Opera president nurtures company But she'll surrender control next year

November 07, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the works in Thea Lindauer's comfortably cluttered condominium in the Severn House complex in Eastport is a small abstract of overlapping circles. It's not a painting, though; it's a rubber-band collage commemorating the pre-teen orthodontics of her daughter, Robin, now 36.

"I thought after all the money we spent, we should get to keep something," says Lindauer, president of Annapolis Opera. The collage may symbolize more about Lindauer than she realizes, suggesting as it does that she finds it very hard to let go.

But she plans to.

The opera, which has been part of her life for more than a decade, opens its 25th season this weekend with a production of "Carmen." And Lindauer, 73, steps down as its leader next summer.

Lindauer has nurtured Annapolis Opera with the anxious attention of a mother whose child has a toothache. She has determined its identity, ruled its budget with an iron hand and developed inexpensive audience-building activities.

By using volunteers, she has kept costs down and seen that artists got paid. She gets no salary.

Lindauer says she does "whatever's on the docket," from keeping the archives to fund raising. She takes ticket orders over the telephone and answers every possible kind of question. "One woman called and said: 'I've never seen an opera. What should I wear?' " she says.

She also has kept the opera small -- maybe too small for the recognition she believes it deserves. Though the second-largest of Maryland's four opera/music theater companies, Annapolis Opera is a fraction the size of first-place Baltimore Opera, with a $100,000 annual budget compared with Baltimore Opera's $3 million.

Its size tells against Annapolis Opera. It shows up in the season calendar that runs in September in the Metropolitan Opera's magazine, Opera News. But it doesn't get a monthly listing because the minimum requirement for a mention is a $300,000 annual operating budget.

Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, where it performs, is booking two years ahead, but finances prevent that kind of advance planning for Annapolis Opera. "I don't know if I'll be in business," says Lindauer.

Its size has also limited government support. The Maryland State Arts Council, for example, pegs its grants to a percentage of operating budget. It gave Annapolis Opera $5,000 last year, as well as a $2,000 project grant for touring a production of "Hansel and Gretel" to schools in Prince George's County. This year, with a $1,000 increase in the project grant, the company will add Anne Arundel County schools.

Lindauer says she is discouraged by the lack of support from area businesses.

"I send out hundreds of letters to organizations that support Washington Opera and opera in New York," she says. "I don't want to mention names, but one that gave thousands to Washington and New York, they gave us $500."

Part of the problem is that her fund raising hasn't kept pace with new techniques. She sends about 150 letters to local businesses each season, by her estimate, but they are memorandum-style notes that ask for money in the bluntest terms, not the personalized letters done on computers by other worthy causes.

"We probably could have done better with a paid fund-raiser," Rose Z. Thorman, who has been on the opera's board of JTC directors for three years, says. "But we haven't been able to afford one."

Lindauer "has heard me say this," says Thorman. "We're an asset to the state as well as the city. I think we need to go after bigger money. It's lovely to get $50 contributions, but we need $1,000 contributions. The real estate business uses us as one of the 'quality of life' reasons to move to Annapolis. We need to ask them."

In 1934, when Lindauer was 10, she was sent to the United States with the first Kindertransport to get Jewish children away from the Nazis. She lost her German growing up in Chicago but speaks with a coloration that's not quite an accent.

Her husband, Harry, was in the Army, and his career took them to Europe and Japan, and everywhere they indulged a passion for opera. When they retired to Annapolis in 1970, she gravitated to its music scene, first to the symphony, then to its fledgling opera company.

Costs were always a problem. "In the early days, you could do a production for $10,000; today you can't do one for less than $50,000," Lindauer says. The company saved by cutting back from four productions a year to three to two. Then, in 1983, it tried a summer production of "Man of La Mancha" and lost $10,000. Debt ballooned to $40,000. Between 1986 and 1989, Annapolis Opera could not afford to perform more than "Amahl and the Night Visitors" at Christmas.

Harry Lindauer became president of the opera in 1987 and ran the company until 1993, when his wife took over. For 10 years, she has decided the repertory, keeping to the tried-and-true: Puccini and Verdi, operetta and comedy.

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