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In lean times, European opera houses find ways to flourish

Greek soprano Antonia Kalogirou, seen here in 2013, performs during an open concert in Athens.

Dimitri Messinis/Associated Press

Good arts companies can thrive even in bad times. Very few can prosper in truly terrible economic conditions, like those prevailing in Greece and Spain.

Those countries have been stuck in a six-year depression, with unemployment rates of around 25 per cent. Yet their principal opera companies have somehow come through the valley of austerity with no debt, full and lively artistic programs, and higher standing in their communities. They have done far better, in fact, than some companies in wealthier European states.

A Greek National Opera (GNO) production I attended in Athens recently was sold out for its entire run, even though the piece, Giorgos Koumendakis's The Murderess, was a new, commissioned opera. The all-ages crowd looked like a fair cross-section of Athenian society, and included people who had scored tickets for €20 ($28) or less.

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Next year, those people will be able to see the GNO in a new, 1,400-seat opera house under construction at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC). Many Greeks have already had free access to open-air performances throughout Athens and beyond, as part of the company's aggressive, populist outreach campaign.

"The National Opera has been out in the city a lot, in some quite unexpected places," says Nikos Vatopoulos, arts editor of Kathimerini, a major Athens newspaper. "They did a concert in the central meat market, for example, and last summer at the site of Jupiter's temple, with a full moon and everything."

The company performs on a Lyric Bus that appears periodically in downtown Athens, gives "suitcase opera" shows in the foyer of the Olympia Theatre, and offers free "pocket concerts" at the SNFCC. Some rehearsals are open and free to the public, and there are steep student discounts for mainstage shows, as well as €5 tickets for the unemployed.

"When the [economic] crisis began, we took the risk of hosting more productions with interesting directing concepts," GNO spokesman Vasilis Louras says, "without making any discounts to aesthetic standards. But the most important element of the company's transformation is the idea that opera concerns everybody."

The company's current annual budget of €17.5-million is about half what it was before the crisis began. Government funding, which in 2008 covered 70 per cent of the company's costs, has fallen by nearly 60 per cent. Yet the company has held onto its orchestra, chorus, 60-member ballet company, 18 contracted opera soloists and in-house dance school. It will give some 180 performances this season, without going into the red. Its new production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde opened Jan. 21 at the Athens Concert Hall (Megaron).

Madrid's Teatro Real has had a similar rejuvenation in adversity, bouncing back from enormous government cuts to a debt-free position. It is proportionately less reliant on state funding – which now makes up 30 per cent of its €43.6-million budget – than any other opera house in Europe. Private sponsorships have doubled since 2009, and a €500,000 surplus is predicted for next season.

There was pain involved: Teatro Real cut administration costs by almost half, and trimmed production expenses by 25 per cent. But its current season of nine operas shows a fair share of risk and new investment, including new productions of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice and Enrique Granados's Goyescas, and the premiere of a commissioned work by contemporary Spanish composer Mauricio Sotelo. Last season, Teatro Real premiered Charles Wuorinen's operatic version of Brokeback Mountain, with libretto by Annie Proulx.

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The success of these Greek and Spanish companies is all the more remarkable given their histories. The company now housed in Madrid's 19th-century Teatro Real building has only existed since 1997. Before that, there had been no opera performed in the theatre, and no other opera house in the city, for nearly 70 years. Seventeen years is an incredibly short time in which to build up enough private support and good will to survive a national financial crisis.

Greek National Opera was founded as part of the National Theatre in 1940 by the fascist dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, "as one aspect of an attempt to control the artistic and mass media," writes critic and musicologist George Leotsakos in The Grove Dictionary of Opera. After the civil war of the late 1940s, everyone who worked for the company had to have a "certificate of political reliability" – a  blacklisting document that was not abolished till 1974. Political memory runs deep in Greece, yet somehow the opera company shed the taint of its origins in ideological manipulation.

In Brussels, meanwhile, on a site where opera and ballet have been performed for 200 years, the main national Belgian company recently scuttled its entire world-renowned dance program, as of next season. Peter De Caluwe, director of Le Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, also cancelled productions of operas by Monteverdi and Kurt Weill, and performances of dances by Sasha Waltz and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, for which tickets were already being sold.

The shocking effect of this announcement on the dance world would be hard to exaggerate. La Monnaie was the seat of Maurice Béjart's company, Ballet du XXème Siècle, for a quarter-century, produced major new works by the likes of Mark Morris, and became the centre of a wave of Belgian creativity in dance that made international careers for Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Wim Vandekeybus and Jan Fabre.

"Belgium has weathered the global crisis quite well," said an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey, noting real economic growth and unemployment is about 8 per cent – one-third the levels in Greece and Spain. But the OECD also remarked that "fiscal consolidation [is] sizable" – meaning Belgian governments are keen deficit-slashers. And indeed, De Caluwe blamed La Monnaie's predicament on a series of across-the-board cuts to every government department.

Of course, state funding is just one part of the pie. Why wasn't the new private largesse that Teatro Real found in hard-up Madrid available in wealthy Brussels? Another OECD figure may offer a clue. Economic inequality has increased much more in Spain during the crisis than in almost every other EU country. The poor have become more numerous, but the rich have also gotten richer.

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You could say that the Greek National Opera also lucked out in that regard, in that a wealthy private foundation is financing and building its new opera house. But the greater lesson from Athens is that if an arts company – even an opera company – becomes immersed in the lives of its citizens, it's much less vulnerable to economic stress.

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