The Portland Opera is rolling back changes to its season structure as part of a broader effort to refocus the company’s mission.
The company’s newly published strategic plan has been made public, six weeks after longtime general director Christopher Mattaliano stepped down. (He now serves in an artistic advisory role.)
Since his exit, Sue Dixon, chief of external affairs, has taken the helm as an interim leader, with consultants from the Metropolitan Group steering the organization through its planning process.
The plan acknowledges that losses over the past few seasons led company leaders to draw on the Opera’s endowment. That trend, the report concludes, would mean the decimation of the endowment in seven years, if no action is taken.
Dixon describes the plan focusing on three different needs: “Making sure we’re good listeners, understanding what the community’s needs are, financial stability for the organization and also positioning for the future.”
The plan upholds some elements of Mattaliano’s vision – including a mix of large and small productions. But it also calls for moving the company’s season back into its traditional window, beginning in September and ending in May. Over the past four years, Portland Opera experimented with a later start; performances stretched through June, July, and August, in an effort to draw new audiences.
But Dixon said the change upset many opera patrons.
“Within that first year, we lost half of our subscribers. They’ve been asking us over and over again to go back to a winter-fall schedule.”
Patrons, Dixon said, tended to bring their family together during Oregon’s rainy winters, and looked forward to opera performances as bright spots.
The plan also calls for an artistic vision that reflects the community’s ideas and values. Many companies have grappled with how to handle certain works in the operatic canon centering overt racism or other disturbing themes. Dixon said it’s time to program such works in context, “Making sure when we’re programming those types of operas, we [are] building a dialogue about those pieces,” and making a credible case for whether and why they should be staged.
Key to Portland Opera’s long-term viability, the plan states, is a redevelopment of the Opera’s headquarters. It lies in a prime location within the east bank of the Willamette River. Two tenants, Friends of Chamber Music and the radio station All Classical Portland, share the building. The plan suggests other arts organizations or entities might be added.
Portland Opera has dealt with financial problems for years. Its challenges, including the fixed costs of leasing large theaters and negotiating with unions, are not unique. But it has survived on a somewhat slimmer margin than the city’s other large arts groups: Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Center Stage, and Oregon Ballet Theater — collectively, they’re sometimes referred to as the Big Five.
And the stakes are rising. This year, the city’s largest performing arts organizations face a change in the rules for public funding. Looking at the equation strictly in terms of revenue versus operating expenses, as reported on tax forms, the Opera is the only one of the Big Five for whom city operating support has meant the difference between ending the year in the red, or in the black.
But Dixon said the company is not without options. The 2018-2019 season was, she said, “One of our most successful seasons to date — the first time since ’08, I believe, we’ve had growth in all areas of earned revenue.”
The company opens its 2019 season with performances of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” beginning Oct. 25.
The board must still replace Mattaliano. According to Dixon, no decision has been made about whether his powerful role, as both artistic and business manager of the company, will be replicated, or split into separate roles. Some performing arts groups have traditionally kept these functions separate, to try and achieve a balance between creative ambitions and fiscal realities.