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Keeping The Curtain Up: Eugene Opera Asks Public For Input

Tuesday, the Eugene Opera will hold a second public meeting about its finances. The news is not good. Two productions have been suspended, and the company faces a substantial fundraising challenge to stay alive.

Eugene Opera board chair Barbara Wheatley addresses a crowd of about 50 at a public meeting Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.

Eugene Opera board chair Barbara Wheatley addresses a crowd of about 50 at a public meeting Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.

April Baer/OPB

If Tuesday’s meeting is anything like last week’s, people will be coming in with a lot of questions. 

Sarah Douglas is a longtime opera patron and donor. At last Thursday’s public meeting, she said, “One of the things that really concerned me was this abrupt ending right in the middle of the season.”

She talked about feeling blindsided by the revelation that the Opera owes so much money — $156,000 is due to musicians and other contract obligations. Taking into account staffing and office costs, the Eugene Opera needs $230,000 to stay alive through the end of the fiscal year this summer.

“I”m concerned about what we might call the ‘fiduciary responsibility’ of the people running the opera,” Douglas said.

Opera General Director Mark Beudert was not present. Like many administrators for smaller performing arts groups, he lives out of state, and flies into Eugene part-time. The board decided the expense of bringing him out for public meetings couldn’t be justified.

But the entire Opera board was there, joined by Randy Wells — an opera fan and CPA who offered to go over the books when news of the company’s troubles became public. Wells alluded to a quote by the playwright Moliere in describing his findings:

“He said, ‘Of all the noises made by mankind, Opera is most expensive.’ That’s what I’ve found.”

The board presented a detailed series of charts breaking down costs for some recent productions. For example, a 2016 production of “Lucia de Lammermoor,” was fairly typical. Fees for singers and musicians made up roughly half of the total $191,000 production cost.

The opera, Wells explained, loses money every time it stages a performance.

But he could not find much fat within the Opera’s administrative structure. In fact, he said frugality may be hurting the company in some ways, with so little money spent on fundraising.

“In the business world,” Wells said, “the … administrative and support expenses are much, much higher. The Opera spends very frugally — possibly too frugally. There’s not much money spent on getting donations.”

Marc Scorca is the President of Opera America, a national nonprofit. He said there are any number of small companies — in upstate New York; Madison, Wisconsin; and elsewhere — in the same position as the Eugene Opera.

“Our opera companies do function on a thread of solvency, especially some of our smaller companies. Nationally, companies these days are earning about 30 percent of their overall revenue at the box office. A number of our companies are in the 20-percentile range.”

Charities and foundations do help, but their grants ebb and flow. More often it’s individual donors keeping opera alive.

Last season the Eugene Opera experimented with smaller performances in non-traditional spaces. The board said those cost more than anyone expected, contributing to the budget shortfall.

So the question seems to be whether the opera can bring in more audience members without actually doing more shows.

At last week’s public meeting, after the initial presentation, the board broke the audience up into small discussion groups to ask what would work in a town where 65 percent of the population is 44 or younger.

Leah Partridge as Lucia in the Eugene Opera's 2016 production of "Lucia de Lammermoor".

Leah Partridge as Lucia in the Eugene Opera’s 2016 production of “Lucia de Lammermoor”.

Courtesy of the Eugene Opera

“My [teenaged] daughter sang with the opera and loved it — LOVED it,” said  Rebecca Welton. She wasn’t the only one in the audience suggesting music students have an important role to play in the Eugene Opera’s future.

Thor Mikesell thought out loud about how to draw new audiences into the canon. “I would go contemporary music theater, legit music theater — golden age, light opera, operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, Mozart. Mozart always works!”

Many in the room mentioned musical theater or other accessible forms as a bridge to those who may not love opera out of hand. Eugene Opera had similar thoughts — one of the two suspended productions for this season was a production of “West Side Story”.

Board chair Barbara Wheatley said it’s not going to be easy, but that the board believes Eugene can still support a professional opera.

“The key is communication. To be transparent with the Opera, and to listen. That’s a natural foundation for the kind of fundraising that needs to happen. We’re very encouraged so far by the response to our situation. ”

Wheatley said $65,000 has already been raised to meet a major donor’s $80,000 challenge.

“We’ve been here 40 years, this is the third time in that 40-year history we had to take a pause,” she said. “Each time it came back stronger than ever. We certainly expect that’s what’s going to happen this time.”

Tuesday night’s meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the downtown library in Eugene.

Additional meetings are planned for Wednesday, Feb 22, 2 pm, at the Eugene Public Library, and Thursday, Feb 23, at the Springfield Public Library at 11 am.

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