Monday, May 21, 2018
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Toledo Opera receives gifts of survival

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    The Toledo Opera's Renay Conlin feared the organization would not be able to stage 'The Love Potion' this weekend.

    The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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Renay Conlin had a problem that a dose of The Love Potion wasn't going to cure.

Facing a $150,000 deficit early this year, the general and artistic director of the Toledo Opera Association knew that if she didn't erase the shortfall by opening night on May 1, the final production of the 2009-2010 season - Donizetti's comic opera The Love Potion (L'elisir d'amore) - never would happen.

As the scintillating opera closes Sunday and the performers take their final bows at the Valentine Theatre, the story of the production's rescue provides an instructive look at the challenges fine arts organizations face since the recession struck in late 2008.

"We entered the season knowing the economy was still tough, but not how tough," Ms. Conlin said. "We lost all our big corporate support last season."

Prerecession, corporate support of various kinds accounted for 20 percent of the opera's operating budget of $1.8 million. Post-recession, that category dropped to 5 percent with no signs of recovery. Moreover, the Ohio Arts Council, also struggling with reduced federal support, cut its grant award by 50 percent.

Serena Williams, an opera association board member for six years, echoed Ms. Conlin's point.

"There's no question that the economy and fund-raising for everybody, every arts organization, in the country has been really challenging this year," she said. "Where we've seen the largest pullback is in corporate giving."

Such drastic reductions have become the norm since fall of 2008 when what Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications Inc., parent company of Buckeye CableSystem and The Blade and an opera association benefactor, calls "the worst economy since the Great Depression" struck at the financial heart of the arts.



It has been curtains - and not the opening kind - for hundreds of performing arts groups nationwide. Whether they operate with a $300 million annual budget such as the Metropolitan Opera's or just over $1 million like the Toledo Opera Association, organizations sink or swim on their funding.

Locally, the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Foundation canceled its annual jazz festival in 2009 when then-bankrupt Chrysler pulled all funding. The Toledo Symphony opened its musicians' contract and trimmed its season in response to a nearly $500,000 shortfall at the same time.

In the months leading up to this week's production, Ms. Conlin knew the season finale was in jeopardy unless the organization could quickly raise $150,000.

"All the money goes out the door in a two-week period," said Ms. Conlin, who has run the 50-year-old company since 2000.

A typical production costs about $200,000, although the Donizetti opera in the wings was going to come in at a little below that, thanks to its small cast.

But unlike professional sports teams or repertory groups such as the Toledo Symphony, where most performers have binding contracts, operas are a "pay-to-play" proposition.

"It's the tradition to pay performers prior to each performance," Ms. Conlin said. Already the Toledo Opera had shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for sets, costumes, rental of the Valentine Theatre, and stagehands and technicians.

Still, no checks; no singers; no show.

Like all other nonprofit arts organizations, the opera raises money from individuals through memberships in the range of $500 and patronage up to $10,000. The $2 million Crescendo campaign, a tiered donation plan, generates income for operations and endowment. Board members are expected to donate at least $1,000 annually plus maintain a membership.

Opera Board President Andy Stuart, general manager of Clear Channel Communications Inc.'s Toledo radio operation, declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

"Clear Channel has not given us cash," Ms. Conlin said. "I believe they are not in a position to do so, like many in this economy."

However, Ms. Conlin estimated that Clear Channel has provided "hundreds of thousands of dollars" worth of free radio time in recent years as an in-kind donation, primarily in commercials about opera performances on the company's easy-listening station, WRVF-FM 101.5.

Bob Chirdon, vice president and general manager of WTOL-TV Channel 11, a CBS affiliate, said his station does not have a budget for contributions to the performing arts but will on occasion give free air time to various events and concerts in the community that they are trying to promote.

Ms. Conlin said that in the past WTVG-TV Channel 13 has provided free air time to the opera, but not this year.

She said the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Toledo and the Holiday Inn French Quarter in Perrysburg have both provided free rooms for singers and stage and lighting managers who are in Toledo for about a month before a performance.

But, she said, cash contributions are essential.

"Every time we put on a performance, we lose money. Ticket sales don't pay all the bills," Ms. Conlin said.

Board member Scott Baker said the philosophy of the opera board is that there are three kinds of members - "donors, doers, and door-openers" - and all of them contribute in their own ways.

"We expect every one of the board members to be one of those things because those things are all valuable," he said.

Mr. Baker, who has been on the board for six years, owns the marketing firm Baker Street Communications and handles all of the Opera's Internet presence, including maintaining its Web site, Facebook page, and YouTube videos.

He believes increased competition for entertainment dollars - most notably the opening of Huntington Center and a three-week stand by the Broadway production of Wicked - took a bite out of the Opera's ticket sales this season.

But the biggest problem last year was the effect the bad economy had on corporate giving and "that's been our biggest challenge," Mr. Baker said.

Patrons and members were asked for extra earlier gifts, and fund-raisers such as the Sapphire Ball brought in much-needed revenue. Still, ticket sales were down across the board, as they have been for all performing arts in the United States in recent years.

By January, Ms. Conlin knew the fiscal gap wasn't going to go away. "Our corporate revenue was in the Dumpster." Individual donors were stepping up, but the $150,000 shortfall was looming.

But even amid the recession-driven disasters, happy endings like that of The Love Potion can be found when business partners with the arts in innovative ways.

Mr. Block, a longtime opera fan and supporter, stepped up first with a substantial donation, then tapped cohorts at KeyBank, Health Care REIT, and The Andersons Inc. to create what amounted to a challenge grant to the opera's own endowment, established long ago to stabilize opera finances.

"I wanted to save the Toledo Opera, but I wasn't willing to give anything if the endowment didn't match it," said Mr. Block, who was an opera association trustee from 1981 to 1985.

Because it, too, had fallen in value during the recession, the endowment had been left in the wings as a source of funding for the current season, according to Ms. Conlin.

Her contact with Mr. Block occurred during a dinner he hosted as highest bidder in a Sapphire Ball auction. Not only did the bid provide a chef for the private affair, it also brought entertainment by Ms. Conlin, a dramatic soprano, and her husband, Thomas Conlin, a Grammy Award-winning conductor.

After the dining and the singing, "Renay described the opera's serious financial situation," Mr. Block recalled. He was stunned to learn the endowment was barely being tapped. "Endowments must be available during difficult times like these," he said, adding that replenishment should occur when the economy improves.

Ms. Conlin met with the trustees of the endowment, who agreed to release funds to match the total raised in the community. Block Communications started the ball rolling with a $30,000 gift, with matching contributions from KeyBank, Health Care REIT, and The Andersons. Once more, individual patrons and members reached more deeply into their pockets to finally erase the shortfall.

The resulting performances on May 1, yesterday, and today were a truly satisfying reward for all who attended and especially sweet for those who had helped make them happen.

As for the coming 2010-2011 season, which will offer productions of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, and Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, as well as the midwinter gala - this year, a celebration of Richard Wagner's Ring series - Ms. Conlin remains sanguine.

"This won't affect next season except that we will have two performances of each opera instead of three," she explained. "The budget will remain the same."

Mr. Baker said he's enthusiastic about next season, both financially and artistically. He believes the economy will improve, and he said this year's financial problems strengthened the opera association.

"In some ways, it makes you a stronger organization. There isn't money to throw at problems, so you have to be more creative," he said.

Blade staff writer Rod Lockwood contributed to this report.

Contact Sally Vallongo at:

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