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March 13, 2009

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. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (5)


Sad indeed. Can you please post some lovely music to your blog that is the "prescription" for this sadness? I challenge you to find something that can soothe opera fans today.

Boy, that is a challenge. I'll work on it as soon as I finish writing yet some more words about the company's death (this time for the Sunday print edition).TIM

Try this:

I listen to it pretty much every Friday afternoon at this time, and since "Norma" was the last production at the BOC it seems appropriate.

Thanks for the excellent choice. I did post an audio clip, deciding on Aida, for its old connection to the company. But, of course, Maria is a splendid for the soul at all times.TIM

I've held a subscription to BOC for 17 years; for 13 of those, my elderly parents would come from out of state to join me. Whatever the production, some great and some also-ran, it was something we shared. One more thing to let go.

Thanks for commenting. I imagine you speak for many longtime BOC-goers.TIM

I would humbly suggest "va pensiero" from Nabucco.

I'm ashamed that I didn't think of that. I'll post a performance now.TIM

There are many unanswered questions about the finances and now bankruptcy of the Baltimore Opera Company.

The Lyric Opera House has a seating capacity of 2,564 seats. Since most operas were presented four times, the total number of seats available for sale was 10,256 seats.

How many seats were sold by the Baltimore Opera Company to subscribers this season?
How many seats were sold for the first two productions of the season? What was the average ticket price?

If the average ticket price was $100, full houses could have raised over $1,000,000 for each production. Even 70% capacity at $100 average ticket price would have resulted in income of over $700,000 per production.

The most recent IRS form 990 shows that Michael Harrison was the only highly paid employee (about $220,000 per year). No one else was making more than $100,000 per year. The IRS 990 doesn’t show payments to performers, directors, etc.

How much money was raised this season from private, foundation, corporate, and/or government sources?

Why didn’t the Board attempt a workout with the creditors, especially Bank of America?

I hope someone at the Baltimore Sun (maybe a business reporter) can find answers to these questions.

Thanks for your comments. There certainly are a lot of questions, as with any business failure. At this point, though, the answers aren't going to change much of anything. Seems to me this board lacked the will and/or the means to overcome a very tough situation. Creditors, including banks, would have wanted a lot to guarantee any more loans or lines of credit, since the company had so little collateral and such unpredictable rates of ticket sales and contributions. The state arts grant was being cut hugely, too, of course, adding more pressure on a budget already weakened by the drop in donations. And there was no endowment to speak of, the most crucial element of all. Personally, I would have loved to see the company managed differently years ago, not just back in the fall, and I wish there had been much more determination to succeed now. But I also know that things look very different when you're on the inside staring at the numbers, as was the case with the other failed opera companies in the country this season. And things can change very quickly when plans and projections start coming up short. By the way, you're off on the average ticket price (it would have been closer to $80), and sell-outs were rare, so that affects your numbers, too.TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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