Baltimore Opera Files for Bankruptcy, Cancels Season

Poor attendance for
Poor attendance for "Aida" in October proved the tipping point for the struggling company, which has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. (By Michael Defilippi -- Baltimore Opera Company)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Monday, the ax fell on the Baltimore Opera Company, as it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced the cancellation of the season's remaining two operas, "The Barber of Seville" and "Porgy and Bess."

Rumors had been swirling for weeks that the company was on its last legs, but just last month James Handakas, then the newly appointed acting general director, assured interlocutors that the board and the administration were committed to pulling the organization through.

On Thursday, however, the board named M. Kevin Wixted, a financial consultant who served as interim chief financial officer of the Baltimore Symphony in 2007, as the opera company's general manager. Handakas has left the company.

"We are committed to going forward," said Deborah Goetz, a company spokeswoman. "This is a reorganization." The board did not "vote to go to Chapter 7 and dissolve the company."

The situation looks bleak for the 58-year-old company, which has also dissolved its contracts for the three productions that were planned for next year. The American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that represents opera singers, issued a statement regretting that the company had "chosen to cancel its spring season," and stating that it "will pursue every available legal option to ensure that its members receive the greatest degree of protection from Bankruptcy Court."

With a relatively modest budget of $6 million to produce four operas a season, the Baltimore Opera has accumulated an $800,000 deficit, according to Goetz. The tipping point was apparently October's "Aida," which reached only 50 percent of its projected ticket goals. Although the company's next production, a strong "Norma," made 92 percent of its more modest ticket projections, it wasn't enough. The Baltimore Sun reported that a board member had to personally guarantee the artists' salaries in order for that show to go on at all.

Small companies such as the Baltimore Opera face a tough balancing act: They rely on audience-pleasers to sell tickets, yet if they only offer standard fare -- "Aida," "Barber of Seville" and the like -- larger companies with more resources may present those better. Baltimore is only one of a number of opera companies suffering in the current economic climate. Some have announced cancellations of productions (the Metropolitan Opera is removing "The Ghosts of Versailles" from its 2009-10 season) and others are struggling for survival (Opera Pacific, a 23-year-old troupe in California, suspended operations in November and put its facilities up for sale).

The Baltimore Opera Company has some exalted roots in American opera history. Long shepherded by the soprano Rosa Ponselle, the company has presented Beverly Sills, Evelyn Lear and other significant singers. Neil Funkhouser, an artists' manager, said members of his roster who have sung in Baltimore "always want to go back. They feel like it's a real artistic environment."

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