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.


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