SPECTER: Opera Must Remake Itself

Essay submitted to and published in the Austin American-Statesman, April 6, 2014

As general director of a nonprofit American opera company, it gives me tremendous pause to learn of the fall of companies as illustrious as San Diego Opera, New York City Opera, Baltimore Opera — or any of the other companies that have dropped the curtain for the last time.

Opera companies are important to the community: They deliver great art, enrich our children’s education through meaningful engagement programs, and employ hundreds of people each year—singers, orchestra members, stagehands, staff — to the benefit of their local economies.

There is no question that our art form is at an inflection point where paradigms ranging from audience development, to fundraising, to how we actually deliver the art, need to be studied and challenged.

But the fact is that dozens of opera companies around the country are having success. And they’re doing it by remaking themselves a little bit, every day.

Austin Lyric Opera’s turnaround story offers perhaps the best counterpoint to the downfall of San Diego Opera and New York City Opera. It’s a story of how a community rose to the challenge to keep the art form they love alive and, on a larger scale, how cultural institutions must be responsive and responsible stewards of a community’s trust.

Three years ago, ALO faced many of the same challenges and decisions San Diego faces now. In the spring of 2011, we were a $4 million a year organization with $14,000 cash in the bank and $2 million in debt. But our financial challenges were a symptom, not the cause, of ALO’s problems.

We chose operas that did not resonate with the broader community. We did a poor job of giving people reasons to be excited about what we were putting on the stage. We compromised on quality. We did not handle our books well. We treated our patrons poorly. We lost subscribers.

The reason ALO did not close was because — in spite of all of our challenges — we had not run out of passion, will, endurance, artists, faith or commitment. Our board, our guild, our donors, our subscribers and our fans would not let ALO die. Under our then-new board president, Ernest Auerbach, and thanks to the faithful support of the Austin community, our board looked at the hard facts and took dramatic action.

We spun off our community music school into its own separate nonprofit. We reduced our number of performances. We pivoted to more traditional repertoire. We reduced our staff. And we sold our building.

These were painful, gut-wrenching moves for the company, but they enabled us to focus completely on our responsibility to bring great art for the benefit of Austin.

Three years later, we are an organization operating without any debt. We have a re-energized board. Our subscriber base has grown by 33 percent. But most importantly, we are bringing great opera performances to our community and providing programs for arts education at little or no cost, serving as the resource to Austin that we must be.

If this seems like an opportunistic move to promote our organization in the face of the failure of a peer in the field, you are absolutely right. We would be falling down on the job if we did not do everything we could to turn the challenges of our field to our company’s advantage.

What we now know is that it takes more than $15 million to build an opera company. In fact, $15 million — or even $20 or $30 million — is the last thing you need. Because before you need money, you need a community of people with a passion for opera; the courage, the will, and the endurance to have an opera company; the artists to create the opera; and the faith and commitment to make it work no matter what. When all of that comes together, opera doesn’t just survive, it thrives.

Specter is general manager of Austin Lyric Opera.

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