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Met shaken after Texaco bows out

Opera company seeks new backers for its radio programs.

May 22, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

It came as a shock to the opera community Tuesday when Metropolitan Opera General Manager Joseph Volpe announced that after the 2003-04 season, the name of Texaco would no longer be associated with the opera company's live Saturday radio broadcasts.

The oil company, which merged with Chevron in 2000 and is now known as ChevronTexaco, has sponsored the operas for 63 years, the longest continuous commercial sponsorship in broadcast history.

The end of the $7-million-a-year sponsorship, which ChevronTexaco has said reflects "a different direction philosophically" for the company's philanthropic endeavors, does not necessarily spell the end of the broadcasts; Volpe said the company is seeking new sponsorship. But the fact that the Texaco name will no longer be associated with the radio programs is causing opera enthusiasts to reflect on the broadcast's importance, and it raises fears for its future.

About 18 months ago, Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, found himself in the heartland on a Saturday afternoon, driving between business meetings in Iowa and Omaha. Playing on the radio? The Saturday Metropolitan broadcast.

"That intersection of the breadbasket of America and opera was profoundly moving," Scorca recalled.

Scorca says Opera America research indicates that, next to family influence, the live broadcasts from New York City's Metropolitan Opera House are the most-often-cited reason audiences give for their interest in opera.

"And it's not just audience members but also singers," Scorca adds. "[Mezzo soprano] Vivica Genaux was born in Anchorage, Alaska, but she let me know it was the broadcasts that introduced her to opera."

Lisa James, acting director of development for the San Francisco Opera, called the end to the sponsorship "a terrible loss."

ChevronTexaco is the San Francisco Opera's first corporate donor; broadcasts of the San Francisco Opera were carried on "The Standard Hour" from 1926 to 1955, and Chevron sponsored the opera's broadcasts from 1971 to 1982. (Standard Oil Co. later became Chevron.)

James says that in recent years ChevronTexaco has provided $75,000 in annual support to the San Francisco Opera and that she has "no indication" that the company plans to change its annual support in the near future.

Ian Campbell, artistic director of the San Diego Opera, says that the broadcasts have contributed not only to the growth of the opera audience but also to the establishment of opera companies.

"Whether it was San Diego or Austin, Texas, or Arizona, the fact that they could hear opera led them to develop opera companies in their region. And in the last few years the broadcasts have truly become international, not only through satellite links but through the Internet as well."

Campbell adds that disappointment over the end of the sponsorship should be tempered with gratitude. "ChevronTexaco made a remarkable contribution; they don't deserve to be hit over the head."

Los Angeles Opera board Chairman Marc Stern is another opera buff who first heard live opera on the Saturday afternoon broadcasts. He said the same is true of most of the company's other board members.

"About three or four years ago, Los Angeles Opera had a board retreat, and I went around the room and asked everybody how they first got involved with opera, why they were passionate about opera, and why they were on this board. I'd say 75% of the people mentioned the broadcasts," Stern says.

And Stern remains confident that Metropolitan Opera will find another sponsor. "Everyone who loves opera hopes that they'll find a way to continue."

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