During the last few performances before the coronavirus outbreak silenced the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, posters placed discreetly in the theater’s restrooms offered tips for staying healthy: Avoid contact with the sick. Cover coughs. Wash hands.
Keeping the Met financially healthy through the closure, which will extend at least through the end of the month, will be another kind of challenge.
The Met is the largest performing arts organization in the nation: It is a $308 million-a-year operation, but a fragile one. The high costs of mounting opera, coupled with weakness at the box office and a relatively small endowment, make it highly dependent on donations. Now, it will lose millions in ticket revenues.
“There is no question that it is of severe financial consequence to the Met not to have performances,” said Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, adding that he hoped some people with tickets for canceled performances would donate the money to the Met instead of seeking refunds, and that other donors would also step in to help. “We have an obligation to the world of opera, and to our public, to survive.”
The wave of coronavirus closures threaten not just the Met, but also other nonprofit cultural institutions in New York, even the biggest and oldest of which are not necessarily stable. In a bid to shore up revenues, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently ended its 50-year-old pay-what-you-wish policy for out-of-state residents, and has been cutting expenses after a period of financial turbulence. The New York Philharmonic only recently ended a long streak of deficits, and is working with Lincoln Center to raise money for the renovation of its home, David Geffen Hall, which is expected to cost $550 million.
With all these organizations dependent on philanthropy, many are watching the recent downturn in the stock market warily — wondering how it will impact their donors.
The Met likely faces the loss of between $8 million and $12 million in box office revenues through the end of the month, and more if the closure continues, as many are beginning to believe it will. The company will continue paying its full-time workers — including its orchestra and chorus, scenic designers, some stage hands, dressers and others — at least through this month. Mr. Gelb said that it was unlikely that they would be paid if the closure continued longer, but said that the Met was committed to making sure that those employees continued to have health coverage.
Michael M. Kaiser, the chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, said that while small organizations faced the greatest risk from closures, large ones are vulnerable, too.
“It depends on how long it goes on for,” he said. “It’s really a question of duration. If this ends in March it will be a loss, but manageable. But if it goes much beyond that, then it gets to be a really serious financial challenge.”
Backstage at the closed opera house, the Met’s boardroom has been turned into a war room of sorts, with company officials trying to navigate the human resources logistics associated with shutting down. The development office has been reaching out to donors. And the media department is working on a new initiative: The company plans to begin offering nightly online streams of filmed operas from its extensive catalog, free of charge, beginning Monday at 7:30 p.m. with a 2010 performance of Bizet’s “Carmen.”
While many of the European opera companies that have closed because of the pandemic receive substantial government funding, American ones rely on private donations and ticket revenues, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the economic impact of closing. On Friday, Lyric Opera of Chicago announced that it was canceling its coming performances of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, an undertaking it has been preparing for years.
The risks of closing go beyond short-term revenue. It can sometimes take years for organizations to build back audiences after interruptions. That has happened before at the Met, where attendance fell after labor battles canceled performances in 1969 and 1980. Once some operagoers broke their habit of regularly attending, they either stopped going or went less often. Major League Baseball struggled with ticket sales for several years after the 1994-95 strike. And New York City Opera never recovered the audience it lost when it closed in 2008 for a season while its theater was renovated: It went bankrupt.
But Mr. Kaiser noted that in all those cases, people had alternate live entertainment options, whereas now virtually everything is closed. “I’m expecting there will be a burst of interest in going out and doing things when we’re allowed to again,” he said.
The coronavirus crisis hit the Met just as it seemed to be finding a firmer footing after several tumultuous years. There was labor unrest in 2014, when the company won concessions from its unions that it said were necessary for its survival. It weathered sexual abuse allegations that led it to fire its longtime music director, James Levine.
But it has successfully rolled out his successor as music director, the conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has found favor with audiences and critics. This year the company introduced Sunday matinees; and two new productions, the Gershwins’s “Porgy and Bess” and Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” were box office hits.
The Met still faces major financial challenges, though. In November, the outlook on its “A” credit rating was revised to negative by S&P Global Ratings, which warned of “weak balance sheet metrics” and noted that the endowment, valued at $284 million in 2018, was “low for an organization of its scope.” But Mr. Gelb said that the company was on solid footing, and noted that the box office losses would be partially offset by lower operating expenses.
Still, he said, it was eerie on Thursday night on Met’s stage, usually a hive of activity around the clock, on what was supposed to be the opening night of Rossini’s sparkling comedy “La Cenerentola.”
“I walked across an empty stage, and it was just the ghost light on,” Mr. Gelb said, referring to the lone bulb left on in empty theaters. “It was a strange and hollow feeling.”