Superstars Hitting Higher C-Notes : Many Presenters Can’t Meet Price--Up to $100,000 for One-Night Stand--of Classical Artists


Sopranos Mirella Freni and Kiri Te Kanawa earn up to $75,000 a recital.

Pianist Ivo Pogorelich collects $40,000 for a performance in Palm Desert.

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter gets about $30,000 for playing in San Diego.

And at the upper end of the spectrum presides tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who commands fees well in excess of $100,000 for a one-night stand.


Artists’ fees, especially in the operatic field, are soaring, and in the view of one concerned local presenter, “they’re going through the roof.”

But as Pavarotti’s manager Herbert Breslin is quick to point out, his client’s “power at the box office” determines ticket sales and “makes the fee structure go around.”

“The bottom line is if an artist can sell tickets,” Breslin said. “If they can and they want more money they should be entitled to it. No presenter has ever lost a penny on Pavarotti. He is an artist in the classical world who has an enormous following.”

The subject of salaries remains largely taboo in loftier classical music circles. In fact, many artists’ managers, record executives and bookers interviewed for this article declined to discuss performers’ fees.

Jack Mastroianni, a vice president at Columbia Artists Management Inc., one of the largest classical music agencies, said that supply and demand determine artists’ fees.

“What Freni or Te Kanawa get is nothing compared to what Pavarotti or Placido Domingo make, which in turn is nothing compared to the $200,000 or so that Vladimir Horowitz was making at the end, which was nothing compared to what Sinatra gets,” Mastroianni said.

Southern California presenters, increasingly alarmed at rising fees, remain adamant that these increases are not passed on at the box office. Some presenters have been forced to skip high-priced artists, underwrite classical concerts with pop or country concerts or shorten seasons. Others talk of joining forces to combat higher costs, although any attempt to fix prices--or boycott a particular artist--would run into anti-trust laws.

Nevertheless, Pebbles Wadsworth, who heads UCLA’s Center for the Performing Arts, believes the time has come for presenters to band together and “simply say no” to higher prices.


Wadsworth, who presides over a $3.9-million budget and up to 11 separate series, deemed the $40,000 to $50,000 asking price of superstar violinists such as Itzhak Perlman or Isaac Stern “immoral, incorrect and inappropriate.”

“Some presenters pay these outrageous fees and it becomes a circular thing; we need to take responsibility in this and not just blame it on the artists,” Wadsworth added.

She has been turning down “household names” seeking $40,000 and up fees. “We will bring in artists whose prices don’t soar,” Wadsworth explained.

David Hulme, the new performing arts director for Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium, concurs that presenters need to “be more creative” if they are to continue to present big names.


The Ambassador concert season receives an $800,000 to $1-million annual subsidy from the Worldwide Church of God. Yet with rising rates, Hulme anticipates that, for the first time in the Ambassador’s 17-year history, outside funding will be sought through corporate and private sponsorships. Hulme also plans to expand Ambassador’s jazz and country music series to raise extra revenue.

“You’ve got fees doubling and tripling over the last two to four years,” Hulme said. “Who knows what impact Saddam Hussein’s present excursion will have on the cost of bringing over an orchestra? We’re trying to hold the line and not pass the costs on to our subscribers.”

Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, with a $2.7-million budget, reports a 24% increase in artists’ fees in 1989-90 over the previous season. Should the trend continue, Vollmer expects to trim forthcoming seasons and step up fund raising.

The South Bay Center for the Arts in Torrance--operating with a $1.4-million budget--declines to bid for top-notch orchestras that charge up to $125,000 a performance, executive director Philip Westin said. It now limits its schedule to chamber ensembles that get about $35,000 a concert. In addition, the center’s vocal, keyboard and orchestral series are underwritten with monies raised from guest lectures, as well as jazz and country music concerts.


The Santa Barbara Symphony, with a $1-million budget, also “stays away from $40,000 artists,” general manager Jim Wright said. He generally engages a well-known performer, one who will accept a $12,000 to $16,000 fee, within a subscription series. Such soloists have included Garrick Ohlsson and Misha Dichter.

Among the presenters paying higher fees is the La Jolla Chamber Music Society. The society, armed with $1-million budget for four separate series, “always pays top dollar,” to stay competitive, executive director Neale Perl said. With about $200,000 the society secured appearances by the U.S.S.R. State Orchestra, L’Orchestre de Paris and Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, with Kurt Masur directing, Perl said. The Gewandhaus was twice a bargain, he said, because the three-orchestra deal was struck before Masur was named music director designate of the New York Philharmonic.

In Palm Desert, the $22-million McCallum Theatre for the Performing Arts also pays top fees for its six-concert classical subscription series. The 1990-91 season at the Bob Hope Cultural Center, for example, will include mezzo Frederica von Stade, who gets $30,000 per appearance, executive director Nancy Dolensek said. Pianist Alicia de Larrocha gets $22,500 for a March concert, and for an appearance by “living legends” Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Jaime Laredo, the McCallum will pay $65,000.

But geography is not the only variable in determining artists’ fees. These negotiable factors include:


* Whether a personal favor is owed the presenting organization.

* The prestige and size of that presenting organization.

* Whether the concert is considered a “warm-up” and/or simply a date to fill in a performer’s calendar.

Many high-profile artists, eager to appear with the mighty Los Angeles Philharmonic, perform for lower fees. “Being a prestigious organziation, we find there is more leverage for negotiation,” said Philharmonic artistic administrator Ara Guzelimian. In fact, some musicians--entertainer Michael Feinstein is a recent example--donate their services to the Philharmonic Assn., which has a $30-million budget, by appearing gratis at the Musicians Pension Fund concert.


Some top-draw artists lower fees for major organizations that have helped their careers. Columbia Artists’ Mastroianni points to clients Freni and Te Kanawa, who are “willing to nod in the direction of Ambassador” because the Ambassador Foundation gave them breaks early in their careers, he said.

Others will accept lower fees as personal favors to orchestras--or conductors--with whom they have a special relationship. When Christoph Eschenbach, director of the Houston Symphony, celebrated his 50th birthday last February, pianists Martha Argerich, Emanuel Ax, Alexander Toradze and others accepted “honorariums” for appearing with the conductor.

Mark Cianca, booking director for California Presenters, an organization dedicated to “developing block tours” for its 102 members on the West Coast, said he is increasingly able to secure big-name artists for smaller facilities.

“If you play your cards right you can get special dates at special fees,” explained Cianca, who also serves as director of arts and lectures at UC Santa Cruz.


“Sometimes if a major artist comes to California and has a few days free between engagements they will approach us to fill in a time spot; or sometimes they will want to do a warm-up recital in a smaller hall to iron out kinks before an engagement, say at Ambassador Auditorium. In these instances we can get a fee reduced up to 50%.” Other warm-up halls include venues at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and the Norris Theatre in Palos Verdes.

Cianca added that block bookings usually work best with theater and dance companies and with solo artists in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. The arrangement rarely applies to superstars who can pick and choose their concerts.

But Charles Hamlen, co-director of IMG Artists in New York, discourages his clients--the roster includes Andre Watts, James Galway, Itzhak Perlman, Jeffrey Kahane and Lynn Harrell--from offering reduced rates.

“I would rather an artist donate their fee for personal reasons rather than being pressured to give a (presenter) a break,” Hamel said from New York. “We are aware of the economic hardships facing institutions because of lack of funding, but at a certain status fees are non-negotiable. When dealing with a star you are talking about somebody who can fill a hall at higher prices and make money. Orchestras can construct galas around superstars who often sell out a series.”


Hamlen estimates that “emerging” artists such as Los Angeles-born Kahane and pianist Stephen Hough make up to $10,000 a concert. Salaries at the next level run $10,000 to $15,000 a performance, with superstars such as Perlman earning about $30,000 to $45,000.

“I don’t feel defensive about quoting high fees for classical superstars,” Hamlen explained. “What they make compared to artists in the pop and sports field is laughable. You are paying for quality and visibility and for a certain kind of charisma and mystique that cannot be defined.”