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State of the Arts: Opera Carolina

June 26, 2009

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    June 26, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

State of the Arts: Opera Carolina

The Weekly newspapers’ “State of the Arts” series maintains discussion with the area’s performing arts groups while they take well-deserved summer breaks. Each week, we encourage arts representatives to reflect on the past season and anticipate the next.

Organizations recently braced for sobering news from the Arts & Science Council regarding reductions in annual financial support. Most prepared for what they were told could be up to a 25 percent decrease from the previous year. Last week, Opera Carolina learned that its cut would be closer to 33 percent.

“This is a challenge for us,” said James Meena, Opera Carolina general director and principal conductor. “We have been on a growth track. Our goal has been to make this the finest professional company in the South, to be competitive with companies – like Miami – that are larger than us, and to present and produce operas at a level that people would see anywhere. This really is going to curtail those efforts, at least in the short run. We’re going to have to take a hard look at how we can keep the company financially viable while still keeping it interesting.”

Meena discusses Opera Carolina’s efforts to expand its audience and the ASC’s cuts in this week’s “State of the Arts.”

Before we look ahead, comment on Opera Carolina’s most recent season.
We have had a series of exceptional seasons. We’ve been building the organization artistically. Last year, we took a big step forward with our local radio station (WDAV). We did a live broadcast of our opening production, “Faust.” Two years ago, we did a national broadcast, which was prerecorded, on National Public Radio of the new opera we presented called “Margaret Garner.”

So we’ve been working not only to elevate the artistic standards of the company, but to get us out over the airwaves to increase our reputation as a performing arts group nationally and, of course, regionally.

Have those efforts contributed to quantifiable audience growth?
They have, actually. The audience that is coming to Charlotte for the opera is growing, and it has been growing every year.

What are the obstacles Opera Carolina faces despite recent attendance increases?
We were on a really good track until the recession hit. Our sector will always feel economic downturns sooner than the general economy because we are dealing with discretionary income. We started to see some weakness in individual giving starting a year ago, and that accelerated as the recession took hold.

Having said that, we’ve had some really good bright spots for the company financially. Ticket sales have been strong. We’ve brought in new money (and) new sponsors this past year.

But the word “crisis” was emphasized in a press release Opera Carolina put out in response to the ASC’s decreased giving.

Well, the reductions by the ASC are a crisis that we’re looking at for next year. The recession took us off track. But we responded pretty aggressively this past year by doing some additional fundraising and reducing our overall expenses by more than $200,000, which represents 6 or 7 percent of our budget.

How were you able to do that?
A number of ways. Most notably, I went back to every performing artist for the last two shows of the (2008-09) season and asked them to reduce their fees, and everyone to a person did so. We went back to all of our vendors and asked them to take a little bit less. All of them did. We completely reconceived “The Marriage of Figaro,” and did it more in a Thrust Theatre style than a Grand Opera style, and that resulted in a savings of more than $80,000. That was a huge, huge step for us. It shows the resilience and the creativity of the company.

We really weren’t expecting a 33 percent cut from the ASC for next year. We thought, at the most, we were looking at a 25 percent cut. Opera Carolina, the last three or four years, has consistently ranked in the top five groups as rated by the (ASC), so this year, to be ranked 15 out of 32 was a shock. We don’t have the data, so I can’t tell you why this happened, but it did. We’re going to have to react to it with our planning for next year.

Can you share some of that planning?
We already had a series of contingencies that the executive committee had been looking at in potential response to the ASC cuts. Now what we have to do is make them actionable. We have a finance committee meeting in a week. We’re shooting toward our July 14 board meeting, at which time we’ll approve these steps. Those include ... potentially doing a show in concert or, as we did with “Figaro,” totally reconceiving a physical production. It potentially means postponing a production to the following season.

We have already talked to our senior staff and they are in agreement that if they need to take a salary cut, they will. Which is admirable for all of them because we already implemented a salary freeze going into this year. That’s evidence of the level of dedication that the staff has to making this the best company possible.

At the same time, we’re looking at what we do in the community, how we interact with the community, and how we engage people and build our public support through both donations and ticket sales.

People underestimate the power of their purchasing dollars. And that’s our fault. In the performing arts’ nonprofit sector, we’re always talking about folks donating. But the opera generally will sell between 72 and 80 percent capacity for our performances. If we were to increase that on an aggregate to 90 percent, then all of a sudden that additional earned revenue goes right back in to support everything that we do.

We’ve got to encourage people to participate as audience members, as well as thinking about donating. They are equally important, and right now, I’d rather see somebody buy a $50 ticket than donate $50 and never show up.

By Sean O'Connell
South Charlotte Weekly