"ITS got passion, fightin', ecstasy, treachery . . . Whew, it's just wonderful!"
That's J. R. Ewing, pardner, and he's talking about Dallas -- the Dallas Civic Opera, that is.
Backing him up is the Dallas Cowboys' own Tony Dorsett: "It's just like a big game. Action, excitement, of hurtin', you're hummin'!"
These lively 30-second TV and radio pitches are part of a campaign aimed at turning Dallas into another Naples, where everybody from cab driver to oil man champions his favorite operas.
The city is already showing an impressive willingness to put its money where its ears are. Ten days ago the Dallas Civic Opera (DCO) finished one of this country's most well-financed seasons. With a generous $2.2 million operating budget -- $800,000 came from local contributions -- four operas were presented for three performances each. Included were an $800,000 production of "Turandot" and a spectacular American premiere of Vivaldi's "Orlando Furioso" with Marilyn Horne.
To Washington arts groups, perennially hungry, especially for corporate manna, Dallas looks like the promised land and DCO's success a matter of course. Following major shifts toward the Sun Belt, the city now has the third-largest concentration of national headquarters in America. Only New York and Chicago have a greater number of companies with assets of $1 million or more.
Yet three years ago DCO was, if not starving, on the verge of anemia. It had an accumulated debt of $399,000 and its collapse was not inconceivable. i(After all, Dallas had disbanded its symphony in the mid-'70s until that ensemble could find a way to solve its artistic and financial difficulties.) Though the details of DCO's recent history are specific to the area, the company's crisis and its dramatic turnaround offer a case study in arts financing today.
Basically, DCO in 1977 had three problems. First, the company was wuffering from an elitist image -- "a stuffy, black-tie event for wealthy older people," as one young Dallasite put it. The second problem was the narrowness of DCO's base of support. An affluent few, even in Texas, could no longer keep up with the rising costs of opera. Third, the community, including some longstanding DCO supporters, had lost confidence in the company's ability to manage its affairs responsibly.
To solve its problems, DCO brought in, like a deus ex machina, Plato Karayanis from New York in 1977 to be its general director. Formerly executive vice president and treasurer of Affiliate Artists Inc., Karayanis had demonstrated a particular flair for fund-raising from government, private and corporate sources with special emphasis on the latter.
He decided to concentrate first on winning back confidence in DCO management. He promised to balance the budget and, unlike many a politician, he succeeded. In 1978, DCO not only came out in the black, but it also set aside $55,000 toward its cumulative debt.
To achieve this miracle, DCO's base of support had to be broadened. A coalition grew up between established Dallas families and what Karayanis calls "a breed of new Texans" -- corporate executives, many of them from the East, with strong appetites for the arts. DCO's current board president, Philip Miller, for example, moved to Dallas 3 1/2 years ago via Bloomingale's and Lord & Taylor in New York to become head of Neiman-Marcus. Neiman-Marcus had traditionally held a seat on the DCO board and Miller, an opera lover, decided to occupy it himself. He is now president of the DCO board.
"Many of the corporate executives moving here come from the so-called 'bedroom communities' of the East," said Karayanis. "Living in the suburbs, they've had little chance to become involved in the life of the community. They want to become involved, and here they have the opportunity."
Business representation on DCO's board, once minimal, increased until today it is close to 50 percent. Corporate contributions, only $81,000 in 1977, shot up to $400,000 last year. Like an official blessing, a challenge grant of $350,000 came from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979, confirming that an economic corner had been turned.
At the same time DCO's finances were moving toward solid ground, Karayanis began breaking down the company's elitist image, making it more visible in the community. DCO offered to perform for the annual Christmas tree lighting at City Hall and now does so every year. Another popular effort was the High Noon Ensemble, a quartet of young singers who performed opera and musicals this fall at a major shopping area. The ensemble developed a large following and found that opera was the more popular fare -- not so surprising in a city where splendor and boldness are the daily mode.
When artistic director Nicola Rescigno proposed doing the American premiere of Vivaldi's 250-year-old opera "Orlando Furioso" this season, Karayanis welcomed the idea. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities he put together, in cooperation with Southern Methodist University, a symposium that brought scholars from around the world to talk about Vivaldi and Baroque opera during the week of the production.
"The challenges are just beginning," said Karayanis. "We want to make opera more visible the year 'round. We want to increase the number of productions and the number of performances of each opera. We want to establish a residency training program and provide advanced training for young artists. We plan to commission an opera.
"The biggest challenge is bringing the public," he added. "If you have the public, then the funding follows."
And why shouldn't it? As Johnny Cash tells them in his ads down in Dallas: "Great music? Why, some of these opera tunes have been on the charts for a hundred years."