National Opera poised for deep staff, programming cuts

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Following weeks of rumors about serious financial difficulty, the Washington National Opera on Monday announced cutbacks, not only to staff, but also to programming for next season. The 2010-11 season will present only five operas, down from six this season and seven in 2008-09.

The company is also eliminating eight staff positions and shuffling at least one. Mark Weinstein, brought in as executive director in 2008, "will be focusing exclusively on fundraising and broad-range financial strategic planning," according to a statement by the opera's president, Kenneth R. Feinberg. Weinstein will retain his title through the end of this season, Feinberg explained in a subsequent telephone conversation.

"The plan is in place," said Weinstein of his efforts over the past two years. "And now we have to raise more money. I'm going to spend all of my time helping with that process." He had no additional comments about his future role with the company.

The cutbacks -- which include a salary freeze and rolling furloughs starting at the end of the current calendar year -- will reduce the company's annual budget from $32 million to about $26.5 million, according to Harry L. Gutman, the treasurer of the opera's executive committee.

With this lower budget and reduced number of operas, WNO takes a step away from the international level to which it has aspired, particularly since Plácido Domingo took over as artistic director in 1996 and then as general director in 2003.

Feinberg and other WNO officials are emphatic that they are not stinting on artistic quality; next season, they say, will include major artists and at least one new production. The five operas will probably be divided into a fall and spring season, as they have been in the past. Details of the season will be released in January.

The changes at WNO may address what Feinberg terms "systemic challenges," but do not address the long-standing challenge of how to run a company when its leader, Domingo, who also runs the Los Angeles Opera and maintains an active performing career, is not actually present to oversee day-to-do-day operations -- a problem that Weinstein was originally brought in to resolve.

"While the changes made today are heartbreaking, WNO's board leadership made these changes with the best interests of the company in mind," said Domingo in a statement he released Monday evening after a board meeting at the Los Angeles Opera. He added, "It is my profound hope that WNO will regain solid financial ground very quickly and that we will once again be able to offer more productions and performances."

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