Eugene Opera Seeks Way Out Of Fiscal Crisis

Feb 14, 2017

Tonight (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.

Credit Eugene Opera

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

“One of the things that really concerned me was this abrupt ending right in the middle of the season.”

Sarah Douglas is a longtime opera patron and donor. At last Thursday’s public meeting, she talked about feeling blindsided by the revelation that 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.”

Randy Wells is an opera fan and CPA who offered to go over the books when news of the company’s troubles came out.
He 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.”

(fade up Lucia)

This is the Eugene Opera’s 2014 production of “Lucia de Lammermoor”, with Leah Partridge as the Scottish lover who loses her grip on reality in spectacularly murderous fashion.
This production was fairly typical, with fees for singers and musicians making up roughly half of the total $191,000 production cost ,

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The opera, Randy 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.

Marc Scosa is the President of Opera America, a national non profit. He says there are any number of small companies, in upstate New York, Madison, Wisconsin, and elsewhere — in the same position as 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% of their overall revenue at the box office.”

Charities and foundations do help, but those 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 says 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.

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

“My daughter sang with the opera and loved it - LOVED it.”

Rebecca Welton, Thor Mikesell, Josh Neckels, and Scott Pratt had thoughts.

“I would go contemporary music theater, legit music theater, golden age. Light opera, operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, Mozart. Mozart always works.”
“What’s your first show?”
“The saddest thing to say? West Side Story.”

The group has nothing against Leonard Bernstein. But, strictly speaking, West Side Story is not opera.

Board chair Barbara Wheatley says 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.”

Wheatley says $65,000 has already been raised to meet a major donor’s $80,000 challenge. She notes, in the Eugene Opera’s 40-year history, it’s paused for financial reasons twice before. She expects it will once again come back, stronger.

TAG: Tonight’s meeting (Tuesday night) will be at 6PM at the Downtown library in Eugene.