Questions for WNO as it negotiates Kennedy Center contract

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010

The 2010-11 season will be a time of transition for the Washington National Opera. At the end of June 2011, Plácido Domingo's current contract as general director runs out. So does WNO's current contract with the Kennedy Center, where it presents its performances. The company and Kennedy Center are currently in talks about renegotiating this contract -- and there are some who have suggested, even behind the scenes, that the Kennedy Center take over the financially troubled company.

While Kenneth R. Feinberg, the opera's president, on Thursday dismissed such suggestions as "mere speculation," he added that "all options are on the table."

John Dow, a Kennedy Center spokesman, would say only that "We are in talks with the opera about our future relationship."

The opera company has a history of financial difficulties and is currently millions of dollars in debt. And John J. Pohanka, the former chairman of WNO's board of trustees and still a board member, says the company has "been behind in our rent with [the Kennedy Center] over the years."

Financial struggles have slashed the WNO's coming season to a mere five operas. Even then, there's no guarantee that there will be enough money to make it through the season. The company is surviving, "hand to mouth," Pohanka says, thanks, he adds, to "the generosity of certain individuals -- what we call heroic giving."

There's no question that the company would prefer to remain independent. The question is whether that is possible. A merger with the Kennedy Center would certainly solve one persistent problem, the company's lack of an administrative head: Though Domingo is the general director, the day-to-day operations are under Feinberg and Jane Lipton Cafritz.

More heroic giving would appear to be the only way for WNO to remain fully autonomous. But there's no question that one of the "options" Feinberg refers to is the possibility that the Kennedy Center will, in effect, bail the company out.

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