How to Fix an Opera Company Before It's Broken -- Big Changes at Portland Opera

Hawthorne Bridge at dusk, Portland, Oregon, USA.
Hawthorne Bridge at dusk, Portland, Oregon, USA.

In the opera world, it seems like it's always the bad news that makes the headlines. While there is certainly plenty of good news from the fleet of new, lithe opera companies cropping up, we still continue to see headlines that make us worry for the financial future of this glorious art form. First the New York City Opera goes out of business, then San Diego Opera comes a breath away from shuttering. More recently Florida Grand Opera sent a letter to the community admitting its need for a huge fundraising push to stay alive, and the Metropolitan Opera reported that despite success with its recent negotiations, it faces a deficit that has grown into 22 million worrisome dollars. The news may be good for the smaller, leaner companies, but for the top 15 or so companies, nobody really feels safe.

Which is why Chris Mattaliano, General Director of America's 12th largest opera company, Portland Opera, made a bold decision to stay ahead of the curve. Portland Opera recently announced the decision to completely change its format from a year round company into a spring and summer festival, where two productions will be performed consecutively during the spring in the large 3,000-seat auditorium (where the company currently produces most of its season), and two productions will then run concurrently during the summer in a smaller 900 seat venue across town. This came as a surprise to many in the opera world, who know Portland to be one of the few companies which has not been complaining of financial woes, despite the troubles so many companies have faced especially in the last ten years.

"I saw the business changing everywhere, and I didn't want to be one of those companies that dies a death by a thousand paper cuts," Chris Mattaliano told me when I talked to him at a local eatery after one of our recent performances of Die Fledermaus, in which I sang the role of Prince Orlofsky. I was eager to interview Chris (who I will refer to by first name because calling someone I've known since I was a college student by his last name seems weird) and write an article about the surprising decision to change its format since I knew the company wasn't in trouble financially. I have worked in Portland on three occasions, and I saw first hand that they produced operas of the highest artistic quality, while treating their artists extremely well. They own their offices and rehearsal space, and they seem to have a devoted and secure audience. Why would a company like that need to make such a dramatic change, I wondered.

"This company has always made bold decisions," Chris continued, as he referenced the fact that a sense of fiscal discipline has always been a part of its operations. Not only did the company make a somewhat controversial decision to purchase its building, which houses its offices and rehearsal halls (and also allows them to maintain regular tenants, contributing to their revenue), but it is also the only opera company in the U.S. that presents Broadway touring productions, which is an additional source of revenue on top of their ongoing endowment. However, looking at the ways other opera companies were dealing with both the changing financial world of producing opera, as well as the currently unpredictable nature of audience behavior, Chris and his board members began to notice how some companies could suddenly find themselves in a downward spiral, trimming a staff position or an important rehearsal, or using more young artists and fewer principal artists as a last stitch effort to save money. And while Portland Opera is on secure footing financially, it has noticed the same change all opera companies have felt during this period of monetary instability. The company can no longer assume that it will be able to sell out even the most popular titles in its 3000 seat venue, and relying only on large donors is always a dangerous business model. Chris really didn't want to sacrifice any of the artistic quality that Portland Opera has become known for, so he and the board began brainstorming ways to make changes that would allow them continued financial stability even when the larger market for opera has become somewhat unpredictable. "It has become clear that the operating model that many opera companies, including ours, has been working under, is simply no longer sustainable -- and we can only benefit from examining that. And if we're going to change, let's change in a big and robust way. Because the biggest risk is not changing at all."

And he's certainly right about that. Opera companies that keep weathering the storm by hoping for more donors to come forward, or making sudden drastic changes in their repertoire or venue (City Opera, anyone?) have not been able to come back from the trenches. The companies that succeed and continue to thrive seem to be the ones that examine every aspect of their operations, and are willing the change and adapt to what seems appropriate to their community. And while Portland is a thriving artistic community, the Pacific Northwest doesn't have as many cultural happenings in the spring and summer, a time when tourism is at its peak because of the hard to beat weather combined with the plethora of natural attractions.

After hiring a strategic planner and looking very closely at every possible iteration of what Portland Opera could become with a new, more sustainable model, the staff and the board decided they had several goals. First, to create a more sustainable financial model based on their particular community and their available funding, determining the maximum contributed revenue they could expect without "hoping for a miracle." Second, is to figure out how to live within that figure without sacrificing artistic quality. Third, to reduce the "volatility" of producing opera in a 3,000-seat theater, because operating costs can easily become unmanageable. Fourth, and most importantly, they wanted to create something new, exciting and fresh. After much consideration, despite the knowledge that with big changes come risks, they decided the best option was the move to a festival format.

That means that some of the artistic and production staff that had previously been full-time, will now become seasonal, part-time or contract employees. That, combined with a programming and venue change, will reduce operating costs. The two operas produced in the large theater will be one very popular opera title and one classic musical theater title produced using opera singers, which both have relatively predictable box office numbers. The two operas produced in the smaller venue can include anything from Mozart to baroque to 20th-century titles. They will increase the number of performances in the smaller venue from four to seven. The festival format will allow the company to spend the rest of the year building excitement about the season and allows a more immersive experience for the audience when it arrives. Festivals also tend to get more national press and have larger endowments in comparison to their operating budgets.

There is a complicated algorithm for finding the perfect combination of ticket sales, donations, community support, repertoire, venue, staff and financial oversight for each particular opera company based on many factors, including the specific community each opera company exists within. But one factor seems particularly useful in keeping a company not only financially stable but artistically viable and innovative, and that is the ability to remain flexible. Flexibility, willingness to take calculated risks and deep passion for and commitment to the art form are the attributes that give me a great deal of confidence in Mr. Mattaliano and the new era he is ready to usher in at Portland Opera.

Full disclosure; I am certainly not an unbiased journalist reporting on a news story about an opera company. I am an artist who loves working at Portland Opera -- it's a terrific place for artists to be and everyone I know who has worked there wants to return. I have known Chris Mattaliano since my days as a student at Music Academy of the West and at Juilliard, where he was on faculty, and not only is he a real Mensch of a guy, he has such a love of and knowledge about opera, and he is one of the best loved bosses in the industry. Not to mention that Portland is really cool town. So as an artist, I really want the company to continue to thrive.

And I think this change is a really good idea. Not just because I want to come back and work in Portland during the beautiful spring and summer months, but because I think any company with the foresight to start problem solving when they're in a stable and confident financial position, who is willing to adapt to their changing environment, and who wants to preserve tradition while still adopting new business models is the kind of company that we need to lead the way in this ever changing industry. Plus, it's especially nice to report some good news, especially from a company that I happen to admire.

So raise your microbrews and your darkly roasted coffee and put away your umbrellas. It's time to take a trip to Portland in the spring and summer of 2016.