Kennedy Center rescues troubled opera company

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011

In what amounts to a rescue operation, the Kennedy Center announced Thursday that it is taking over the Washington National Opera, a company that has been floundering artistically and financially for years.

Under the new "affiliation," as officials described the agreement, the opera aims to restore some of the luster it had lost in recent seasons and increase its productions.

"Over the past few years, the financial uncertainty surrounding the opera has threatened not only its viability but its ability to . . . maintain a level of artistic excellence," WNO President Kenneth R. Feinberg said. "This is a critical step designed to ensure the long-term artistic and financial success of the company."

Without the affiliation, the WNO, which was carrying a debt of $12 million, lacked strong leadership and was reduced to a mere five operas a year, appeared doomed.

The merger, approved by the Kennedy Center's board Wednesday, will take effect July 1. Audiences are unlikely to notice any major changes immediately - the 2011-12 productions are set - but Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said several innovations would be coming. Budget cuts had steadily reduced the number and scale of WNO productions, but officials hope to return to eight offerings a season.

The affiliation leaves the Kennedy Center even more dominant on Washington's performing arts scene. The opera is following in the footsteps of the National Symphony Orchestra, which became an affiliate of the Kennedy Center in 1986.

The opera and the Kennedy Center have discussed a possible merger for at least a year, conditional - from the Kennedy Center's side - on the WNO's ability to pay off its debts. One obstacle was the resistance of one of the opera's principal benefactors, Betty Brown Casey, who had said that if the WNO ever merged with the Kennedy Center, she would withdraw her donations, including the company's $30 million endowment, and give the money instead to New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Casey, who is life chairman of the WNO, recently realized that there was no other option if opera in Washington is to survive, according to someone familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Casey offered a matching donation of an unspecified amount, which the company was able to meet, to enable the WNO to pay off its debt and come to the Kennedy Center with its endowment intact.

The WNO's operating budget is about $27 million, although it was projected to sink to $22 million next year. The affiliation with the Kennedy Center - which as a federal facility receives public monies for the upkeep of its building but pays for artistic programming through ticket sales and fundraising - will entail considerable savings. No longer will the company have to pay high rental costs for the opera house, and the operating budget will be guaranteed.

In addition, the Kennedy Center will take over the opera's administrative and business functions, which will entail job cuts. "Staffing remains to be worked out completely," said Feinberg, who also served as the Troubled Assets Relief Program's "pay czar" and is overseeing restitution for the gulf oil spill.

The WNO's artistic leadership, including the new music director of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, Philippe Auguin, will work with Kaiser, a self-described opera lover who once ran the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London.

In addition to using the Kennedy Center's opera house, Kaiser said he envisions using some of the facility's other performance spaces for smaller or newer operas that might not sell as many tickets. And he wants to expand the Kennedy Center's curatorial role by presenting the work of other companies, domestic and international. "I would like to bring in some really good avant-garde opera from abroad," Kaiser said in an interview this week.

He expects that the company will increase its productions, back to seven or eight a year. "I am optimistic that at least by the end of my tenure, four years from now, you'll see a season that's more robust," he said.

Kaiser said he will hire an artistic leader to replace the outgoing general director, Placido Domingo, who announced in September that he would not renew his contract when it expires at the end of this season.

Domingo took over as general director in 1996 amid great fanfare. After an initial uptick in the opera's fortunes, he presided over a long period of financial decline that forced the company to cancel major projects. Domingo's vision for transforming the company into a significant international player was partly the cause of its problems: It grew too fast, without a support base broad enough to sustain the director's dreams in the long term. Domingo was also busy enough with his singing, conducting and other administrative role as general director of the Los Angeles Opera that he wasn't able to be present as a full-time fundraiser for his ambitious projects.

To those familiar with the situation, the affiliation represents something of a relief. James V. Kimsey, a former chairman of the opera board and a current Kennedy Center board member, called the merger not only acceptable, but also obvious. "I told them to do it 10 years ago," he said.


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