Reflecting on the demise of Baltimore Opera
The news that came late yesterday afternoon wasn't exactly unexpected. Ever since the Baltimore Opera Company sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, everyone has known that the next shoe could drop with the thud of Chapter 7 liquidation at any time. Still, when it fell, it seemed somehow impossible.
After 59 years (more if you count the precursor organization), the city's grand opera company is dead, waiting only for its assets to be auctioned off so that creditors can be paid something of what they are owed. It's a pitiful end for a worthy institution.
I know that the blame game, which has been going on since the Chapter 11 filing, will be even more intense now that the finality of Chapter 7 has arrived. I think it's fair to question the wisdom of a board that allowed the financial health to be so precarious for so long (the situation that led to this mess didn't begin with the stock market crash). I think it's fair to question some of former general director Michael Harrison's choices when it came to productions, certainly in terms of expense. But the bottom line is the same here as it is in Costa Mesa, where Opera Pacifica folded last fall, and in Hartford, where Connecticut Opera shut its doors last month: The community, for whatever reasons, proved unable to support the company at the level needed to sustain quality and growth.
Those who complain the loudest about ticket prices are usually the last to grasp the fact that ticket sales cover maybe a third of the costs of putting opera onstage. It's all about contributions -- private, foundation, corporate, government. Without a solid, reliable combination of funding sources, no company can last. It's that simple. The folks at Baltimore Opera certainly understood that, which is why, during other bad times, the number of productions and/or performances was reduced to save money. It's not like this company ignored every warning or opted for extravagance at every turn, but no one ever managed to get way out ahead in terms of fundraising. It was always hand-to-mouth, week-to-week. And, like so many nonprofits, the company never built up endowment funds to help secure long-range stability. The $1.2 million debt that led to Chapter 11 was not by itself overwhelming, but if no cash is coming in to keep the lights on, that debt suddenly looks 10 times as large.
There was talk of a fundraising gala/concert this spring, and talk of some sort of performance in the fall, but that would have done little. There was talk of starting an escrow account for contributions and waiting until the amount reached the level needed to return to full operations. Those chances didn't look so good, either, not now, not in this recession. And not in a community where the generosity is at one level, the aspirations at another.
It's depressing to pass by the Lyric now and think about a theater that opened with the voice of Nellie Melba and witnessed decades of opera performances featuring notable artists in a respectably wide range of repertoire. Other entertainment will go on there, of course, maybe even some more opera one day. But it won't be the same. With the dissolution of the Baltimore Opera, that theater, and this city, will now be much poorer.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO OF THE LYRIC OPERA HOUSE