Creative Accounting: Opera

Christopher Benz and Michael Simpson
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Opera is the most multifaceted of the performing arts, integrating a group of singers, a full-size symphony orchestra, dancers, scenic elements, lighting, costumes, and props. Below is a budget for the San Francisco Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, opening in the 2009-10 season. It is a relatively big-budget opera, with a large cast, including seven principal performers, all of whom contract their talent by the production, rather than by the season.

Opera companies divide budgets into Core Operating Costs and Variable Costs. Core Operating Costs, including the orchestra and technical staff, remain in place all season, no matter how many operas are performed. Variable Costs are costs specific to a particular opera—the soloists, the specific scenery. The budget below reflects Il Trovatore’s share of the season’s expense for one of eight performances.

The San Francisco Opera stages between nine and eleven operas each year, in two main seasons. Scheduling and budgeting the entire season is a colossal procedure. It requires a fine balancing of repertoire, performers, an audience subscription series, donors, and a staff that can reach up to six hundred people at the season’s height.

On top of this there are also administrative costs, which include marketing, fund-raising, and operations. The company’s total budget is $62 million for the 2009-10 season. Ticket sales make up 34 percent of revenue. The rest comes from donations (58 percent) and endowment (8 percent).

This is an installment of Creative Accounting, an ongoing series that will show where the money goes in the major creative industries. Future issues will cover book publishing, television, fine art, theater, and dozens of other disciplines. Eventually the series will be collected into a single, indispensable volume, published by Believer Books.

—Chris Benz and Michael Simpson

OPERA $681,929


These are costs that the San Francisco Opera incurs regardless of whether a show is playing. These numbers reflect one show’s share of the season’s expenses.

Artistic/Musical $236,206

Seasonal Performers $228,672

One hundred twenty-six “seasonal” performers stay full-time. This cost includes wages, benefits, and extras.

  • Orchestra $150,531 

The cost of sixty-nine seasonal instrumentalists includes a separate library of musical scores.

  • Chorus $66,841 

There are forty-eight seasonal choristers. 

  • Ballet $11,300

There are nine seasonal dancers.

Music Staff $7,534

A staff of rehearsal pianists, voice coaches, and other artistic sparring partners keep musicians in top form.

Tech $25,492

Technical and Lighting Staff $25,492

These people manage the lighting and tech crews.

Administrative $25,330

Costume Administration $9,066

  • Facility rental $5,055
  • Staff and Stock items $4,011

  Artistic Administration $6,545

This department manages contracts and helps visiting principals with visas, housing, and other requirements.

Musical Administration $7,796

Management of hundreds of artists and music staff.

Library $996

This is in addition to the library for the orchestra. The library holds marked scripts, CDs from old performances, and scores. All artists and directors actively consult the library, usually for current versions of marked scores.

Video/Audio Depreciation $94

Equipment to record and simulcast performances has a useful life of five to ten years, and loses value over time.

Warehousing $833


Variable costs are expenses that are specific to Il Trovatore. They include artists, like the director, who accept contracts for a specific production. Trovatore was four weeks of rehearsal and eight performances.

Artistic/Musical $146,841

Principal Artist and Direction $112,765

Il Trovatore requires seven principal vocal artists. The company hires an understudy as well. There is also a conductor, a choreographer, and a stage director, who, like a film director, creates the artistic vision for the performance. Each receives a per diem and travel expenses. They must find their own lodging. 

  • Travel $17,052
  • Compensation $95,713

Extra Performers $33,637

Verdi’s score calls for more musicians than SFO contracts seasonally. “Extra” performers fill the gap.

  • Orchestra $5,339 

Although the seasonal orchestra has enough musicians for Verdi’s score, this budget reflects replacement musicians for those on sick leave or who are unexpectedly absent.

  • Chorus $9,710

These twelve singers supplement the regular chorus.

  • Ballet $18,588

The choreographer asked for eleven extra dancers.

Supertitles $439

Il Trovatore is performed in Italian. The opera projects English translations, called supertitles, above the stage.

  • Translation and Rights $0

Because Il Trovatore already has an English supertitle script, the only costs are wages and benefits to cue callers for three rehearsals and eight productions.

  • Operation $439
  • Music Rent/Royalties $0

An opera production costs money to design, choreograph, and direct. Rather than start from scratch, some cities rent finished operas. San Francisco Opera pays no rent for Il Trovatore because it is an original production, co-produced with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.


Costume $44,979

Because Il Trovatore is a co-production, split between San Francisco, Chicago and New York, costume and scenery costs reflect a share of the total. These costs would be higher were this a single-city opera, lower if it were a rental.

  • Costume production $24,751
  • Wardrobe $11,508
  • Wig and Makeup $8,721
  • Scenery $56,421

As with costumes, three cities split this cost. This is San Francisco’s share.

Production $8,134

  • Materials $1,515
  • Labor (wages and benefits) $6,619 

Repair $125

Because this is a new production, repair will be minimal. An older show would have a much higher repair cost and a lower build cost.

Rental expense $48,162

The opera rents some sets and set pieces.

Stage $108,193

Production-specific expenses related to the staging of this production including props, sound, stagehands, etc. Because the War Memorial Opera House was built in the 1930s, everything has to be carried by hand.

  • Stage General $14,086
  • Stage Carpenters $38,486
  • Stage Electrics $29,647
  • Stage Props $19,135
  • Stage Sound $6,839

Stage Management Staff $13,813

Includes stage managers, assistant stage managers, and assistant stage directors. 

Transfer and Moving $6,429

Transport of sets and costumes from storage to venue.

Rent $4,286

  • Rehearsal Space $4,286

Performers rehearse at a separate location, to maximize use of the Opera House.

Production Team $10,324

Includes costume, set and lighting designer fees and associated travel expenses.

  • Costume, Set and Lighting Designer Fees $6,250
  • Travel, Accommodation $4,074


Ushers $3,615

Twenty professional ushers manage about a hundred volunteer ushers each night.


  • Core operating Costs $287,037
  • Variable Costs: $394,901

Grand Total: $681,938

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