WNO: more cuts, less opera
Edited to add: Here's the abridged version of this story that ran in the print edition of the Washington Post.
Following weeks of rumors about serious financial difficulty, the Washington National Opera today officially announced further cutbacks, not only to staff, but also to next season.
The 2010-11 season will present only five operas, down from six this season and seven in 2008-09.
The company is also eliminating eight staff positions, and shuffling at least one. Mark Weinstein, brought in as
General Executive Director in 2008, “will be focusing exclusively on fundraising and broad-range financial strategic planning,” according to a statement by the opera’s president, Kenneth R. Feinberg. (As Obama’s “pay czar,” Feinberg was recently responsible for cutting the salaries of top executives at seven companies that received billions of dollars in bailout money from the United States Government.)
Weinstein will retain his title through the end of this season, Feinberg explained in a subsequent telephone conversation. “Mark’s been at the center of these changes, of these efforts to put our business house in order,” he said. “That’s one reason why we’re asking him to devote his exclusive time to dollars and cents.”
“The plan is in place,” said Weinstein of his efforts over the last two years. “And now we have to raise more money. I’m going to spend all of my time helping with that process.” He had no additional comments about his future role with the company, which appears, reading between the lines of his and Feinberg’s statements, to be effectively at an end.
(read more after the jump)
The cutbacks -- which include a salary freeze and rolling furloughs starting at the end of the current calendar year -- will reduce the company’s annual budget from $32 million to about $26.5 million, according to Harry L. Gutman, the treasurer of the opera’s executive committee.
With this lower budget and reduced number of operas, WNO takes a step away from the international level to which it has aspired, particularly since Plácido Domingo took over as artistic director in 1996 and then as general director in 2003.
The five-opera season has, however, become something of a norm among the larger regional American opera companies. In cutting back in this time of recession, WNO is “hardly alone,” says Marc Scorca, president of the service organization Opera America. The Florida Grand Opera recently cut back from six to five to four productions a year; the San Diego Opera went back from five to four this year; and there have been cuts in productions at the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera, the two largest companies in the country. The New York City Opera is also presenting five operas this season, but theirs is a different case; after acute leadership crisis and a dark year during which no opera productions were offered, this season represents a stop on the way to the stated goal of that company’s general manager and artistic director, George Steel, of 10 operas a season.
Even after cutbacks, WNO remains the fifth-largest company in the United States, Scorca said, qualifying his statement with the observation that the New York City Opera has not yet presented its budget figures for this season, which are expected to be in the same range.
In the last ten or twelve years, the “Washington National opera budget has grown more than most companies, proportionally,” Scorca said. It is, therefore, “not surprising that the company is working very hard to figure out” the level of expenditure that it can sustain with its current revenues. The company’s endowment currently stands at about $31 million, although in the past it has borrowed $8 million against that.
“One of the challenges of the current recession is that the old fallback strategies haven’t worked,” Scorca said. The audience, he thinks, has grown more sophisticated, and “ less willing to settle for another ‘Carmen’ or ‘Barber of Seville’ because the economy requires it.” At the same time, because of the recession’s effect on corporate funding, private donations have become more important than ever before, increasing the pressure on opera companies to appeal to individual donors. “We do need to excite the audience every night, more than ever,” Scorca said.
Feinberg and other WNO officials are emphatic that they are not stinting on artistic quality; next season, they say, will include major artists and at least one new production. The five operas will probably be divided into a fall and spring season, as they have been in the past. Details of the season will be released in January.
As to the company’s mandate to present American opera, “There is a tough balancing act,” Feinberg says, “between advancing that mandate of producing American opera that sets us apart from other companies, and fiscal realities that have to be considered to make sure that we go forward with a balanced budget and no diminution or reduction in the artistic quality of what we put on stage.”
While WNO’s latest changes purportedly address what Feinberg terms long-term “systemic challenges,” they do not address one of the biggest challenges that has faced the company since Domingo took over: how to run a business when its leader is not actually present to oversee its operations. Domingo, 68, also runs the Los Angeles Opera and maintains an active performing career (this season, he has taken on the baritone role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” which he has already sung in Berlin and will sing in London, Zurich, Madrid, the Met and La Scala by the season’s end).
With Weinstein out as administrative head, operations will be overseen by the company’s executive committee, chaired by Jane Lipton Cafritz and with Feinberg as president, and by the opera house’s senior staff -- resulting in the lack of a clear leader that Weinstein was brought in to resolve. “That remains a major concern,” Feinberg says. But “that concern has been trumped in the past year by the deteriorating national economy.”
Lack of leadership, however, is not a guarantee of long-term business health. Feinberg’s term ends in 2010. Domingo’s current contract comes up for renewal at the end of the 2011 season. It’s not clear what kind of artistic or business legacy he’s leaving for those who eventually succeed him.
Domingo, currently finishing up a run of performances as Handel’s “Tamerlano” in Los Angeles, was not available to comment.
Edited to add: After this blog post was published, Domingo issued this statement: “While the changes made today are heartbreaking, WNO’s board leadership made these changes with the best interests of the company in mind. I regret the decisions, and yet, I support them because they will allow WNO to produce opera of a high quality, with world-class artists and productions, and maintain its award-winning education, training and outreach programs. A five-opera season, while far from ideal, will allow the company to maintain the standard of excellence for which we are so well known. I am deeply saddened that these changes are affecting WNO’s staff, who deserve great thanks for their service to the company. It is my profound hope that WNO will regain solid financial ground very quickly and that we will once again be able to offer more productions and performances.”
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