Washington National Opera announces cutbacks
4 December 2009, Washington DC, USA
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.”
CHICAGO LYRIC OPERA STRIKE CALLED OFF
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.