Austin Lyric Opera in Crisis: No Easy Answers!

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by Paul E. Robinson
The news just keeps getting worse from opera companies across the United States. As the economy ever so slowly rights itself after a devastating recession, ticket buyers and generous donors are hard to find. Endowments have taken a tremendous hit from the stock market collapse. The New York City Opera has been struggling for years and recently announced that it would have to leave Lincoln Center in order to cut costs and remain in business. David Gockley, the San Francisco Operas highly-regarded General Director, said that his company was feeling the heat and needed to do some radical restructuring. While Texas has weathered the recession better than most states, the Austin Lyric Opera (ALO) finds itself in serious financial turmoil. General Director Kevin Patterson handed in his resignation in the face of a growing deficit.
ALO Repertoire: Popular Mix too Much for Austin?
Austin is neither New York nor San Francisco, either in size or in the importance of its opera company; it is, however, a vibrant and growing major population center (the Austin Metro area is about 1.4 million people) and problems facing its opera company are fairly representative of what’s facing cities all over the country.
The ALO’s current budget is $4.3 million and its season is comprised of three main stage productions – presented at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, with each opera given four performances. In addition, there are some smaller events and the ALO also runs the Armstrong Community Music School.
Under Kevin Patterson as General Director and Richard Buckley as Principal Conductor, the ALO has developed a reputation for excellent work and for deftly mixing standard fare with off-beat contemporary repertoire. This past season the ALO offered Jonathan Dove’s wonderful opera Flight, and the previous season it mounted a production of Chabrier’s rarely-heard opera, L’Etoile. In 1997, it presented Philip Glass’ “Waiting for the Barbarians.” One of the AOL’s most enjoyable productions in recent years was an Austin-oriented version of Die Fledermaus (The Bat). As travelers to Austin probably know, one of the city’s prime tourist attractions is the daily emergence downtown, at sundown, of something like 1.5 million bats from under the Congress Street bridge.
On the whole, the ALO has given the community a consistently high quality of sophisticated and entertaining repertoire. Although there are few recognizable names among the singers, the mostly young and mostly American singers have been well-chosen and Buckley’s presence in the pit has guaranteed well-rehearsed and well-executed performances. Such quality comes at a price, however, and it is a price that the Austin community apparently is no longer either able to, or prepared to pay.
Several years ago the ALO moved from the Bass Hall on the University of Texas campus to the new Long Center downtown and the move was expected to be a boost for the company. The Bass Hall had 2,900 seats and the Dell Hall in the Long Center only 2,400. With fewer seats to fill, the ALO still averaged only about 45% capacity.
ALO General Director Kevin Patterson Resigns!
I spoke to Kevin Patterson recently and he emphasized the work that he and the ALO had been doing to get the community more involved in opera. He believes that the organization’s main challenge is in the area of contributed income; the ALO has simply been unable to raise enough money. Patterson blames the board for this failure. Too many of its members also sit on other non-profit boards in Austin and so have divided loyalties. He also expressed disappointment that board members didn’t take their fundraising responsibilities more seriously.
Slimming Down to Stay Healthy
When Patterson resigned recently as ALO’s General Director, board president Ernest Auerbach was appointed “volunteer interim director.” When I asked Mr. Auerbach for his comments on the situation, he was circumspect. He confirmed that next season will go ahead as planned except that the usual four performances of each opera will be cut back to three. He suggested that further changes could be expected after the board meets on June 14.
One of the items in the ALO budget they may want to review is the role of the Armstrong Community Music School. According to Kevin Patterson, the school contributes to the ALO’s cash flow but does nothing for its bottom line. Others maintain that instead of providing another revenue stream for the ALO, the school is actually a substantial money-loser. One might well ask why the ALO is in the business of operating a community school which has very little to do with opera. The school itself could be a plus for the community if it could support itself, but the ALO can ill afford to subsidize it.
Tough Times for Many: ALO in Good Company
Much of what ails the ALO is also affecting other performing arts organizations. David Gockley, who presides over the distinguished San Francisco Opera and a budget of $70 million, is very apprehensive about the future: “I look at this company as teetering. The annual expenses are about $7 million more than we can reliably fund, and half of our annual gifts are made by just 11 individuals who are over 65 years old.” (SF Chronicle, May 7, 2011)
Classical music audiences and donors tend to be older, to put it mildly. While “The Met Live in HD” presentations in movie theaters suggest that opera is more popular than ever, the popularity of these streamed performances may in fact be an indication that confirmed opera-lovers will flock to see a quality product and will gladly pay for it – “here’s the rub” – if the price is low enough. While the “Met Live in HD” presentations have been innovative and entertaining, however, I am not convinced that they are attracting new audiences. I have attended many of these performances in theaters with fewer than 20 people in the audience, almost all of them elderly.
How can the Austin Lyric Opera and other smaller companies across North America compete with “The Met Live in HD?” The Met offers superstars in every performance and prices far lower than those charged for live opera.
Patterson’s Parting Words Worth Pondering
As Kevin Patterson reflected on his four seasons with the Austin Lyric Opera, he offered a very sound analysis of what needs to be done: “The best position for ALO at this point is to reduce expenses, reevaluate the current production model with an eye toward moving away from competition in the marketplace; reevaluate the operations of the community music school; assess current staffing needs; and build a board that is accountable to itself, responsible to the mission and vision and interested in being an equal partner with the executive and staff in cultivating patrons to move the organization forward.”
When the ALO board meets on June 14, it might do well to ask itself some basic questions. Does a smaller city like Austin even need a professional live opera company? Opera performances on a generally higher level are readily available in Houston and Dallas, each less than 200 miles away, and top quality productions by “The Met Live in HD” are now available in a number of movie theatres in Austin and its suburbs.
If the answer is “Yes, Austin needs the ALO,” using as one argument the probability that most of the population can’t afford to drive to Houston or Dallas on a regular basis, then a solution for the current financial crisis might be a new organizational model. The ALO might consider opera performances that are smaller in scale and hence available to audiences at lower prices. But some would argue that this would be redundant, since there is already an opera school at the University of Texas filling this need.
Another solution is suggested by the Fort Worth Opera under Darren Woods. Woods determined that this company could not continue to operate as just another small organization with three or four productions spread throughout the year, in the face of the Dallas Opera – a bigger and more prestigious company – 35 miles down the road. He came up with the idea of combining all Fort Worth Opera productions into one high profile event – an “opera festival” scheduled at a time of the year when the company’s house, the Bass Hall in Fort Worth, was underused and when the community needed an attraction to draw tourists to the city. The result of Woods’ creative thinking was the very successful Fort Worth Opera Festival, which this year (May 14th – June 5th) is presenting four different works, including a new one called Hydrogen Jukebox. The Austin Lyric Opera might consider something similar.
With a huge deficit, a very slow economic recovery, major challenges facing all opera companies, and more problems peculiar to the Austin community and to the company itself, the ALO board has some serious work ahead of it. No doubt there will be a great deal of finger-pointing, but that will not get the job done; nor will the problems be solved by a couple of big donations. A way must be found to combine expert analysis, experienced leadership and new ideas. Let’s hope the ALO board is up to the task.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”


About Author

Former conductor and broadcaster, Paul E. Robinson, is the author of four books on conductors, Digital Editor for Classical Voice America, and a regular contributor to La Scena Musicale.

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