Artistic Gains Outpace Opera's Means

November 04, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When Michael Harrison became general director of the Baltimore Opera Company a year and a half ago, he was told by the board that hired him to improve the company's quality.

"All of us projected what we hoped would be a major increase in quality," Harrison says. "I came here with the understanding that the company was positioned to take a major step forward."

Many operagoing Baltimoreans would agree that Harrison has begun to make good on that progress. Last year's striking performance of Strauss' "Salome" was considered the best production of anything in the company's history. While Harrison's casting decisions have not been any more consistently successful than those of his predecessors, his willingness to pay for more rehearsal time and for better conductors has meant a much-improved standard in the orchestra pit. These successes have exerted a pull at the box office: The BOC's recent production of "Carmen" sold 97 percent of available seats -- a record for four performances -- and brought in more than $123,000 in tickets -- another record.

The problem is that Harrison's successes may mean that the BOC's 40th anniversary season could be its last: About two weeks ago, Harrison and the board announced that unless the BOC raised $500,000 by Dec. 31 (with an additional $340,000 needed by June), the company would have to cancel its spring productions and declare bankruptcy.

What happened?

Though the board hired Harrison to upgrade quality, its members say they didn't fully realize what the cost of that improvement would be until it was almost too late.

"We had a new manager whom we had directed to set out with an ambitious upgrading of our productions," says Lowell Bowen, BOC board chairman. "We thought fund-raising would follow. We didn't realize how far apart fund-raising and costs were until late last season. We have no one to blame but ourselves."

The increased costs come from a variety of sources. There were serious cost overruns on several BOC productions, such as "Salome" ($30,000), which needed a larger orchestra than the budget originally called for, "Faust" ($50,000), which needed extra stagehands because of its large and cumbersome sets. There was the most expensive ($100,000) brochure in the company's history for the 1988-'89 season (it was ordered before Harrison's tenure began). And there was the traditionally unaggressive fund-raising of the board.

The deficit for the 1989-'90 season alone was $477,993. After the implementation of several belt-tightening measures, the deficit for the current year is projected to be a relatively modest $37,321. But the accumulated losses from the past several years -- the BOC was $145,000 in the red after the 1988-'89 season -- total more than $840,000 and threatens the company's existence.

The problem, as the company's books show, is this: Though ticket income rose, that figure represents just over half of the necessary revenue; the other vital funding compo

nent, contributions, did not keep pace with costs. In the 1987-'88 season -- the last in which the BOC operated without a deficit -- contributions totaled $1 million and costs totaled a little more than $2 million. In the '89-'90 season, contributions remained at about the $1 million mark, but costs climbed to almost $2.8 million.

The biggest increases were non-production costs. In that two-year period, production costs (what it actually costs to mount the operas) rose from $1.6 million to $1.8 million and non-production costs (such expenses as office rent, staff salaries and advertising) rose from $570,000 to $1 million. (The latter figure is projected this year to fall to $700,000.)

"I want to emphasize that we don't blame Michael [Harrison] for anything," says John Young, the BOC board president. "He's done exactly what we wanted him to do. We just didn't raise money aggressively enough, and that failure was made worse by the shape the economy's in."

In its 40-year history, the BOC has been in significant trouble only once before -- after the 1983-'84 and '84-'85 seasons. Until that time, the BOC had been essentially a sauce-and-pasta company that presented staples of the beloved Italian repertory. In 1983-'84, however, it departed from that formula with German and French works (Wagner's gigantic and hugely expensive "Die Walkuere" and Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites") and with a Broadway musical ("Kismet"). The company expected the latter to help pay for Wagner, but "Kismet" was the kiss of death at the box office.

The next year was just as bad -- the consequence of experimenting again with musical theater (Bern

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