Wednesday, Oct 17, 2018
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Conlin's sudden resignation latest twist in opera turmoil

The future

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Every opera tells a story and if you were looking for a lively plot, you could find it within the 52 year-old Toledo Opera Association. Its current season has bubbled not only with professionally staged productions but also with explosive behind-the-scenes drama.

The latest twist occurred Tuesday when Renay Conlin, in her 10th season as general and artistic director of the opera, suddenly announced her resignation, effective April 2.

“While I greatly appreciate the support of so many members of the board and executive committee, given the discord that has occurred these last several months, I no longer feel able to continue in this dual capacity,” wrote Conlin from Yountville, Calif., where she already had accepted the president and chief executive officer position at the Napa Valley Museum.

Her resignation will be effective the day after the final production of the season, La Traviata, at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle.

Conlin’s departure follows the mass resignation of members of the opera’s  nancial committee on Feb. 15.

In a multipage letter detailing their grievances — with detailed financial documents attached — board members Joel R. Gorski, Lucille F. Gorski, Brian Kennedy, Malcolm Richards, Ken Saggese, and Michael Sordyl stepped down from their positions.

Their recommendations were to cancel the remaining production of the season, go into hiatus for the 2011-2012 season, and to lay off the general director and development director.

They believe the opera has serious problems with cash-flow shortages and has earned a reputation in the community for not paying its bills.

Their key concern is that the organization’s finances are a mess and they’re not getting any better until the opera adopts what Sordyl described as a “financially viable business model.”

“There comes a point where the train is heading down the tracks and it’s time to get off,” Joel Gorski said.

His mother, Lucille, and father, Ted, have given the organization about $3 million over the years, including $1 million for the recent Crescendo capital campaign, but they no longer plan to donate unless significant changes are made in the business model and accounting procedures.

“The opera cannot continue like this, there’s no way,” Lucille said.

Adding to the upheaval was Conlin's decision to leave. Scrambling to salvage operations and achieve financial stability, board president Andy Stuart was blindsided by her resignation.

Even with the departure of the finance committee members, the president and his remaining board members knew they would have to move quickly to draft a future for the beleaguered opera company.

"We have work to do and we are doing it," Stuart said. "The board [Tuesday] created a handful of scenarios that I'm going to pursue."

Stuart said he expects to have results of his investigations at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

'High-quality opera'

Having accepted Conlin's resignation, and considering her offer to stay on in a consulting role as artistic director, Stuart was sure of one thing. "We are pursuing this with the intention of the TOA continuing to produce high-quality opera. We will produce Traviata," Stuart said.

Announced at the Feb. 12 Toledo Opera gala, the next season is to include Verdi's Don Giovanni in the Valentine Theatre, plus Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, a Broadway hit often considered to be operatic; the annual gala, and Beethoven's rarely heard Fidelio, all in the Peristyle.

By moving all but one production out of the Valentine and by cutting back on sets and costumes, Conlin had estimated that the next season would cost $300,000 less than the current one.

Opera has significantly lost market share in the past decade, according to a 2008 study published by the National Endowment for the Arts and based on U.S. Census data.

Since 1982, the percentage of adults attending live opera has dropped to 4.9 million Americans, about 2 percent of the population. Moreover, the report noted, the age of opera fans is rising as fast as attendance is falling.

In a society obsessed with money, status, and gadgets, opera can be a harder sell than, say, a high-profile artist with a packaged show on a tour.

"It's very intangible," said board member Valerie Garforth. "It's not something you can grab hold of easily. Opera is a personal experience and draws from a collective memory. Any kind of performing art is like that."

Certainly there are economic reasons for the sharp drop in attendance.

"It's an expensive art form," said Jori Jex, who has been general manager at the Valentine Theatre since last May. Last spring Conlin estimated the price of a full production of an opera at $200,000.

That covers artist and director fees and expenses; set and costume rental, rental and royalties for music, printing and rental of supertitles, advertising, box office, and leasing of the hall, and stage crew and union charges.

Even in Toledo, where ticket prices are far lower than in larger cities, single tickets start at $30, and those sales don't cover the cost of the production.

"We're lucky if ticket sales cover one-third of the cost," said Ann Sanford, a financial manager and longtime opera board member.

"We're always trying to raise money to pay for operas," she said. "There's a different operating paradigm than what a lot of for-profit worlds use.

"Nonprofits always have to rob Peter to pay Paul," Sanford added. "It's typical to use next year's ticket money to pay bills this year."

This model is unacceptable to members of the finance committee, several of whom are accountants and financial advisers.

In their resignation letter they said that the opera is "poorly governed and poorly managed" and that the organization is effectively insolvent.

"It does not have the capability to pay its current bills, and the likelihood of raising funds, relative to projections, is not likely based on history," they wrote.

They also argue that the organization "has developed a reputation for fiscal irresponsibility within the community, produced by frequent late payments to vendors and persistently high levels of debt."

Financial forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service show that the organization's revenue fell from $2,038,363 in 2008 to $936,294 in 2009. Part of the loss can be attributed to the end of the capital campaign and the collapse of the local economy, but Saggese said the opera should be able to withstand those factors to offset the drop in revenue.

He acknowledged that there was a split on the board between members who are financially oriented and those who leaned more toward the artistic side of the operation, but he does not accept the "rob Peter to pay Paul" argument.

"You can't simply say that it's an arts organization and we're immune or excused from our obligations to run it in a professional manner," he said.

He also said the two positions should not be mutually exclusive.

"Running it as a business will help it succeed in its artistic mission," he said. "When you're doing it by the seat of your pants, the art product suffers because of the lack of predictability and stability in the financial situation."

Those philosophical differences are typical in arts organizations, said Keith Burwell, president of the Toledo Community Foundation.

"They're ongoing ... You have those who lean more toward culture and art and the price tag doesn't matter -- they want a good performance, good visual art, a good experience culturally," he said.

"And you have the other side of the equation that says that's all good, but we have to pay for it. And that's always the ying and yang and struggle in these organizations."

Not all the funds raised by the Toledo Opera go toward mainstage productions, and the coming Young Artist Program may offer the most optimistic view of the future for opera in Toledo.

Jennifer Cresswell, who grew up in the Toledo Opera when James Meena was general and artistic director, has returned to run the coming series of school programs designed to build a new generation of audiences.

Appointed director of education in December, a part-time position, Cresswell, 30, has auditioned singers and musicians, written an adaptation of Giacomo Rossini's comic opera, The Barber of Seville, and supervised creation of moveable sets and easy-on costumes.

Her budget is between $25,000 and $30,000 for the two-month project. A chunk of that funding provides free visits to schools that cannot afford to pay for the production.

"Toledo Opera is very dear to my heart," Cresswell said. "A great deal of my childhood came from the Toledo Opera. I sang in the children's chorus every Sunday night. We would perform at the galas. And there was the summer camp."

She studied voice at Mannes College in New York City, then the Manhattan School of Music, and has performed professionally, including with the Toledo Opera. She and her husband, WGTE-FM classical music director Brad Cresswell, moved to Toledo when they started their family, in part because of the active arts scene here.

Indeed, as budgets are being slashed in public schools locally and around the country, children's first-hand experiences with all the arts are one of the first programs to go.

"What I think is important is that the community support and work through whatever changes are coming," Cresswell said of the Toledo Opera's current turmoil.

Stuart's view of the opera is surprisingly sanguine. "It's a complicated problem, and solving it won't be easy," he said. "However, we can do it. I'm looking forward to solving this situation and leading us into the future."

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com.

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