Stand up for opera

October 22, 1990

For years the Baltimore Opera has delighted music lovers throughout the metropolitan region. So successful has it been in building upon the legacy of legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, whose early encouragement and support helped bring opera to Baltimore, that today the company is ranked among the best regional operas in the country.

But the opera also faces the prospect of becoming a victim of its own success. Steeped in tradition, well supported by ticket sales -- this year's production of Bizet's "Carmen" drew the largest audience in the opera's history -- and by corporate and individual donors, it still finds itself with a cumulative $800,000 deficit that threatens to force it into bankruptcy.

Opera, which combines theatrical with orchestral performance, is expensive to produce. But as Baltimore's renown has grown, so did the public's demand for ever more elaborate productions. Meeting that demand has put the opera in a bind: In order to maintain quality, it has incurred costs that are not currently being covered by ticket sales, private gifts or public grants.

Of the company's $2.3 million budget, 53 percent comes from ticket sales. Most regional companies derive only about 40 per cent of revenues from such sales. About $300,000 comes from major private and corporate donors. The state, the city and Baltimore County chip in $325,000 more. And the National Endowment for the Arts contributes $27,000. That still leaves a gap that must be made up by smaller private donations drawn mainly from the company's 5,500 subscribers.

Opera officials concede they need to do more development work to put the company on sound financial footing. Once the current deficit is erased, they plan a major endowment drive. Increasingly, however, the burden of keeping opera in Baltimore will fall on a relatively small group of people, not necessarily wealthy but who adore great music. Opera officials believe there are enough such people to keep the company afloat and they are pinning their hopes on expanding this base of support. Ultimately it will be by the efforts of thousands of ordinary people who love music that this venerable institution is rescued.

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