Friday, March 28, 2014

Indianapolis Opera steps back, cancels operatic search for a 'King of the May'

Benjamin Britten's delightful post-war comedy "Albert Herring" won't close the Indianapolis Opera 2013-14 season after all. The organization is taking a breather to establish a new "business model," a phrase more and more often heard in the arts world to indicate that an arts organization can be run like a business.

That required the axing of an opera about a small English town's frustration at finding a suitably pure May Queen at the turn of the 20th century for its annual spring celebration. A mild-mannered grocery clerk, the title character, saves the day (reluctantly) by being dragged into prominence as a precedent- setting "King of the May." Along the way, with some complications, he finds an inner strength and identity that had long been mother-smothered. "Albert Herring" was to have played at the company's soon-to-be-permanent home, Basile Opera Center, six times between April 25 and May 4.

IO general manager Carol Baker
General manager Carol Baker, interviewed Thursday morning, put the 39-year-old company's plight in national perspective: "Opera in the nation has been making big changes to stay relevant and vital. This is part of the ebb and flow. We are making the necessary changes to move the company forward, and will be remediating our business model."

She declined to be specific until the 2014-15 season is announced, but said, "It won't be a cookie-cutter season of three or four main-stage productions." Her assessment came a few days after the IO's sole large-scale production for the current season, Puccini's  La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), failed to sell more than half the seats for two performances in the 2,000-seat Clowes Hall.

The thrilling melodrama in Puccini's Wild West opera didn't excite the Indianapolis public enough to make completion of the current Indianapolis Opera schedule advisable.
Baker, who was hired as general manager last spring, demurred at criticizing the decision of the Indianapolis Opera board and previous administration to mount a four-production season this year. It started off strong at the box office with "The Threepenny Opera," she said. Then "Amahl and the Night Visitors," revived from last season, brought in less revenue than expected, even though a heartening 85 percent of the Gian Carlo Menotti Christmas opera audience was new to the company's productions, according to Baker.

"We moved forward with a four-show series knowing that we had a hill to climb," she said of 2013-14. She described the decision to cancel the final show as "ripping off the Band-Aid" and allowing the fiscal healing to take place. How that will take place remains to be publicly detailed.

The Great Recession of 2008 did not yield to a period of as much recovery as hoped. "We dipped into our rainy-day fund at that time," Baker said. Like most arts organizations,  Indianapolis Opera  found its endowment in steep decline. Individual and corporate support have also slumped, Baker said,  in recent seasons. Ticket sales decreased, and even major hits of the opera repertoire, like two other Puccini operas — Madama Butterfly and La Boheme — could no longer be counted upon to sell out as they did only a decade or so ago.

"With changing times, I've heard that movie ticket sales are also down," Baker said by way of explanation. "People are staying inside. It's part of the loss of civic participation that the arts have been all too familiar with over the past five to 10 years."

Baker scotched a rumor that major donors had put pressure to have all Indianapolis Opera productions in the Basile Opera Center, sparing the large marketing and production expense of Clowes Hall shows. The Butler venue will continue to be part of the company's schedule, she said.

The Opera Center, a converted church in Meridian-Kessler, has been used as the company's first dedicated rehearsal space ever for the past several years. The last few seasons have seen its adaptation for small-scale productions as well, including everything this season except "The Girl of the Golden West". The company's offices, now at 38th Street and Washington Boulevard, are scheduled to move to the BOC April 17 and 18.

"Opera is not business as usual," Baker summed up. "It has to be more than that. It has to be connected to people where they live."

 That may offer a hint as to how Indianapolis Opera hopes to stay viable in the near future.