When the Toledo Opera in March announced the cancellation of its final 2010-2011 production, Verdi’s La Traviata, the pessimists predicted the demise of this region’s proud 50-plus-year tradition of presenting live opera.
Not only was the Toledo Opera, like Violetta Valery, Verdi’s tragic libertine heroine, in debt up to its wigs and false eyelashes, but its longtime general and artistic director Renay Conlin, who received international praise for the quality of local productions, had departed for a new career. She took with her Thomas Conlin, her husband, who had been chorus master and conductor.
The opera board of directors was in an uproar. Regular staff had all but vanished through cutbacks. Raising money was hampered by an F grade given in 2008 by the Better Business Bureau because of incomplete and inconsistent financial reporting. And the opera owed not only $150,000 in unpaid bills but also had a sizable balance due in its bank line of credit.
That’s when the optimists stepped up, gathered the many loose ends, and began to generate forward momentum.
"The opera wasn’t that broken. It was our reputation in the community that was in trouble," said Suzanne Rorick, former development director under Conlin, who was brought in by the board to fill the executive director position within a few weeks.
"We came back because we care about the opera. We’re a scrappy little team. We stopped the bleeding at the right moment," added Rorick.
The Toledo native brought decades of organizing and fund-raising experience in some of the area’s most respected not-for-profit operations as well as deep experience in the for-profit sector to her new role.
The first former Toledo Opera co-worker Rorick recalled was Loviah Aldinger, an educator and administrator with a Ph.D., a laid-back foil for Rorick’s deep intensity. Jenny Cresswell, now artistic administrator, went into high gear with the annual Opera on Wheels program — the only part of the Toledo Opera operation fully funded.
Together and with support from opera lovers in the business and performing worlds, they began drafting new directions for the company. In the opening to what has become a manifesto for reform, they addressed the key issue:
"One can legitimately ask: Does an art form such as live opera, which is expensive to produce, have a place in a community such as Toledo?"
To Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications, Inc., the parent company of The Blade,, a serious promoter of the city, and a long-time fan and supporter of the Toledo Opera, the answer to the question of the company’s continued existence was unequivocably, "Yes."
Block added: "We must continue supporting the Toledo Opera because we’ve had it for so long. It defines us at a higher level. We cannot backslide because it will hurt Toledo’s image."
That attitude — pragmatism tempered by a vision of the city continuing to exist as a cultural center amidst a prolonged and deep national and local recession — was essential, said Rorick.
She, Aldinger, and the new board were surprised and gladdened to learn how many people were ready to pitch in on this project.
Arts executives such as Kathy Carroll from the Toledo Symphony and Brian Kennedy at the Toledo Museum of Art signaled a readiness to commit to greater involvement.
From Opera Carolina in Raleigh, executive director James Meena got in touch at once. So did Michigan Opera Theatre’s founder and artistic director, David DiChiera.
"So many people have given so much to sustain and advance live opera in Toledo through the Toledo Opera that it is important the company be given every chance possible to survive this recent economic downtown," said Meena, who for 14 years was artistic director and conductor of the Toledo Opera.
A regional casting call attracted music faculty and artists from the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and educational institutions in Ann Arbor and Pittsburgh, among others.
Board leadership was cut from 40 to 20 members; former board chairman Andy Stuart resigned, and existing and new members stepped up to leadership posts. Banker Maureen Brown and businessman Chuck Mira took over leadership of the finance committee. The new acting board chairman is Ann Sanford.
Mr. Stuart, general manager of Clear Channel Communications Inc.’s Toledo radio operation, was not able to convince his company to financial support the opera two years ago, offering free radio time instead. Block Communications, however, is a major financial supporter of the opera.
When the opera faced a substantial deficit last year, Block Communications stepped up first to provide $30,000, with matching contributions rolling in from KeyBank, Health Care REIT, and The Andersons.
Brown, a banker, said that in the past two months the Toledo Opera has secured pledges to cover all the debt except for the line of credit.
A member of the board since 2009, Brown understood that the opera, like nearly all performing arts, cannot sustain itself on ticket sales alone. Nor can presenting live opera be the only purpose of a regional company such as Toledo’s. "We need a model that emphasizes education, outreach, and performances that attract new audiences," Brown said.
A single production typically costs $100,000 to $200,000 from an annual budget of $1.5 million. However, unlike touring entertainment of all kinds, much of that money stays in the community.
A significant portion of the Toledo Symphony’s annual income derives from rehearsals and performances for the opera. Venues like the Valentine Theatre and the Toledo Museum of Art also count on revenue from productions
Rorick calls opera "the extreme sport of performance art." To pull off even a seemingly simple production requires careful collaboration and split-second coordination among the many elements involved: singers and instrumentalists, costume, set, and lighting designers, directors, conductors, and backstage crew.
The new executives and board based restructuring operations on this traditional performance model.
"We need to build bench strength," Aldinger said. "We are supposed to be serving the community. We need to do more than just put on productions. We’re looking to emphasize education, hold master classes, and perhaps start a children’s chorus."
As conservatories and music schools churn out more and more highly trained singers, opera companies like Toledo’s gain a new role, Aldinger added. "We are a training ground for careers, not just singing but producing, designing, staging, directing."
The new century has not been an auspicious time for opera companies across the United States, noted Meena.
"Nearly a dozen opera companies have gone out of business since fall, 2008. They all exhibited the same traits: poor programming decisions, leadership being behind the curve in recognizing and/or acknowledging the problem is long-term and not short-term, and a lack of financial resources to weather the storm."
Fund-raising has begun to launch the 2011-2012 season with La Traviata in mid-October at the Valentine Theatre.
Meena, who will be back in town to conduct the performances for the Toledo Opera, helped steer his own company through budget-driven cutbacks which have allowed it to move forward.
Carroll at the Toledo Symphony also worked with her board and musicians to adjust costs so the 65-year-old orchestra could continue in its central artistic role for the region.
The Toledo Symphony is likely to play an even larger part in the reformed Toledo Opera. Principal conductor Stefan Sanderling is eager to conduct performances and symphony staff conductor Robert Mirakian will lead rehearsals.
Pianist and coach Kevin Bylsma, a major figure in the region’s operatic life, will rejoin the Toledo Opera to work with the chorus and do staging. And singers from the all-volunteer opera chorus have already begun working.
In line with the new team spirit of the Toledo Opera, they will make a brief appearance Saturday afternoon during the Crosby Festival of the Arts.