Rumblings at the Opera

November 06, 1992

By most measures, the Baltimore Opera production of Puccini's "Turandot" to open its 1992-93 season last month was an artistic and commercial crowd-pleaser that should confirm the recovery of a company that only two years ago teetered precariously on the verge of bankruptcy.

All the more reason for music buffs to be dismayed by recent reports of a behind-the-scenes struggle within opera's board of trustees. Quarrels over the specter of a crippling deficit have led several board members to resign and have prompted the departure of talented staffers.

At the core of the dispute lies a perennial dilemma: balancing the opera's absolute need to live within its means with its increasing costs and complexity. Partisans on both sides have staked out ** extreme positions, neither of which realistically can be sustained over the long haul.

John R. Young, who recently replaced Lowell R. Bowen as BOC board chairman, insists the company can be world-class and live within its budget if trustees become aggressive fund-raisers. The opera derives about half its budget from ticket sales; the rest JTC must be coaxed from individual, private and corporate donors and from government grants -- sources cramped by the recession.

Mr. Bowen and others have expressed doubt whether Baltimore can support such an ambitious vision given stiff competition from New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and the fact that the city is home to relatively few corporate headquarters. In the worst case, the opera could spend itself into a hole again if fund-raising fell off or costs rose unexpectedly -- possibilities that cannot be discounted in today's still-sagging economy.

As a businessman, Mr. Young surely can appreciate these bottom-line virtues. Prudence ought to be the watchword. The new board must pay very close attention to day-to-day operations and costs.

Excellence is a laudable goal -- one which we believe is within reach. Yet board members can never forget that their first responsibility must be to the company's fiscal health, so that opera can survive in Baltimore for future generations to enjoy.

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