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Washington National Opera announces cutbacks

4 December 2009, Washington DC, USA

Plácido Domingo:
Plácido Domingo:

Washington National Opera (WNO) this week announced a raft of changes aimed at averting a financial crisis in the company. These include the elimination of eight staff positions and a reduction in the number of productions next season from six to five (down from seven in the 2008/09 season).  

The changes are said to be addressing "long-term systemic expense and earned and unearned income challenges" – in other words,  overspending. According to WNO President, Kenneth R Feinberg, the opera company has “operated in an unstable economic environment in which our expenses have for several years outstripped our ability to raise funds.”    

US-based Opera Now correspondent, Karyl Charna Lynn, who has been watching developments at WNO since before Plácido Domingo became its artistic director in 1996, says that recent events have come as no surprise: “When Domingo’s artistic brief was expanded to the general directorship of WNO in 2003, many of us in the press thought it a bad idea for a globe-trotting superstar to run an opera company, since he’d never have the time to be there." 

Lynn admits that her misgivings were unfounded to begin with: “In my cover feature for Opera Now’s March/April 2007 edition, I wrote that the media had been happily proven wrong. Domingo’s ability to raise millions of dollars (clearly a factor in hiring him) and attract super-star talent enabled the Washington National Opera  – and the LA Opera, where he is also boss – to rise from the ranks of good regional companies to world-class organisations.”  

But that was in booming economic times. When the economy went bust, all this growth was shown to have been unsustainable. “Since Domingo was rarely in Washington,” explains Lynn, “no matter how much money WNO raised, it spent more in its (and Domingo’s) quest for international acclaim, and to earn its designation (by the US congress) of ‘National’ opera company – which will remain.”  

Every year, explains Lynn, a few generous Board members paid the deficit out of their own pocket until an ultimatum was given: ‘hire an executive director or we stop paying’. Enter Mark Weinstein, who has spent the past two years trying to rein in costs, balance the books and stabilise the company. But in spite of statements to the contrary, Weinstein’s restructuring has fallen short of being able to avert retrenchment.  

The Board, it seems, is fed up with lack of leadership and the bleeding of funds, so steps have finally been taken to address matters. “The previous excitement surrounding WNO’s productions and initiatives have disappeared,” says Lynn, “caused in part by the realisation that Domingo’s vision has become financially impossible to fulfil.”  

Domingo himself remains positive that, with good management, the company’s success over recent years will return as the economy begins to recover: “WNO’s board leadership has made these changes with the best interests of the company in mind. I regret the decisions, and yet I support them because they will allow WNO to produce opera of high quality, with world-class artists and productions, and maintain its award-winning education, training and outreach programs. It is my profound hope that WNO will regain solid financial ground very quickly.”

Visit the official website of Washington National Opera 


The Chicago Federation of Musicians and the committee representing the 76 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra have said that their strike, which threatened to disrupt the opening performance of Lehar's The Merry Widow on 5 December, has been called off.

The strike was cancelled after a what is described as a "tentative" contract agreement was reached.

Visit the Chicago Lyric Opera website

News round-up - 3 December 2009

3 December 2009

New Realities | New Strategies: 9 to 12 June 2010, Los Angeles

With many opera companies across the US facing severe financial challenges in the wake of the global economic downturn, next year’s Opera Conference 2010 will explore new strategies for safeguarding the sustainability of the industry. Presented by the US national service organization for opera, OPERA America, and hosted by Los Angeles Opera, the conference will include keynote speakers Plácido Domingo, conductor James Conlon, Houston Grand Opera general director, Anthony Freud, and OPERA America president and CEO, Marc Scorca.

J Mervyn Williams, born 28 October 1935; died 29 October 2009

John Mervyn Williams, who conceived and launched the Cardiff Singer of the World competition when he was head of music and arts at BBC Cymru Wales, has died aged 74. Williams, whose tenure as head of music and arts lasted from 1980 to 1985, was also responsible for the creation, in 1983, of the symphony chorus of the BBC Welsh Orchestra (now BBC National Orchestra of Wales).

Arda Mandikian, born 1 September 1924; died 8 November 2009

A soprano of Armenian Greek ancestry, Arda Mandikian possessed a voice and personality that were the inspiration for Benjamin Britten’s ghost of Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw. Also a specialist of French song, Mandikian passed away earlier this week, aged 85. Known to friends as an exceptionally sensitive person, and to audiences as a performer of striking beauty, Mandikian’s legacy includes two classic recordings from the 1950s – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in which she sang the role of the Sorceress, and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, conducted by the composer.  

Civil action underway against the LPO’s former Finance Director

27 November 2009, London, UK

Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO at Glyndebourne
Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO at Glyndebourne

This week’s classical music news columns have been dominated by allegations of fraud committed by former London Philharmonic Orchestra General Manager & Finance Director, Cameron Poole, during his five years of working with the orchestra. Poole stands accused of siphoning more than £500,000 from the LPO to fund his personal lifestyle (see full story on the Classical Music magazine news page).

The results of a routine audit revealed a major hole of around £560,000 in the LPO's finances. Following publication of the audit, the orchestra has initiated a civil action against Poole to recover the money, as well as reporting its suspicions to the police who will undertake a criminal investigation.

The seriousness of the allegations come as an accute embarassment to an organisation that prides itself on its high international profile and long-standing reputation, both as the resident orchestra of London's South Bank Centre and of Glyndebourne Festival Opera (a position it has held for over 40 years). Vladimir Jurowski, the LPO's principal conductor, is also music director at Glyndebourne.

So far, senior figures within the LPO have declined to comment on the case directly, leaving it to a spokesperson for the orchestra to indicate that an internal investigation has been launched and that ‘the civil process is on track to recover as much of the money as possible.’ The orchestra receives more than £2.1 million in public money annually, as a regularly funded organisation (RFO) of the Arts Council England.

The spokesperson also confirmed that 'The London Philharmonic Orchestra continues to operate as normal, with strong financial reserves, and The Board and Trustees remain confident of the Orchestra's continuing success in 2010.'

Next year’s Glyndebourne Festival, running from 20 May to 29 August 2010, is due to include new productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, featuring the LPO conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, and - for the opening of the season - Britten’s Billy Budd, conducted by Mark Elder.

John Steane remembers Elisabeth Söderström

26 November 2009

Elisabeth Söderström
Elisabeth Söderström

Elisabeth Söderström has passed away aged 82 at her home in Stockholm. The Swedish soprano, whose career spanned more than 50 years (including a stint as director of the Drottingholm Palace Theatre in the mid 1990s) will be remembered as much for her compelling personality as for her lyrical voice – attributes which she combined to powerful effect in her performances of more than 60 major operatic roles, as well as in concert and on recordings.

John Steane, author of the three-volume Singers of the Century, heard Söderström perform live on many occasions. Here he recalls his own critical observations and memories of the widely respected soprano:

'It’s the greatest compliment I can pay to say that when Elisabeth Schwarzkopf retired in 1969 there was some consolation in the thought that we still had this other Elisabeth! Their voices were similar in several respects. Söderström was radiant – what the Germans call ‘Strahl’. She had that clear, vibrant, concentrated tone. It wasn’t particularly powerful (my memory is that in Strauss’s Four Last Songs, heard in the flesh as opposed to on record, it wasn’t powerful enough). But you listened to her. It was a voice with character.'

Söderström’s autobiography, In My Own Key, captures the essence of this character, says Steane: 'The book has her personality imprinted on every page. There’s passion there, but humour too, realism, and even irony.'

While Söderström’s recording legacy is dominated by the Janáček operas that she made with Charles Mackerras for Decca in the 1980s (the Jenůfa was re-released in 2007, more than 20 years after its original release), Steane’s personal favourites are her three Rachmaninov song albums with Vladimir Ashkenazy: 'Other singers have been more overtly emotional in these, but she’s quite emotional enough for me, and the tone quality is ideal. When I heard of her death, it was a handful of these songs that I played in memoriam.'

  • Elisabeth Söderström, soprano, born 7 May 1927; died November 20 2009.

News round-up - 26th November 2009

26 November 2009

Dr Keith Howard receiving his award from HRH The Prince of Wales at Clarence House in London
Dr Keith Howard receiving his award from HRH The Prince of Wales at Clarence House in London

Arts & Business announces this year’s awardees

Bradford based academic publisher, Dr Keith Howard, has been awarded a Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy in recognition of his generous support for Opera North. Dr Howard has pledged more than £4 million to the company since 2003, and now chairs The Future Fund, a capital reserve designed to fund the long-term developmental work of Opera North.

Join the discussions at coc.ca on 28 November and 5 December 2009

The Canadian Opera Company’s recent productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Stravinsky’s The Nightingale & Other Short Fables are to be made available for streaming via the company’s website, coc.ca. As well as tuning in to these performances on 28 November (Puccini) and 5 December (Stravinsky), opera lovers are invited to join live online chat sessions with members of the casts and creative teams at 1pm EST (6pm GMT). Confirmed chatters for Madama Butterfly include set and costume designer, Susan Benson, and baritone James Westman, who performed the role of Sharpless.

Die tote Stadt in a new production by Danish National Opera

Korngold’s ravishingly scored early opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) will be performed in Denmark next year for the first time ever, in a new production for Danish National Opera directed and designed by Mikael Melbye.  This follows the success of Melbye’s production of Puccini’s La fancuilla del West for the company’s 2009/10 season. Korngold’s opera was rarely performed until the 1970s, but is now regarded by many as a masterpiece of late Romantic expressionism.

Scottish Opera teams up with Glasgow School of Art to promote opera

Two Graphic Design students at the Glasgow School of Art have won a competition to create a new marketing campaign for Scottish Opera. Sofia Akram and Sophie Dyer were selected from 35 graphic design, illustration and photography students who submitted competition entries. Their multi-media campaign will be launched in January 2010 in four cities where Scottish Opera regularly performs: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Campaigners claim original environmental estimates were wrong

Permission was granted by the Secretary of State in July 2008 for Glyndebourne to install a wind turbine that would supply power to the opera house and reduce its carbon emissions by an estimated 70%. Campaigners who oppose the turbine, claiming that it will spoil the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside, have suggested that this original estimate was inaccurate. They have cited new research which indicates that the amount of energy generated will be one third less than predicted. The debate continues.

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