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November 30, 2009

More details on Washington National Opera's cutbacks

Official word has arrived on the changes at Washington National Opera reported earlier.

The number of productions will decrease from the current six to five (down from seven last season, eight a few years ago). Eight staff positions are being eliminated; furloughs will be taken by those who remain. Executive director Mark Weinstein is being shifted to fundraising and planning duties. Although the company has balanced two budgets in a row, a reliance on "a few generous donors" has necessitated a change in direction. Placido Domingo, whose current contract expires in a couple years, remains general director.

Here are excerpts from the release (UPDATE: A quote from Domingo was added later in the day, and I've now included it here):


Washington National Opera today announced changes to its business model, including reducing the number of productions in future seasons and reducing administrative and production staff. The adjustments address long-term systemic expense and earned and unearned income challenges. The move to “right-size” the company ensures continued artistic quality and fiscal stability ...

“For several years, WNO has operated in an unstable economic environment in which our expenses outstripped our ability to raise funds through donations and ticket sales,” stated WNO President Kenneth R. Feinberg. “These systemic challenges must be addressed now, so that WNO can continue to produce great opera and engage our community through our education, training and outreach programs.”

Beginning with the 2010-11 season, WNO will offer five mainstage operas as compared to six productions in the current season and seven in the previous season. The reduced season is designed to optimize the ratio of income to expenses, and to ensure that the company continues to offer productions of high artistic quality while operating in a fiscally responsible manner. Free and low-cost education and public programs that serve the community, as well as training programs for opera artists and administrators, will remain unchanged.

“The company has made positive progress in reducing costs and expenses, and has achieved a balanced budget for two straight years,” stated Feinberg. “Unfortunately these reductions by themselves are not enough to sustain the company into the future and the balanced budgets were achieved, in part, through special funding by a few exceptionally generous donors. After careful analysis of different scenarios, the WNO leadership has determined that a five-opera season and associated expense reductions is the most responsible strategy to overcome this reliance on special funding and to develop a business model that is sustainable. By taking proactive steps now, the new model will allow WNO to realistically live within its means today and carefully plan growth for the future ...”

Feinberg continued, saying that, “in light of these changes, our Executive Director, Mark Weinstein, in lieu of his day-to-day administrative duties, will be focusing exclusively on fundraising and broad-range financial strategic planning to support WNO's achieving its business goals."

As a result of the reduced season, Washington National Opera has scaled its staff. Eight positions within Marketing, Development, Finance, Administration, Artistic and Production departments were eliminated, with responsibilities being reallocated to remaining staff. Washington National Opera’s Center for Education and Training, which houses WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program as well as the Education and Community Programs department, is unaffected by these changes.

Additionally, the company has frozen salaries and has suspended its 403(b) matching contributions. To address short-term cash flow challenges, staff will take a one-week furlough in the last week of the calendar year 2009, with additional rolling furloughs in Spring 2010.

In closing, Feinberg added, “so many opera companies across the country face economic challenges today, and many of our sister companies have taken similar steps. I along with the board and staff feel confident that these changes are correct for our company and our patrons. It is very difficult to make these kinds of decisions and the WNO family extends its sincerest sympathies to those affected by the changes. However, I am confident that WNO is ensuring that we will continue to do what we do best: produce great opera.”

WNO General Director Plácido Domingo stated: “While the changes made today are heartbreaking, WNO’s board leadership made these changes with the best interests of the company in mind. I regret the decisions, and yet, I support them because they will allow WNO to produce opera of a high quality, with world-class artists and productions, and maintain its award-winning education, training and outreach programs. A five-opera season, while far from ideal, will allow the company to maintain the standard of excellence for which we are so well known. I am deeply saddened that these changes are affecting WNO’s staff, who deserve great thanks for their service to the company.  It is my profound hope that WNO will regain solid financial ground very quickly and that we will once again be able to offer more productions and performances.”

For more on the WNO situation, check out the blog post by my collegue Anne Midgette.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:43 PM | | Comments (3)


WNO has made interesting operating decisions and over paid bad talent like most opera companies over the last dozen or so years. Mark was supposed to be our savior instead he is turning Washington National Opera into Washington Regional Opera. Sadly this makes even more grim the prospect of a Grand Opera Company in or messed up city.

Times are tough (obviously); I've seen many more empty seats at the WNO this fall than in recent years; one might have thought the death of the Baltimore Opera would send more people to DC. Will Domingo himself ever sing opera again with the WNO? He’s doing Simon Boccanegra at the Met next month.

Thanks for the comments. Seems like the real problem is contributed income, which is where Baltimore Opera fell so woefully short. I wonder if a Domingo infusion would make a big difference at this point. TIM

It's such a tough call regarding revenue, particularly since arts organizations feel the pinch earlier and longer than other sectors. I've often wondered whether or not the stagione vs. repertory has had anything to do to complicate situations. I realize it would be incredibly difficult for any large house in the U.S. to change production scheduling/formatting so drastically. Then again, I sometimes feel like the stagione system as currently represented is just an elongated, exaggerated repertory model. If one of the major houses had a programming switch-up (going the non-conservative route during tough times, a la Michael Kaiser) if that wouldn't spark a longer-term revival of a particular company. There is so much fear right now in some companies that I hope that audiences and house managements don't become paralyzed by all the unknowns.

Thanks for the sobering thoughts. TIM

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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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