For a terrible moment, he thought the musicians had left in the middle of the show.
“It was the beginning of a big aria and I was with my back to the audience so I couldn’t see the conductor,” Larsen said. “There was an unusually long break and I thought, ‘Oh God, they are leaving the pit.’ The office had said there might be a strike that night.”
As it turned out, the conductor had simply let a pause in the music stretch for longer than usual. The show went on.
But Larsen’s fears were not unfounded. The orchestras at two of Berlin’s three big opera houses — the Comic and German Opera — are locked in a pay dispute with the city. Over the past two months, the musicians have taken industrial action including delaying performances, refusing to return after intermission and even canceling entire shows.
Times are getting tougher for European opera. Scuffles broke out last week in front of Italy’s famous La Scala opera house in Milan as protesters clashed with police over the Berlusconi government’s deep cuts to the arts and education. Britain has slashed its arts budget as part of sweeping cuts to public spending. The new Dutch government plans to cut the country’s arts budget by 200 million euros, most of which will come from the performing arts.
Even Germany, the world’s most lavish funder of opera and orchestral music, is feeling the pinch. A recent study by management consultants A.T. Kearney calculated that one in 10 of Germany’s 144 public theaters — which include 85 opera houses — would need to close by 2020, according to business weekly Wirtschaftswoche.
It is grave news in a country that prides itself on being the home of Beethoven, Bach, Wagner and Handel. Germany has a staggering 133 full-time, professional orchestras — nearly a quarter of the world’s total — and spends more than 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion) a year subsidizing opera and concert houses. Even in the racy tabloid Bild, opera routinely makes headlines.
Certainly, no one can remember orchestras going on strike.
“We’re not the coal miners under Margaret Thatcher,” said Matthias Kamps, the Comic Orchestra’s co-principal trumpet, referring to the infamous strikes in 1980s Britain. “We don’t want to strike for months and shut down the opera house. We’re not used to this but we’ve been left with no choice.”
Catherine Larsen-Maguire, the Comic Orchestra’s British-born bassoonist, said: “The special status of culture is what Germany is known for. And that’s what we’re fighting for.”
While budgets are relatively stable compared with places like Britain and France, they are under pressure both because of the financial crisis and for longer-term reasons, said Gerald Mertens, head of the German Orchestra Association, the union that represents musicians.
“The big steamboats in the big cities will survive. The small, fast boats will probably survive too. But in the cities where they have the budget problems, it’s going to be much harder,” he said.
The decline of traditional industries such as coal and steel in the Rhineland, for example, have weakened the budgets of cities such as Cologne, Dusseldorf and Dortmund, he said.
Reunification 20 years ago left the country with more opera houses than it could sustain, which is still having an effect today. Berlin, for instance, was left with three major opera houses after the Wall fell — all of which have continued to be maintained even though the capital is massively in debt. Many believe two of the houses should amalgamate.
While audiences have been quite sympathetic to the Berlin musicians, Berlin’s press has been tough. The left-wing Berliner Zeitung wrote that Comic’s “privileged” musicians were paid an average of 4,400 euros per month (nearly $70,000 per year) and that the strikes were a “dangerous swaggering; selfish and irresponsible.”
Those figures were inflated, the musicians retort. In fact a first violinist’s starting salary is 2,743.35 euros ($3,600) per month and the monthly salary rises 196 euros ($260) every two years, said Kamps, who is a union representative for the orchestra. More senior musicians may be earning more than 4,000 euros ($5,300) a month but it is not the average.
“The figures that have been quoted are nonsense,” he said.
The musicians want to earn the same as the rest of the country, behind which they are lagging. Adding to their bitterness is the fact that musicians at the third Berlin orchestra, at the State Opera, earn considerably more owing to a private deal secured by its redoubtable director, the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.
The Berlin Opera Foundation, which manages the three houses, did not comment.
What really needs to be done, experts say, is for Germany to overhaul the way opera is financed. More than most countries, Germany relies overwhelmingly on taxpayer funding for its opera. In the United States, opera is funded by a roughly equal three-way split between public endowment, box office revenue and private donations. German opera houses, by contrast, receive about 80 percent of their funding from state and local governments, with most of the rest coming from ticket sales.
The opera house in the Saxony-Anhalt city of Halle made just 6.6 percent of its income last year from the box office, according to Wirtschaftswoche magazine in a report last month. The rest came from taxpayers.
“If you go twice a month with your wife to the highly-subsidized opera, you get more from society in public benefits than most people on long-term unemployment benefits,” the owner of DM, a discount drug store, told the magazine.
Wirtschaftswoche’s lengthy assessment of opera funding and its future — painting a bleak picture — concluded that funding and management needed urgent modernization.
The musician union’s Gerald Mertens agreed. Opera houses needed to be encouraged to earn more of their own money through ticket sales and fundraising, more like in the United States, he said. At the moment, there is a disincentive to fundraising because if a house raises its own money from private donations, it is likely to lose money in the next round of government funding. Tax incentives also needed to be improved for ordinary citizens donating money to opera, he said.
“At times like this when public spending is being cut, it gets tricky when local parliaments start having a discussion about ‘kindergartens or the arts’ and ‘hospitals or orchestras,'” he said.
Germany’s oldest continuously-run orchestra, he said, began in 1502, just 10 years after Columbus landed in America. It is a heritage that has to move with the times to survive.
“We may have lost our status as world export champions to China," Mertens said, "but we haven’t lost our status yet in the arts.”