Opera company needs $1 million, faces bankruptcy

October 18, 1990|By Eric Siegel

The Baltimore Opera Company says it must raise an additional $600,000 in cash and pledges by the end of December to meet a $1 million goal or be bankrupt before the end of its current 40th anniversary season.

Officials said yesterday that the BOC -- founded by the renowned diva Rosa Ponselle -- must collect $500,000 of the total fund-raising goal in cash by the end of the year in order to stage the final two productions on its 1990-'91 schedule.

"If we don't meet our goal by the end of December, we will have to close the doors. We will be in bankruptcy," said board chairman Lowell R. Bowen.

Mr. Bowen and BOC general director Michael Harrison said in separate interviews that the opera is sagging under the burden of a deficit of $800,000, more than half of which was incurred in the 1989-'90 season.

That debt has created a "cash shortfall that becomes absolutely critical in December," said Mr. Bowen, managing partner of the law firm Miles & Stockbridge.

The opera is the latest in a series of Baltimore cultural institutions to face a severe financial crisis. The Peabody Institute last month completed a $15 million, do-or-die fund-raising effort that qualified it for $30 million in state aid. In 1986, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra successfully mounted a $40 million endowment campaign aimed at erasing its operating deficit. And in the early 1980s, the Baltimore Ballet folded under a mountain of debt.

Mr. Bowen said the opera has already received some $400,000 in cash and pledges in the last several months from local corporations and individuals but said much of that money was contingent upon the company's acquiring the other $600,000 to meet its $1 million goal.

Given the weak local and national economy, there "couldn't be a worse time" to be soliciting money from corporations, he acknowledged, but added, "Compared to everyone else, our $1 million looks like peanuts."

Mr. Bowen said it was "not realistic" for the BOC, which receives just over $200,000 through the Maryland State Arts Council, to ask for a bailout from the state and said the opera could not seek funds from private lenders because it was already "borrowed to the max."

The BOC, in the middle of its season-opening production of "Carmen," sent letters this week asking for money from its 5,500 subscribers, from whom it hopes to raise $250,000.

It has also slashed this year's budget by 10 percent to $2.3 million by moving its rented offices to a less expensive location and replacing "Tristan und Isolde" with a concert of selections from Wagner's operas, scheduled for performances beginning Nov. 30. (The season schedule also includes Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" in March and Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" in April.)

"We've pared everything down to the point we feel we can without reducing the quality," Mr. Harrison said.

He blamed last year's $460,000 operating deficit on a combination of increased production costs and what he termed a "dramatic failing" in fund-raising. Corporate gifts and underwriting grants were nearly $200,000 under budgeted projections, he said.

Mr. Harrison said that in the past the opera company has "never been very aggressive" in raising money but said it was placing increased emphasis on solicitations.

He said the $1 million in cash and pledges the opera was seeking would allow it to retire its debt and create a small cash reserve.

That money, he said, would be in addition to some $700,000 in private support it has budgeted for the current fiscal year.

He said the BOC, which has virtually no endowment, receives 53 percent of its income from ticket sales, compared to 40 percent for most regional opera companies.

Ticket sales, he said, remained strong. The opera had an 84 percent renewal rate among subscribers and so far has received $110,000 from single ticket sales for "Carmen," the largest such amount in its history.

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