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Correction to This Article
In some editions of the Post, an Aug. 1 Arts article said the 2004-2005 season of the Metropolitan Opera had been cut back. The company still plans a mid-season hiatus in January but has extended the season to 226 performances, compared with 222 performances last season.

Displacement Brought Opera Down an Octave

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page N01

The Washington National Opera, one of the city's richest artistic institutions, took a financial beating during its stay at DAR Constitution Hall last season.

Opera patrons, who paid up to $285 a seat, said parking was murder, the bathrooms were remote, and some sections of the hall were a sweat box. The longer the opera stayed in Constitution Hall, the more operagoers stayed home.

The Washington National Opera's "Aida" was part of a spring 2003 lineup that filled 95.8 percent of the available seats at Constitution Hall. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

The company moved to Constitution Hall in the spring of 2003 for three productions and returned that fall for three more. It had little choice. Its principal venue, the 2,207-seat Opera House at the Kennedy Center, needed a year-long renovation. There aren't many foster homes for opera companies, but it looked as if Constitution Hall, with close to 700 more seats than the Opera House, might work.

The Washington Opera is not only expensive, it's popular. Performances are often sold out, or very close to it.

That carried over -- at first. The opera's first three productions at Constitution Hall had 95.8 percent of the available seats sold -- an even better average than for the previous four productions at the Kennedy Center. The outcome of the second three productions was saved from total ruin -- partly thanks to such star power as tenor Placido Domingo, the company's general director, starring as Siegmund in Wagner's "Die Walkure."

But when the company returned to Constitution Hall in September to kick off the 2003-2004 season, a lot of the audience stayed away. Domingo's appearances sold out. For its three productions, only 84.6 percent of the seats were sold.

And there were fewer seats to sell. Opera officials, responding to complaints about poor sightlines, set aside about 300 seats as undesirable.

During the six productions at Constitution Hall, a total of 89,382 tickets were sold, leaving 9,512 seats empty. Most of those unsold seats were for the 18 performances during the run at Constitution Hall from September to December 2003.

During the time at Constitution Hall, the opera lost $1.3 million, according to Michael Sonnenreich, president of the opera's board.

The stay at Constitution Hall, he said, "didn't help us financially, but it did help us artistically." Sonnenreich said the challenge of the hall's stage forced the directors to be inventive. Sonnenreich says the opera company ended last season on an improved note, with the last four productions at the center, selling 92 percent of the seats. Figures for fiscal 2004 are not yet available but officials are estimating there will be a $1.7 million deficit. Ticket sales rarely cover the cost of mounting an opera. Performing arts organizations also rely on gifts from individuals and corporations, foundation and government grants, earnings from endowments and income from fundraising galas and concessions.

The Washington National Opera, with an annual budget of $35 million to $40 million, is a healthy organization. It finished the 2003 fiscal year, which ended June 30 of that year and included the first three Constitution Hall productions, with a $2 million surplus.

Though it is closely identified with the Kennedy Center, the opera company does not get money from the center; in fact, it pays $2.1 million a year in rent. The National Symphony Orchestra, by contrast, receives about $9 million from the center and pays a fee for the use of the Concert Hall. Most years the opera does not have much cushion in its budget. In the 2003 fiscal year, the company listed revenue of $39.5 million and expenses of $37.4 million. Operas are generally the most expensive of the performing arts. According to the company's 2003 report, it spent $27.6 million producing seven operas.

Even the stalwart Metropolitan Opera is facing financial pressure; for the first time in its history the Met is curtailing some of its coming season, taking off 17 nights in January.

The Washington Opera does have many well-heeled supporters, including philanthropist Betty Brown Casey, newspaper heiress Betty Scripps Harvey, American Online co-founder James V. Kimsey and Sonnenreich, a pharmaceutical executive. As the financial impact of the dislocation became apparent, Sonnenreich asked his fellow board members to increase their donations. They did.

What went wrong at Constitution Hall?

Sonnenreich says it came down to a lack of comforts and familiarity at the hall.

"The biggest single problem is people couldn't park. This is not a young crowd," he said. Constitution Hall, surrounded by government buildings, the Organization of American States, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the World Bank, has on-the-street parking but few nearby parking spaces.

Another constant complaint was the uneven heating system in the hall, with the upper seats receiving sauna-like temperatures. There is no zoned heating and air-conditioning to provide one level of climate control for the stage and another for the balcony. A third source of discomfort was the location of the ladies' rooms, which are in the basement.

Sonnenreich says the drop in attendance, and the stress over dislocation, did not spoil the company's productions. "We had in my opinion six of the most unique performances I have ever seen in opera, and I have been going since I was 6 years old. I think it helped improve the quality of the opera," he said.

Officials at the company knew that trying to turn a concert hall into an opera house was risky. There were lots of things to work out. The orchestra, for example, had to fit into a space behind the performers instead of the traditional pit between the stage and the audience.

The company had five years to plan, however. It decided to spend $1 million on a marketing campaign and $2.5 million to make the hall ready for opera productions. The company removed 18 rows to build a thrust stage. The original plan was to sell 2,900 seats per performance at Constitution Hall, but the problems with sightlines brought that number down to 2,600 by the start of the second season.

The other thing missing at the hall is a curtain.

That proved to be quite a different experience for the performers, as well as the audience. Domingo, the acclaimed tenor, spoke good-naturedly about the lack of a curtain. In "Die Walkure," his Siegmund was murdered and dropped to the ground. Usually the curtain would fall as the act ended and the performers would leave the stage. In Constitution Hall he had to lie flat on his back much longer, as the lights darkened and the stage became black. "Die Walkure" was a sold-out production.

No matter how novel the presentations, the audience just didn't like the setting.

"The audience votes with its feet," said one official. And the audience prefers them to be comfortably plopped in the renovated Opera House.

The new season begins at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 11 with Umberto Giordano's epic opera about the French Revolution, "Andrea Chenier." There are 2,227 seats to fill in the renovated Opera House. Sonnenreich says sales are up $1.85 million over the same period last year.

Constitution Hall, Sonnenheim says confidently, "was a little bit of a setback, but we are okay."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company