Opera thrives in Washington but struggles in Baltimore

December 31, 1990|By Ernest F. imhoff | Ernest F. imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

BALTIMORE opera lovers, familiar with stories this fall about the troubled but now saved company here, may well marvel at the success of the Washington Opera 40 miles down the road.

The demographics of the two sprawling communities are different, Washington having more opera-conscious people, more donors, two theaters. Artistic performances are hard to compare. But a non-artistic comparison may be instructive. For one thing, the Washington Opera has had deficits in the past -- but is happily and deeply in the black now. What happened?

One factor may be the philosophy of Washington Opera's director of financial resources for the past 6 1/2 years, Patricia L. Fleischer: "You can't spend money you don't have."

Until last week, Baltimore Opera had a deficit of $840,944, accumulated over several years, but on Friday Michael Harrison, general director, said the opera had raised $1 million, saved its season, avoided bankruptcy and assured its future into next season.

Down the road, Washington had a deficit of $1 million just after Fleischer came. Now the opera has a $2-million cash reserve and a $2-million endowment fund. This season the Washington company borrowed from the reserve for only two months and dips only into the interest from the endowment.

Baltimore Opera has a slightly above average 53 percent earned income from tickets, but Washington reports an extremely high 62 percent, mostly subscriptions. The remaining 38 percent comes from donations. Most opera companies are only 50-50 or less.

Washington Opera reports that 5,200 donors contributed $4.1 million and tickets produced $4.6 million last season. The total budget was $8.1 million administered by 35 full-time employees. Fleischer noted, however, that "opera giving isn't easy here [in DC]": In a recent survey of seven major metro areas, Washington ranked at the bottom in fund-raising because it had the fewest large foundations and other factors.

Baltimore Opera's budget this year is $2,273,941 with 11 full-time employees. So far 921 individuals and 185 corporations, foundations and trustees have donated $1,062,165 of the total budget. Last season, in the year ending June 30, 1990, a total of 1,507 individuals and 324 groups and trustees donated.

While Baltimore is doing 16 performances of four operas, Washington this season in two theaters at the Kennedy Center is producing 57 performances of seven operas. Next season, six Washington performances are being added for a total of 63.

Opera tickets in the district are as tough to get as Redskins tickets. All 2,200 seats for this season at the Opera House and 1,100 seats in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center have been sold out for some time. Waiting lists exist for the remaining operas. Its first two operas sold 101.5 percent -- some subscribers donated their unused tickets, which were snapped up. Fleischer has been the director of development, marketing and public relations since she was hired by Martin Feinstein, general director, from the San Francisco Opera. Fleischer was asked last week to supply the Washington Opera figures used in this article but declined any comment on the Baltimore Opera, which only this year hired its first full-time financial manager, Nizam Kettaneh.

When Fleischer arrived, tickets, mostly singles rather than subscriptions, produced only 38 percent of its total income while donations were 62 percent.

"We've had our ups and downs," Fleischer said, "but we've turned it around here. Half the opera companies in the United States have some kind of deficit. But you have to run the opera like a business. You can't spend money you don't have.

"We forecast income very modestly and expenses very generously. In much of the arts, people do just the reverse. We do rolling forecasts each month to keep on top of things."

Fleischer attributes much of the opera's financial success to "a wonderful staff" and their attention to the customer. "Hiring the right people is vital. We've been doing customer service for about four years. For instance, we have a concierge desk with a computer terminal right at the steps into the opera -- for people who lost their tickets, who want to turn them in, who want to buy them."

Fleischer focused on several things when she came. One was reversing the 40-60 percent ratio of ticket sales to donations and reversing the ratio of single ticket sales to subscriptions. The full-time staff was 30 then.

"Another was being very careful on expenses," Fleischer said. "We try to find partners for productions -- we shared "Trovatore" with Miami, Chicago and Houston opera companies. We rent productions from others. We build some productions and make sure we can rent them out to other companies."

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