have a model if it’s later, and all those models involve how much we will need for fundraising.”

SF Opera founder Gaetano Merola, with soprano Maria Jeritza | Credit: San Francisco Public Library History Center

The timing of the reopening of opera is like a rise in the stock market: If anyone tells you they know exactly how and when it’s going to happen, they’re either lying or mistaken. But some things are inflexible. On Sept. 26, 1923, a 44-year-old Neapolitan immigrant by the name of Gaetano Merola raised his baton to give the downbeat for the inaugural performance of the San Francisco Opera, which means that coronavirus or no coronavirus, 2022–2023 will be the centennial season.

“That is a fixed point on the calendar,” Polite says. “It’s happening whether we want it to or not. Knock on everything, we better be back in the house in some way by then. It’s something to look forward to. September 2022 was already going to be special as our 100th. Now it’s going to be something kind of sublime, just to get there and emerge. It’s what keeps us going.”

For his part, Nuckols hopes “that we raise enough money so that when we are finally allowed back in the theater, we come roaring back with quality and the same artistic level.”

In his tearjerker of an announcement this week, San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock said, “I know that opera will never have felt as cathartic as it will in that moment when we return. I ask you to hold that moment in your hearts until we can make it possible.”

In terms of fundraising, Merola may have had the best line ever. In the summer of 1923, the numbers were not quite adding up for that opening night. The opera was La bohème, top price ticket, four bucks. The fee for the tenor, same as it ever was, had thrown the opera’s financial spine out of alignment. Giovanni Martinelli was to be the evening’s expensive Rodolfo, but Merola kept things in perspective. “How many bankers are there in the world,” he asked, “And how many Martinellis?”

Merola’s comment is a reminder that some things are bigger than the bottom line. Some things are sacred, and have a value beyond measure. Merola, Shilvock, and people like Polite and Nuckols are inviting us all to remember that. They might also be telling us exactly what we need most to hear right now. Namely, I’ll see you on the other side of this. I’ll see you at the opera.