Washington National Opera plans are restricted by donor's limits, sources say

By Anne Midgette
Monday, August 9, 2010; C04

Organizations develop personalities over time. Some are powerful. Some are scrappy underdogs. The company now known as the Washington National Opera has always had trouble keeping its finances in order. As a result, it has come to rely on a small group of donors who, time and again, have bailed the season out.

These two traits are now clashing head-on. The company is in talks with the Kennedy Center about renegotiating its contract; one option is that WNO and the Kennedy Center may merge. But there's a hitch.

Most of WNO's endowment derives from the sale of a building donated by Betty Brown Casey, the widow of Eugene B. Casey, one of the company's major donors. And she has stipulated, several sources confirm, that if WNO ceases to be independent or if it merges with the Kennedy Center, those funds will automatically go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

At issue is the money deriving from the sale of the Woodward & Lothrop building, a former department store in downtown Washington, which Mrs. Casey bought to be a new home for WNO in 1996. When that plan proved impracticable, the company sold the building for $28.2 million in 1999 and put the money into its then-nascent endowment. WNO's endowment has grown to about $30 million, but the company has several million dollars of debt.

How did the company get into a position where its donors have so much power over its fate? This is the deepest sign of the ongoing trouble at the Washington National Opera.

Other companies, of course, have run into conflict with the wishes of their donors. In 2003, the estate of Sybil B. Harrington sued the Metropolitan Opera, alleging that the production of "Tristan und Isolde" violated her wishes, because she left the company $5 million to be used "exclusively for the televising of traditional/grand opera productions of the Metropolitan Opera and for no other purposes." The Met's production of the Wagner opera was too untraditional to suit the Harrington estate.

Joe Volpe, the Met's former general director, said in an interview that Sybil Harrington was quite specific about which directors she wanted.

Meanwhile, WNO has no desire to insult Betty Brown Casey. "The opera would not be alive, the opera would not be where it is today, were it not for Mrs. Casey," said Walter Arnheim, who was executive director of WNO in 2000-02. But it's clear that relying so heavily on her funds, as well as those of Jacqueline Badger Mars, another generous donor, can be a two-edged sword.

"You want a company that has a very broad base of donor support," Arnheim said. "Even trustees who contribute $25,000 or $50,000 feel that they don't have a real say in the company when there's somebody who has such a large say."

Betty Brown Casey's generosity has been tremendous, but it has tapered off to some extent in the last few seasons. The fact that a merger with the Kennedy Center has been seen as a fallback plan for a long time is clear from Casey's having made her stipulation more than 10 years ago.

WNO's financial problems have increased as the budget grew -- one consequence of General Director Plácido Domingo's desire to make the company competitive on a national and even international level. Domingo's idea of how to fund his big and admittedly exciting plans has always been somewhat sketchy. His contract expires in 2011. Another open question is what role he might have, if any, should a Kennedy Center merger take place.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company