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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.”

By Anne Midgette  |  November 30, 2009; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Washington , news , opera  
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"...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 has always been my absolute biggest question about DC. Not crapping on any of the work their staff do, but what kind of leadership can they have (especially when they're doing furloughs) when their nominal head is never here? Presumably when he was signed it was on the assumption that the associated glamour would bring in the bigger donors and their checks, but has that eventuated?

Posted by: ianw2 | November 30, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

If I remember correctly, there were some seasons in which the WNO presented 8 operas.

My question is: what was the company's annual budget before Domingo came? My understanding is that, even with the cuts and adjusted for inflation, today's budget is still higher than before Domingo, but perhaps someone can confirm.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 1, 2009 9:03 AM | Report abuse

The Washington Opera, before it lobbied Congress to be renamed the Washington National Opera, often performed eight operas in a single season. Many reading here will remember, however, that this included the period when the Washington Opera/Washington National Opera used the Terrace and Eisenhower Theaters, as well as the much larger Kennedy Center Opera House.

The “Unofficial Washington National Opera Playbill Timeline” is maintained by a WNO volunteer, Vickie Carlson, at:

In 1997-98, for example the Washington Opera is listed as having performed eight operas: a lavish and televised Pagliacci with Placido Domingo, Romeo et Juliet, L’Elisir d’Amore, Don Giovanni, La Rondine (also, later, televised), Magic Flute, the annual American classical opera - The Dangerous Liaisons, and another Placido Domingo choice - Doña Francisquita.

The reduction from eight operas to five operas is a reduction of 38 per cent; while a reduction from seven operas to five operas is a reduction of 29 per cent. Both reductions now threaten the Washington National Opera’s mandate to present one American classical opera every season; as properly discussed by Washington Post senior music critic Anne Midgette and the WNO Executive Board President Kenneth R. Feinberg above. (Despite the WNO publicist’s earlier comments to this “official” forum, there was nothing in the Congressional enabling legislation authorizing the name change to the Washington National Opera about the renamed company being a house specializing in “English-language opera.” The Congressional enabling legislation was clearly – and appropriately, in my view – focused on “American opera.”)

Contrary to the comments above by Mr Marc Scorca, CEO of Opera America, the Washington National Opera, in lobbying Congress for approval of the name change if not Federal support, was clearly attempting to set itself apart from such regional companies as the San Diego Opera and the Florida Grand Opera. It sought to be a world-class - and not a regional - medium-size opera company with a special Congressionally-backed mandate in permanent resident at the Federally-maintained John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Given the strategic failure of the WNO to garner private sector resources under Jacqueline Badger Mars, Chairman of the Executive Committee, perhaps Kenneth R. Feinberg can now spend his remaining service exploring greater Federal subsidy for the Washington National Opera to help it – at least in the medium run – recover from its current partial melt-down.

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 1, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

It is difficult to be mad at Domingo, because of his outstanding qualities as a performer. He has certainly inspired the WNO and deserves credit for that. But he has also used the WNO, and it does seem that he has not been earning his keep for quite some time.
It is unfortunate that the WNO is being run along the lines of some vanished Austro-Hungarian business model, basing its income on wealthy patrons and now, hoping for a place at the Federal trough. It is the sort of mentality that could imagine the government requiring everyone to purchase opera tickets (as we may be required to do with health insurance).
The problem the opera faces is that there is not currently a market willing to purchase their product for a price that meets their costs. So the first order of business would seem to be to find ways to build up their customer base and reduce their costs. Here are some ways in which this could be done:
- fire Domingo; as much as we like him and love him, he hasn't been doing his job
- improve the quality of WNO performances, which has deteriorated over the last several years; in particular, have singing be in a language, any language, as long as the words can be recognized
- select new American operas for performance in concert, before committing to a full production, to give audiences a chance to vote them up or down by reserving advance tickets; maybe presenting them on the Millennium stage
- develop an opera series for TV, soap opera style, without the soap, just regular opera; if it's interesting enough, it would be a profit maker (also a good vehicle for American composers -- you could have different composers for different episodes).
- have Domingo expand his restaurant business into a chain with singing waiters and hire opera staff being furloughed
- expand contacts with regional high schools to provide exchange mechanisms to give students opportunities to learn music, hear live performers, learn to sing, get free tickets

If a rank amateur like me can come up with ideas, shouldn't the opera establishment be able to come up with more and better ideas, as long as they get off the notion that opera is some kind of entitlement?

Posted by: gauthier310 | December 1, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Well, first... people please stop capitalizing the word "federal" unless you use it in the name of an organization. Google this.

Second, Notre Dame fires their head coach when when the direction of the team (in terms of wins) is not up to their par. This shows their dedication to football. Opera companies should have the same mindset, with clearly defined reasonable goals that its director should meet to retain the job. WNO doesn't do this and that leaves the public with the hopefully wrong impression.

Third, for only 5 operas, I would personally prefer a single more-condensed season rather than a split one. I would imagine there would be efficiency benefits for the organization and the performers with a single season. It would also open up a season for other organizations to compete to fill the void (see Baltimore). Oh, and please let the season be Autumn. And don't call it Fall.

Posted by: prokaryote | December 1, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I don't know how I didn't notice it before, but Domingo was in LA on the day they announce staff cuts? Classy.

Posted by: ianw2 | December 1, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Shame on the Washington Opera Board. The wrong person was demoted. Mark Weinstein needed to be supported, not undermined.

Posted by: r4lowe | December 2, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't fire Domingo because it does seem that only by his name he attracts bg donors. Having said that, it is obvious that WNO needs as a leader somebody who devotes 100% of the time. So a new executive director needs to be found ASAP and given the authority to be the one who actually is running the show.

One intriguing fact for me is that Domingo did so much better with the fundraising at the LA Opera, whose profile he raised much more than that of WNO. Why is that?

If we want a new Intendant, let's keep in mind that Ioan Holender will be available in less than seven months, ha, ha, ha!

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 2, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

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