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Atlanta Opera cuts productions and budget for next season

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Coming off the strongest production in its 30-year history, the Atlanta Opera announced today that it will perform just three operas next season (down from the current four) and that its budget will shrink to $5.3 million (down from the current $6.75 million.)
Blaming the economy, which arts managers have taken to call “the Great Recession,” General Director Dennis Hanthorn said total ticket sales, including subscriptions and single-tickets, dropped 19 percent over the past two seasons, while fundraising revenue has decreased 13 percent. (The current season will continue as planned: “Aïda” opens Feb. 27 and “The Magic Flute” opens April 24.)
Amid much hoopla, the opera became a tenant of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, just after it opened in the fall of 2007. The move was seen as significant and watched nationally: it was one of the first major in-town performing arts organizations in America to depart its historic in-town location for a new venue in the suburbs. Given that the opera’s previous spaces were terrible for opera — including the 4,500-seat, acoustically wretched Fox Theatre and, most recently, the 4,600-seat, sterile Atlanta Civic Center, both in Midtown — Hanthorn and the board of directors felt the 2,750-seat, voice- and orchestra-friendly Cobb Energy center was a gift from heaven.
And in their first season in Cobb, which sits just inside the perimeter highway that encircles Atlanta, the opera did great business, almost doubling ticket sales and with a significant boost in fundraising. But starting with a “Madama Butterfly” in the fall of 2008 — as the financial world was collapsing — ticket sales have been dropping ever since. For the 2009 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the opera ran up a debt a little shy of $500,000. Hanthorn projects the company’s balance sheet will show a larger debt for FY 2010; that audit will soon be completed and will be announced at the next board meeting, in January. The company has no endowment to speak of.
Trimming the 2010-2011 season “is a bad news but also a good news,” said the opera’s director of communications Cristina Herrera, “and the good part is that we are able to make the cuts in a proactive way. Dennis [Hanthorn] has helped build up this company artistically, and we weren’t going to let that artistic product slip” — in other words, a managed descent now is better than a panicky free-fall later.
“We’re not alone in making difficult decisions like these, but that doesn’t make it any easier,” Hanthorn said in a statement. “Our goal is to ensure the long-term sustainability of The Atlanta Opera so that we can continue to bring high-quality opera performances to the Atlanta community. We felt that cutting a production was the most fiscally responsible decision we could make at this point in time.”
Hanthorn’s words come as some other, perhaps less prudent, U.S. opera companies have gone bankrupt in this recession, including the Baltimore Opera.
Atlanta’s 2010-11 season will be announced in January. The three operas to be performed have been finalized but not yet the casts.
Which brings us back to the the strongest production in the opera’s 30-year history: Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” in a winning production rented from the Glimmerglass Opera and starring Atlanta-based countertenor David Daniels as the hell-and-back hero. I attended three of the four performances, and it got stronger each night. Everyone was in fabulous voice, the production was smart and convincing, the chorus touched the sublime and the orchestra, under Baroque specialist Harry Bicket, played splendidly. It set a new standard for the company, on a par with what the best opera companies in America achieve on good nights. It was a level of opera that’s essential to preserve.
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The Atlanta Opera, coming off the strongest production in its 30-year history, announced today that it will perform just three operas next season (down from the current four) and that its budget will shrink 21.5 percent to $5.3 million (down from the current $6.75 million). The company has almost no endowment.

Blaming the economy, general director Dennis Hanthorn said total ticket sales, including subscriptions and single tickets, dropped 19 percent over the past two seasons, while fund-raising revenue has decreased 13 percent.

Trimming the 2010-11 season “is bad news but also a good news,” said the Atlanta Opera’s director of communications Cristina Herrera, “and the good part is that we are able to make the cuts in a proactive way. Dennis [Hanthorn] has helped build up this company artistically, and we weren’t going to let that artistic product slip” — in other words, a managed descent now is better than a panicky free-fall later. (The current season will continue as planned: “Aïda” opens Feb. 27 and “The Magic Flute” opens April 24.)

The 2,750-seat Cobb Energy center has been an improvement for the opera's production values.
The 2,750-seat Cobb Energy center has been an improvement for the opera's production values. Ticket sales? Hard to tell.

In its first season at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, in the fall of 2007,  the opera did great business, almost doubling ticket sales and with a significant boost in fundraising. New venues often attract curious crowds when they first open. A better measure of its box-office appeal comes in the second and third seasons. But starting with a “Madama Butterfly” in the fall of 2008 — as the financial world was collapsing — ticket sales dropped precipitously and kept dropping. For the 2009 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the opera ran up a debt a little shy of $500,000. Hanthorn projects the company’s balance sheet will show a larger debt for FY 2010; an official audit will soon be completed and will be announced at the next board meeting, in January.

Unlike past Atlanta Opera financial crises, which were mostly due to poor management, this one seems to come mostly from external sources, for Hanthorn is no spendthrift. Before coming to Atlanta, he led Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera, where he balanced the budget 11 consecutive seasons — albeit a more modest company in a smaller city and under very different economic circumstances. He describes himself as a “best practices” guy — do what’s sensible, what’s proven, what’s conservative but that still lets you move forward.

“We’re not alone in making difficult decisions like these, but that doesn’t make it any easier,” Hanthorn said. “Our goal is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Atlanta Opera so that we can continue to bring high-quality opera performances to the Atlanta community. We felt that cutting a production was the most fiscally responsible decision we could make at this point.”

The news is bad all over. For its own complicated reasons, exacerbated by the Great Recession, the Baltimore Opera trustees filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in May this year, liquidated its remaining assets — scenery and costumes, technical equipment, a storage warehouse — and dissolved the 58-year-old company. There was no endowment to buffer financial hardships, and as corporate philanthropy dried up, and the small pool of local fat-cats had donated all they could, the opera’s directors had no options.

Last year, Opera Pacific in Orange County, Calif. went under. San Francisco, Washington and even New York’s Metropolitan Opera have scaled back their seasons. Last week, the Los Angeles Opera requested a $14 million “emergency loan” from the county to help cover its $20 million debt. “The loan is needed now, literally next week,” the L.A. Opera’s chief executive was quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

Life-threatening crises around the country loom in the minds of all leaders of regional performing arts organizations; news that the Atlanta Opera is reacting in a mature fashion to its own looming crisis might be the best we can hope for till the economy improves.

"Non m'abbracci? Guardami almen." Katherine Whyte as Euridice and David Daniels as Orfeo. Photo by Tim Wilkerson.
"Non m'abbracci? Guardami almen." Katherine Whyte as Euridice and David Daniels as Orfeo. Photo by Tim Wilkerson.

Atlanta’s 2010-11 season will be announced in January. The three operas to be performed have been finalized; not all the contracts have been signed.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned strongest show in the opera’s 30-year history: Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” in a winning production rented from the Glimmerglass Opera and starring Atlanta-based countertenor David Daniels as the hell-and-back hero. I attended three of the four performances, and it got stronger each night. Everyone was in opulent voice, and Daniels especially sounded fresher, less fatigued, than I’ve heard him in several years. Walter Huff’s chorus touched the sublime and has never sounded better. The orchestra, under Baroque specialist Harry Bicket, played splendidly. For the first time since I’ve been attending the Atlanta Opera over the past decade, every component clicked.

It set a new standard for the company, on a par with what the best opera companies in America can achieve. It was a level of opera that’s essential to preserve. Running an opera company during flush times is fun and relatively easy; the true measure of Hanthorn’s tenure will be how he brings the company through these lean (or worse) times while continuing to hold high artistic ideals.

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