Finnish National Opera is a Cultural Lighthouse surrounded by Vested Interests

Finns are lucky to have a wonderful Opera House in Helsinki that produces excellent classical and modern musical and dance performances, alongside many other interesting artistic productions. 

Tickets are available at fair prices to ordinary folk, especially when compared to the similar opera institutions elsewhere in the western world.

It is revealing to see all this reported in their excellent and detailed 2016 Annual Report:

  1. There has been 343 performances in 29 regions with a total audience of 317 000 people.
  2. Ticket income has reached €11 million with capacity running at 93%.
  3. Some 55 400 children have enjoyed various performances and rehearsals.

But behind these fine numbers there are many reasons to be somewhat concerned about how the Opera Foundation is run. There are clear indications that it has always, and will continue, to face tighter financial scrutiny from the public sector which finances almost 80% of their annual costs.

The 2016 report has a long list of all of the excellent productions, but although production costs have been reigned in somewhat, together with a fall in maintenance costs, they also report on increasing staff numbers (+4%), and a big jump in pension costs.

Ticket income (€11m) and other income (€3m) amount to only €14 million and this covers just  21% of total costs (including rent paid) of €68 million. The remaining 79% is covered by the public sector, i.e. by ordinary taxpayers. 

The board is correctly concerned about these developments and have expressed this clearly in their report.

The administration of the Opera is like a “Who’s Who” of Finland’s political and big company elite. The board has 14 members and the supervisory board 41 members and deputies giving a total of 55 members. These are grotesque numbers that may well suit an opera tale, but they are way too big for a cost efficient organisation. 

Although it appears that they are not receiving high renumeration, it does appear that they receive plenty of free tickets for productions. The exact figures are not disclosed.

Finnair, Sanomat, Varma, and KPMG are named as financial sponsors but there appears to be no information on how much they contribute. More importantly, it is probable that they also receive contracts from the Opera – air tickets for concert players and foreign guests, advertising in their media, pensions business for the Opera staff, and accounting contracts. One also wonders if their top management also receive free tickets for performances.

More recently the Foundation has announced the creation of the Opera’s “Bravo Club”. For a payment of €1000 you receive first option on premiere night tickets and other exclusive privileges.

It is understandable that the Foundation wants to secure private sources of funding, but given that ordinary taxpayers are on the hook for almost every penny spent by the Foundation, it does seem strange that those people who can afford an extra €1000 can get better access to a public good. It is nice to have exclusive access for something that is built and maintained almost completely by taxpayers.

The exact number of Bravo Club members is not publicised but assuming 100 members then 200 “avec” tickets for 5 performances means that 1000 places are booked before ordinary taxpayers get a chance to buy. 

It is also fairly certain that the board, supervisory board and sponsors also get free tickets so we can assume that another 120 tickets for at least 5 performances will also “disappear” giving a grand total of 1 600 seats each year. Assuming that the best tickets sell on average for €120 that means some €200 000 is “lost income” in a business where every cent counts. 

Things would be quite different if there was no public support for the Opera, but that is fanciful thinking in a small place like Finland.

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