Opera in fight to avoid finale: Organization embraces co-productions as a way to keep the Fat Lady at bay

May 8, 2006

It might be facing a $350,000 deficit, a round of staff cuts and a scaled-back production schedule, but the Indianapolis Opera isn't ready to cue the Fat Lady quite yet.

Instead, the not-for-profit arts organization is employing a series of cost-saving measures intended to keep her off the stage indefinitely-including a greater emphasis on sharing production expenses with other opera companies.

Co-producing is an increasingly popular strategy among performing arts groups looking to make the most of their limited resources.

Indiana Repertory Theatre will share production expenses for three of its nine shows next season, for example, and pops programming developed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will fill dozens of concert halls across the country.

"It is a business decision, but it's driven artistically," said opera Executive Director John Pickett. "This allows us to build our artistic quality and save money at the same time."

Case in point: "Turandot," an elaborate production that is closing out Indianapolis Opera's 30th anniversary season this month. The local company had wanted to mount the show for years, Pickett said, but couldn't justify the $400,000-plus price tag to go it alone. By teaming up with the Nashville Opera, it trimmed costs more than $50,000 and got it on the schedule.

Typically, arts groups look to co-produce shows that are particularly complex or expensive-or both. The cost of building sets or designing costumes for a new production can be an obstacle to a group interested in increasing its repertoire, Pickett and others said.

Six years ago, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra enlisted a handful of its peers to help develop innovative pops programming, launching the Symphonic Pops Consortium in the process. Early on, members contributed $5,000 to $8,000 to cover the cost of designing, arranging, orchestrating and casting new productions, which were then presented in each city.

Now, ISO handles all the preparatory work for one such concert each season and essentially rents the show-and its predecessors-out to other symphonies nationwide. Its seventh SPC production, babyboomer-inspired "The Beat Goes On," debuts June 2 in Indianapolis.

"We had a desire to do more heavily produced concerts," said Ty Johnson, senior director of pops programming and presentations for ISO. "But they have a price tag. To do them, even on a sold-out, fourperformance weekend, you have to do a cost analysis and ask: How much could we/should we spend?"

Sharing costs just made sense, he said, and the current arrangement covers related expenses-and then some. Symphonies that use the concerts typically pay less than half the average $75,000 production cost; ISO, in turn, essentially gets the programming for free.

And there are other benefits.

"We do make revenue from this venture, but we also get our name out there in the pop music field," Johnson said. "When the concert plays and it says right there in the program that it was originally produced by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra ... the public relations value of that can't be denied."

Indiana Repertory Theatre leaders also are believers in the value of co-production. The local group has a long-standing relationship with New York playhouse Syracuse Stage, which prefers to put on shows other theaters produce.

That's just how IRT likes it.

"It's really important to us to create the shows here," said spokeswoman Megan McKinney. "We like to know that the shows were made for audiences in our community."

Theater partners reimburse IRT for their share of the costs-anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 per show, McKinney said.

For its part, Indianapolis Opera expects to pursue more partnerships as it works to erase a $354,970 deficit that has accumulated since 2003 as production costs have outpaced ticket sales and contributions.

To turn the tide, the opera must do a better job of attracting donors-particularly ones capable of making major gifts or offering long-term support. But opera board members also are trying to cut expenses.

They capped the production budget at $900,000 for the 2006-2007 season, Pickett said, down from $1.2 million this year. To make that possible, the company decided to stage three regular productions and one lower-cost sampler-dubbed "Opera Center Stage"-rather than the four full-blown shows it usually puts on.

Indianapolis Opera also has eliminated five jobs since 2004 through both layoffs and attrition, leaving a staff of eight fulltime and two part-time employees. And the organization is trying to sell its 38th Street offices-plus a neighboring Washington Boulevard house-to shore up finances.

The opera is on track to finish the 2005-2006 season on budget, Pickett said, thanks to record attendance.

There's little doubt additional co-productions also would help. The opera already has contacted a number of its peers to gauge their interest in sharing costs, he said, and it is exploring additional opportunities with the Nashville group.

"It's very important for us to look at doing this more and more in the future," concurred Carol Penterman, executive director of the Nashville Opera Association. "It's nothing but a positive."

And the connection between artistic integrity and financial well-being is undeniable, said Marc Scorca, CEO of New York-based Opera America and an American Arts Alliance board member.

"There's no artistic decision that doesn't have a financial implication and no financial decision that doesn't have an artistic implication," he said.

Pickett knows that well.

"We have to maintain that artistic quality we've worked so hard to improve," he said. "But we can't do that if we don't have financial stability."
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