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Opera pares back its next season to reduce costs

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod and Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The artistic success of the Pittsburgh Opera's last three seasons has come at a price. Next season the company will stage four operas and present a "special project" instead of a fifth opera.

Spending more for better singers, productions and artistic personnel during an economic downturn forced the company to dip into its $600,000 rainy day fund, general director Mark Weinstein said. To keep the company on solid financial track, he trimmed expenses in an effort to cut $400,000 from the current budget.

But it was not enough to save two productions -- the fifth opera next year, which will be replaced by a yet-to-be announced concert, and this season's Pittsburgh Opera Center production of Menotti's "The Consul" on Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 at the Byham Theater. The Opera expanded its season to five productions in 2002.

"It would be irresponsible for the Opera not to react to the reality of market conditions," said Weinstein. "We have made great strides in the lean years and prepared for the bad years."

That preparation puts the Opera in better financial shape than it might appear. "A deficit in a season is not financial struggle," said Mark Scorca, president and CEO of the service organization Opera America. "There are a number of companies that have cut back productions. These days there is a rush to sound alarms that in many instances are not appropriate. After incredible growth and extraordinary financial strengthening, Pittsburgh Opera has a modest deficit and must do some careful budgeting over the next few years."

For the 2001-02 season, Weinstein budgeted for a loss, which didn't materialize. But after watching his rainy day fund decrease by $188,000 last season, he took action this summer.

For this season, he projected a $207,000 loss, but promised the board that the Opera would not dip into the cash reserve next season. He developed a three-year plan, reducing revenue expectations and calling for reductions in expenses for a savings of $400,000. "I wanted to lower our risk level," he said.

Some of the cost-cutting measures for this season included freezing the salaries of all administrative employees making $30,000 or more. The company saved $87,000 by canceling "The Consul" and $45,000 by eliminating free parking for some employees.

Throughout the past 3 1/2 years, Weinstein's main goal has been to raise and maintain the level of the Opera's overall artistic quality. In 2000, he hired Christopher Hahn as artistic director and John Mauceri as music director.

"We are putting the money into the art, not into administration or overhead," said Weinstein.

While administrative and fund-raising expenses rose from $1.35 million in 2000-01 to $2 million this season, production expenses swelled from $3 million to $4.7 million. Over this time, the budget increased from $5 million to $7.5 million, and the company now has a $13 million endowment.

Quality costs money. Where the Opera once paid singers in the range of $4,000 to $6,000 per production, it now offers nearly twice that much.

The cost of a production has gone up as well. "The Barber of Seville" cost $918,000 and took in revenues of $446,000, leaving a net loss of about $472,000. "The Flying Dutchman" cost $1,051,000 to produce and drew revenues of $416,000, leaving a net loss of about $635,000. The losses are typical for opera companies, necessitating the raising of funds each year.

The Opera has compensated with co-productions that allow several companies nationwide to share the cost of producing operas. For instance, the co-production of "Don Giovanni" mitigated the nearly $1 million loss it suffered in 2001 because three opera companies, including New York City Opera, paid a total of $285,000 up front to compensate Pittsburgh Opera for its sets and costumes.

The Opera, Weinstein said, must focus on, "matching what you do to how many tickets you can sell and how much money you can raise around it." Subscription sales are up by $20,000 over last season but he had hoped for a $100,000 increase. However, single ticket sales have exceeded expectations. The Opera expected "Barber" to generate $105,000 in single ticket sales, but it produced $158,000. "Dutchman" was expected to make $75,000 in this box-office category but drew $78,000.

The Opera's leadership believes the financial commitment has paid off. Thomas M. Mulroy, a 10-year board member, praised the productions. "The staging is much more imaginative," he said, citing the minimalist, nontraditional set of "Dutchman" as an example. "For the first time I actually was engaged in the story. I think that's all because of the artistic vision they had in putting the opera together."

"Pittsburgh Opera is doing a much more varied repertoire and co-producing new productions of a particularly creative style," said Scorca.

"You have to be cautious about creating an artistic deficit. The reductions in spending have to be prudent so you excite the public while being financially responsible. In my view, Pittsburgh is doing it very well."

Post-Gazette cultural arts writer Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750.

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