Opera directors create $40,000 challenge grant

December 19, 2009

Indianapolis Opera board Chairman Garry Fredericksen says in a recent appeal for donations that the company is in a “battle for survival.”

“Ten companies across the United States have struggled, bravely sung a final aria, then closed their doors. … Indianapolis Opera is committed to restricting that kind of drama to the stage,” Fredericksen said in a letter that went out Nov. 27.

The opera finished the fiscal year that ended June 30 in the black, but several sources of grant revenue disappeared for the following year. The current $2.65 million budget reflects a season shortened from four shows to three.

Executive Director John Pickett said he’s also counting on increased giving. That’s why members of the board collectively have agreed to provide a challenge grant of $40,000 in hopes of raising an additional $40,000 to $80,000 from other contributors before Dec. 31.


“We need this to succeed. We also need our other donors to keep helping us,” Pickett said.

He added that Fredericksen’s mention of “survival” refers to closings in the opera world at-large, rather than the local company’s impending doom.

The board’s challenge grant will match either first-time gifts, or amounts higher than patrons gave in the past. Pickett said nearly all 40 board members contributed to the fund.

Long-established companies in Baltimore, Connecticut, Orlando and Orange County, Calif., have closed in the last 18 months.

Indianapolis Opera restructured in 2007, a move Pickett said was helpful when the recession hit. The number of full-time employees has fallen over the past few years from 12 to eight.

Cutting the production schedule is a logical move, and many companies around the country are doing the same, said Marc Scorca, CEO at Opera America.

“We would rather see prudent reductions than closure,” he said.

The average cost of Indianapolis Opera productions is $350,000, Pickett said. This fall, the company produced “Ariadne auf Naxos” and “La Boheme.” “The Mikado” is scheduled for March.

The shows, all performed at Clowes Memorial Hall, are expensive because they require a full orchestra, lavish costumes and sets, and as many as 70 people on stage. Most opera companies don’t have long-term contracts with artists, so eliminating shows is an option not available to professional orchestras or dance companies.

Indianapolis Opera was poised for expansion in 2008. Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle bought the former Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in late June of that year and said he would donate it to the opera for use as a new headquarters and rehearsal space.

The opera owns a 3,000-square-foot building at 250 E. 38th St. that houses its offices, but rehearsals were held at the state fairgrounds. Props were stored in yet another location.

Oesterle agreed to turn the church over within five years. In the meantime, the opera rents it for $5,000 a month.

The sanctuary and multipurpose room have been used for dress rehearsals and special events. The opera held off on moving its offices, Pickett said, because that would have required spending some cash on upgrades.

“Our primary responsibility was to manage cash and put on stage what we had promised the community,” Pickett said.

He said expenses at the old office building, which has been for sale since 2006, are minimal. The opera had gathered $1.6 million in pledges for future renovation of the church, and payments on those commitments help cover the ongoing rent, he said.

Oesterle, who lives next door to the church, paid nearly $1.5 million for the building.•


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