Do Not Give a Dollar to the OperaS

Alarming news for music lovers: the New York City Opera, which has performed in the city for generations, will have to cancel the rest of its season and all of next year's season if it doesn't raise $20 million soon. A tragedy, for the arts. Still, no one should give the opera $20 million.

As a matter of fact, no one (acting as a charitable donor, not a ticket buyer) should give the New York City Opera one single dollar. This is not an argument against the aesthetic qualities of opera. Nor is it a snide, triumphal joke about the stereotype of opera as an outdated pastime for the upper class. It is just a simple call for reason to prevail, when it comes to where rich people choose to donate their millions. Let's agree:

  • Opera may not be your cup of tea, or mine, but opera is some people's cup of tea, and it can be great, as an art form, just as all other art forms can be. In general, a flourishing and diverse art scene in a city is a good thing.
  • However, in a world of limited money and resources, we must make choices. A dollar given to one cause is a dollar not given to another cause. The relatively small number of people wealthy enough to give large sums of money to charitable causes are in high demand. The need of charitable causes for funding far exceeds the available funds at any given time.
  • As the New York Times reports, the New York City Opera's financial situation has been in decline for years. It is far from being able to support itself financially. It is fully a charity, not a going concern.
  • In return for $20 million in charitable donations, the New York City Opera will produce three operas this season, and another season of operas next year.
  • Could that same $20 million in charitable donations be better spent elsewhere? Well, if you believe that saving human lives is a better use of money than producing operas, then yes. That money could purchase nearly seven million anti-malaria nets through the Against Malaria Foundation, which is rated as the world's most effective charity by the ethical philosopher Peter Singer. Singer's group estimates that a human life is saved for every $1,865 donated to the AMF. So, for the cost of producing one and a half seasons of opera in New York City, more than 10,000 deaths in developing countries could be prevented.
  • Perhaps the charitable donors who might give money to the New York City Opera are only interested in causes here in New York City. In that case, consider the fact that there are currently more than 50,000 homeless people in our city. A donation of $20 million to, for example, the Coalition for the Homeless could go a long way towards addressing the needs of those in crisis.
  • There are many things in this world that are all well and good, but that are not the best uses of charitable donations, which are a precious and limited resource. When charitable resources are limited, they should be put towards the most pressing needs. Saving human lives or helping the homeless are just two examples of needs that are more pressing than producing one and a half seasons of opera in New York City.
  • Opera, as an art form, will survive. The child who gets malaria will not.

[NYT. Photo: AP]