"Thirty-two million dollars to stage an opera? It sounds a lot to me," said Michael Coveney, the chief theatre critic for the website What's On Stage (www.whatsonstage.com). "Can't you build an opera house for that amount?" LA Opera's plan to stage all four parts of Wagner's Ring Cycle over eight days next May has almost bankrupted the company, it has been reported. The Opera was forced to seek a $14 million (Dh52m) emergency loan from Los Angeles County in early December to keep it going until the middle of next year.
The company has raised $30 million from 23 opera trustees in pledges over the past six months and expects these to come in gradually over three years, which is the duration of the county's loan to the Opera. But in the meantime, the company has had to fire 20 staff and scale back plans for productions next year to help control its cash-flow crisis. Stephen Rountree, the chief executive of the Los Angeles Opera, announced to the Los Angeles Times that after years of being "very ambitious artistically" and overspending on productions, LA Opera was $20m in debt. He admitted that with the company's plans to stage the Ring Cycle, it may have overextended, as it "did not fully appreciate that it needed to put out $20m of the $32m for the Ring Cycle two years in advance", he said.
"The $32 million is a huge investment for LA Opera, by far the biggest endeavour it has ever undertaken," said Mike Boehm, the Los Angeles Times writer who broke the story. "It has aimed at achieving a palpably non-traditional production that it hopes will be seen as innovative, different and worthwhile. "However LA Opera's Ring is received by critics, and by the ticket-buying public, the company will legitimately be able to say that it took on one of its field's biggest challenges, in keeping with its mission, and was able to bring it to fruition."
But LA Opera's decision to take on four operas that together tell a story, rather than a single opera, may yet end up another example of creative over-reach that has seen great art destroy once-great companies. It's a phenomenon familiar to the movie business. The 1980 American western Heaven's Gate is the industry's defining example of artistic and financial hubris. The sprawling epic cost $42m to make and brought in just $3m in US ticket sales. It led to the collapse of the movie studio United Artists and destroyed the career of its director, Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter). More recently, Cutthroat Island ruined Caroloco Pictures; ITC Entertainment was sunk by Raise the Titanic; and the failure of the $180m fantasy movie The Golden Compass forced Warner Bros to take control of the independent movie production house New Line Cinema in 2008.
In music, the two-year recording process for My Bloody Valentine's second LP, Loveless, brought Creation Records to its knees. Its owner, Alan McGee, was forced to sell half his record company to Sony in 1992 to stay afloat. It proved a good deal for Sony; in 1995, McGee's new signing, Oasis, released their second album, What's the Story (Morning Glory), which became the biggest-selling album by a British band that decade.
For Factory Records, it was a piece of interior design that broke the Manchester label. Overspending on albums by New Order and the Happy Mondays had brought Tony Wilson's label to the brink of ruin. During an NME photo shoot in the label's swanky new offices, the Happy Mondays sat on a £20,000 (Dh117,300) designer table suspended from the ceiling and broke it. The Manchester company folded soon after.
While he is sympathetic, Boehm said it is up to arts organisations that want to sustain themselves to achieve artistic excellence without incurring crippling debt. But he admitted there is often a tension or a trade-off between artistic ambition and fiscal prudence. How that tension plays out could have a lot to do with the ego of individuals and the companies they worked for. "But I'll leave it to psychologists, anthropologists and artists themselves to debate what role ego plays in creativity and artistic achievement," he said.