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San Francisco Opera says its 'Ring' was a box office smash

July 14, 2011 |  4:08 pm

SanFranOperaRingCoryWeaverSFO The dwarves onstage in San Francisco Opera’s recently concluded performances of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle probably outnumbered empty seats in the 3,148-capacity War Memorial Opera House.

The company announced this week that it sold 99.96% of the seats for 14 performances -– three full renditions of the four-part “Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” plus standalone performances of the two concluding operas, “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung.”

Attendance totaled 44,055 for the so-called “American Ring,” in which director Francesca Zambello transposed Wagner’s rendering of Germanic myths into American historical settings, starting with the Gold Rush. The company said that 18% of the audience came from 46 other states and 21 foreign countries.  About one of every 20 San Francisco “Ring”-goers traveled from outside the U.S.

Among other things, the upbeat results may indicate what a difference a year or two can make, especially in turbulent economic times.

Washington National Opera had been scheduled to premiere Zambello’s “Ring” in 2009-10, but within two months of the global economic meltdown of September 2008, the Washington, D.C., company shelved the plan.

Los Angeles Opera went ahead last year with its avant-garde  “Ring” directed by Achim Freyer, and company officials cited the poor economy as the primary reason it suffered a $6-million deficit for the three full cycles performed in late spring 2010. L.A. Opera sold about 27,000 tickets for the "Ring" cycles, 73% of capacity in the 3,156-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Many of those went at deep discounts.

The L.A. “Ring” cost $31 million, while the San Francisco budget was $24.3 million. But L.A. Opera gave 36 performances, compared to 24 up north, making the Bay Area “Ring” only about 9% more expensive on a per-show basis.

Freyer earned $1.15 million during the three years from 2007 to 2010, according to L.A. Opera’s federal tax filings. 

The consequences of mounting its first “Ring” during the poorest economy in L.A. Opera's 25-year history have included drastically curtailed programming.  The season opening in September has 37 performances of six operas, down from a pre-recession peak of 10 operas and 77 performances.

So with a year’s hindsight, was the L.A. “Ring” worth it?

“The board recognizes it placed considerable financial stress on the company, but I think the final verdict is that it was a very worthy undertaking and we’re proud to have done it,” Stephen Rountree, L.A. Opera’s chief executive, said Thursday. Subsequent productions have deployed equipment and know-how acquired in staging Freyer's technically demanding "Ring."

With about $25 million in debt on its books –- substantially covered by donations and pledges already in hand –- L.A. Opera aims to stick with a “very conservative, prudent” production regimen of six operas a season through 2013-14, Rountree said; it will consider adding a seventh production only if the economy and ticket demand brighten.


San Francisco Opera presents a new `Ring' cycle

L.A. Opera announces a 'conservative' 2011-12 season

Los Angeles Opera's Ring' ends with a deficit but potential new patrons

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Mark Delavan and Nina Stemme as Wotan and Brunnhilde in San Francisco Opera's "Die Walkure," from Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle. Credit: Cory Weaver/Associated Press.