How President Donald Trump’s Federal Budget Cuts to NEA Would Hurt Opera Companies

By David Salazar

On March 16, 2017, President Donald Trump formally released his outline for the 2018 Federal Budget, officially making clear his intent to defund numerous agencies and projects while investing billions into the already well-funded military complex.

Among the agencies getting the boot was the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which provides tremendous support for numerous arts organizations. As noted previously on this website, the defunding of the NEA would have a massive effect for organizations on a number of levels.

That seems of no interest to the White House, with Office of Budget and Manager Director Mick Mulvaney defending the decision on the grounds that he couldn’t force low-income Americans to pay for it.

What he and Trump’s associates in this matter repeatedly ignore is just how much of the federal budget is dedicated to the NEA. According to The Washington Post and, in case you think they are FAKE NEWS, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), the NEA only gets $148 million per year, a whopping 0.003 percent of the $3.899 trillion budget. Moreover, according to the NASAA, the arts are a $698 billion industry in the U.S., which contributes the equivalent of 4.3 percent of the GDP, which is far more than mining or transportation and warehousing, industries that Trump supports greatly. The arts and entertainment industry also contributed more to the GDP than the construction industry up until 2015.

Opera Companies Speak Up 

OperaWire recently reached out to numerous organizations in the Opera World, among others, to note the impact that the end of the NEA would have on their business and the people it would affect.

Obviously, the financial scope will be massively altered for numerous opera companies and organizations. During his campaign, Trump repeatedly noted that his aim is to help the little man, the middle class and poor that are struggling economically. The NEA will not harm the major opera companies such as the Metropolitan Opera or Lyric Opera of Chicago, but will instead cause great damage to those that serve local communities.

“We at Lyric are fortunate to have more diversified revenue streams, but smaller organizations rely on national funding to provide essential cultural services to their local communities,” stated Anthony Freud, the general director, president & CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Now more than ever, it is critical that we have these opportunities to come together, explore the challenges our world is facing and celebrate the diversity that is a cornerstone of our great country.”

Companies that are in greatest danger are those such as Opera Saratoga, which offers performances for people in upstate New York, hundreds of miles away from the cultural epicenter in New York. While culture vultures can feast on opera almost all year round in the metropolitan area, those who populate the northern parts of New York rely on companies such as Saratoga. The company first received support in 2001 in the form of a $7,500 gift to aid in its Opera Festival Apprentice Program. Since 2001, the company has received ongoing support from the foundation for a number of projects. Three years later, the company was given a grant of the same amount to allow the company to tour to elementary, middle, and high school students in New York and Massachusetts. Other gifts have been specifically to help mount productions.

“In 2016, the NEA supported the American Premiere of ‘The Witches of Venice’ at Opera Saratoga, in which 40 local children had the opportunity to perform alongside professional singers and dancers from around the country, while providing local audiences the first ever opportunity to see an opera by one of America’s most celebrated composers, Philip Glass,” stated Opera Saratoga Artistic and General Director Lawrence Edelson. “In 2015, the NEA supported the world premiere of ‘The Long Walk,’ which enabled us to present an incredibly powerful new opera addressing the difficulties veterans face when returning home from war. Not only did opera lovers from around the country travel to Saratoga Springs to see the premiere – serving as a driver of arts tourism and spending in the region – but ‘The Long Walk’ also provided extraordinary opportunities for Opera Saratoga to engage with the military and veteran populations in the region. To eliminate the NEA means reducing programs like these around the country.”

Texas’ Fort Worth Opera, which currently has 13 full-time staff members and employs over 300 people during its four-week opera festival, is yet another company that has relied on the support of the NEA since 2005 to showcase new opera productions, many of them world premieres. 

“Through the overwhelming generosity of the National Endowment for the Arts, Fort Worth Opera was able to embark upon a six-month long community conversation series entitled ‘JFK: 5 Decades of Progress,’”  noted Nelson Claytor, President, Fort Worth Opera Board of Trustees, regarding the $25,000 grant afforded from the NEA in 2016. “These unique symposia featured prominent cultural and community leaders, from NASA scientists to civil rights activists, as it explored social, political, and technological advancements from John F. Kennedy’s presidency into the 21st century.

”These events led up to the world premiere of the critically-lauded new opera ‘JFK,’ and became a pivotal catalyst by which the company could launch its latest initiative, ‘Noches de Ópera.’ This historic, four-year campaign introduces powerful, contemporary Spanish-language opera to new audiences, enriched by year-round regional programming. If it were not for the NEA, Fort Worth Opera may never have been able to successfully step beyond the edges of the operatic stage and into the heart of our North Texas community.” 

New Mexico-based Santa Fe Opera has been the beneficiary of far greater gifts from the NEA since 1998, including a $75,000 grant for the 2015 world premiere of the Grammy-nominated opera “Cold Mountain” which featured international opera star, Isabel Leonard. This summer company will world premiere “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” which features another recognized opera star, Sasha Cooke. That opera was supported by an $80,000 grant from the NEA.

“In the past decade alone, the NEA has supported five World Premieres in Santa Fe, all of which were written by American composers; two American Premieres, including one by an American; and three Company Premieres of rarely-performed works, including one by an American composer, all in a concerted effort to cultivate an authentic American operatic voice to accurately reflect the stories of our time,” noted Santa Fe Opera General Director Charles MacKay. “Apart from the artistic value and merit of these projects, these new and unusual works have been a huge draw for opera lovers from all 50 states and 30 foreign countries. Every year, 45% of visitors are new to the Opera – a clear indication that a huge portion of our audience is comprised of tourists. This summer, our world premiere of ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’ by American composer, Mason Bates, offers tourists another compelling reason to visit our state and increase the Opera’s annual economic impact, which, in total, is easily $202 million. None of this would be possible without the support of the NEA.”

The Washington Chorus is another organization that relies on the NEA to showcase its music series, “New Music for a New Age.” The company has received support since 2001 and has actually seen its level of NEA grant support diminish from $30,000 in 2011 to $15,000 this year.

“This concert series showcases the music of living composers and provides a platform for those composers to bring the audience inside their process. This award-winning series which has given voice to Nico Muhly, Paola Prestini, among others, would not exist if it weren’t for the NEA,” remarked Washington Chorus’s Executive Director Chase Maggiano. “Without investment in the arts, the next Beethoven may not find her voice, and certainly won’t find it in the United States.” 

A Crippling Blow to Artistic Development

But putting on opera productions isn’t the only artistic endeavor the NEA supports in the opera world. The cultivation and growth of future artists are also on the line.

American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP) does exactly what its title claims – it supports the creation of new works to keep the art form growing and thriving. The company received $15,000 in 2010 from the NEA to support the CDLP and has provided increased support every year since, with its latest grant coming in at $40,000.

“For larger organizations, a grant of $40,000 from the NEA is meaningful, but for ALT, it is critical,” stated Edelson, who is also the founder of ALT.

The CLDP has been the catalyst for the creation of numerous operas, many of which have gotten premieres at famed opera houses.

Among these is Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s “Breaking the Waves,” which premiered with Opera Philadelphia but has made the rounds in other opera houses around the country thanks to an enthusiastic reception. In total, Edelson cites 18 operas from alumni of the CLDP that have premiered in the last seven years. He also noted that there are more operas from alumni making premieres in 2017-18 including another collaboration from Mazzoli and Vavrek, “Proving Up.”

“The NEA saw the potential in the CLDP before it had proven itself. The NEA invested in the future of ALT, and in so doing, the future of dozens of artists, their work, and thousands of people from around the country who continue to be moved, challenged and inspired by the new operas they are writing,” Edelson noted.

The Problem With Private Investors

So if the NEA is out, people could always turn to private investors, right? So goes the rationale of the Trump camp on this issue.

But it isn’t that easy, as Opera America President and CEO Marc A. Scorca explained.

Without grants from a government-sponsored agency, the companies will be forced to look for funding elsewhere to remain alive. The private sector is the only true avenue. But obtaining funds from the private sector will be difficult, especially because the arts will be in competition with a number of other agencies that the Trump budget proposal plans to defund. According to the Boston Globe, agencies across all sectors will be completely defunded. The list is extensive and exhaustive with billions of dollars being cut. These agencies will also likely head over to the private sector to continue working.

The arts are then in the hands of private financiers who may be asked whether to back an opera company or invest their money in an energy or environmental initiative.

“The NEA does declare, by its existence, that the arts are important to the health of our nation. That the arts are important for their expressiveness and creativity to the development of our nation,” Scorca told OperaWire by phone before adding that so much of the organization’s work is to match organizations with perspective investors.

“Getting an NEA grant is a signal that peers from across the country, across the art form, view the applicant opera company favorably,” Scorca added. Without this “stamp of approval,” the battle for funding becomes all the more difficult.

Opera America has received grants that average around $100,000 over the last decade and the company, which offers assistance to member companies around the country, would likely have to cut staff and reduce the support it can give.

“Getting rid of the NEA would suggest that the cultural services provided by arts institution aren’t essential to the well-being of the country,” Scorca concluded. “Every problem that this country faces requires a creative solution and supporting creativity is essential to our vibrancy. And it isn’t because art provides all the solutions. There are so many industries that are rooted in creative expression, more than ever, and this country has to stand for excellence in creative expression and creative inspiration.”

“Any civil society needs the humanities and the arts in order to prosper and be a ‘civil’ society,” added Dr. Joel Harrison, the President and Artistic Director of American Pianists Associations, which has received support four times from the NEA since 2009. “National funding for these institutions is in some ways a ‘national billboard.’ It says we, as a people, value arts, and humanities. And to me, that is an extremely important message, and given the limited funding already, is an incredible bargain, well worth the cost. I am happy for my tax dollars to support these institutions and happy for any increase in my tax to support them.”

Fortunately, these companies still have hope that when all is said and done, this budget will be heavily examined by Congress, revised and that the desire to do away with such crucial agencies will join the American Healthcare Act on the President’s running list of failures.

“We all have a tough slog ahead and it remains to be seen what Congress will ultimately pass. We should all remain positive and optimistic that cooler heads will prevail as we have seen with a few of President Trump’s initiatives,” concluded Jon Finck, Director of Communications and Public Affairs at San Francisco Opera.

All information regarding grant awards is available for public consumption on the NEA’s official website


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