The impact of the economic crises seems to hit the arts in painful slow motion. The most recent sign of serious distress is the announcement that Opera Boston will shut down, largely because of “lackluster fundraising in a tough economic climate.” I’m sorry to hear this. I wrote a piece for Opera News last year about Paul Hindemith’s opera Cardillac, prompted by a rare and very welcome production of the work at Opera Boston. I didn’t make it to the performance, but I was impressed that Boston, unlike Washington, had an opera company willing to invest in rare and important 20th century works.
And now it’s gone, another company shuttered in a town that has had a strange and painful history with opera. I can still remember Opera Company of Boston, Sarah Caldwell’s long-troubled venture, during its last and rather pathetic days. I remember thinking then, as again now, how odd it is that Boston, with all its cultural resources, has never been a serious opera town. The usual explanation is that the Boston Symphony Orchestra is such a huge cultural force that there’s no room left over for opera. But that’s not the case in other cities with distinguished orchestras, such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. So why is it the case in Boston?
The loss of Opera Boston is truly sad. One begins to imagine a world in which the form is so expensive, and so marginal, that only two or three serious opera companies remain in the United States. The vast majority of opera lovers will get their fix in the movie theater, watching the Met high-def broadcasts. And the majority of those who are fortunate enough to live in an opera town simply won’t be able to afford it anymore. The democratization of opera that began in the 19th century will have come full circle, as the form becomes once again an elite entertainment, teeming with oligarchs.