The Opera is dead. Long live the Opera! 


It wasn't quite the glass-shattering crescendo opera lovers would have expected from the end of such a long, dramatic act; it didn't even carry the emotional heft of a fading pianissimo in slowly dimming light.

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Instead, the July 30 auction of the remaining assets of the 51-year-old Orlando Opera Company's administrative home at the old Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center on Orange Avenue was an artless affair, with sweat and dust in the air and penny-pinching vultures flapping around in a buying frenzy. It was all shockingly unpleasant.

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Framed artwork and various bits of historic filigree were yanked from the walls and tossed into offices designated with lot numbers. Computer equipment and office supplies were piled against walls, while the paper trail of 51 years of arts patronage littered floors and desktops. Racks of costumes from ornate productions rattled out the front door and into the harsh afternoon sun. Whatever wasn't sold in 45 minutes, the auctioneer noted, would not be sold at all.

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"It's so depressing," former Orlando Opera stage director Frank McClain said, taken aback by the fact that his entire office – including three computers – went for $175. He had wanted to buy it himself, but wasn't aware he couldn't pay by credit card.

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This wasn't how it was supposed to end.

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On April 16, the Orlando Opera board of trustees announced that the curtain had dropped. A souring economy and lack of support from the community were the named culprits, and the board elected to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, effectively dissolving the Orlando Opera forever and absolving the board of any real responsibility for outstanding debts, beyond what could be gained from the liquidation of the company's assets. Orlando clearly couldn't support a distinguished opera company, at least not in these tough economic times, board chair Joy Barrett Sabol said in a press release.

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Failed fundraising attempts – the ironically named "50 and Forever" campaign, announced in 2006, and "Carry the Voice," the final campaign this spring – were evidence enough of that. Local media reported the news as the board presented it, and the whole downfall was spun as inevitable.

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But given the company's history and the track record of comparable arts organizations here and elsewhere, failure wasn't necessarily a foregone conclusion. The half-century saga of the Orlando Opera Company is less a story about hard times than a cautionary tale of mismanagement and bad decision-making, a libretto marked with ego and entitlement. Unlike the opera's direct local peers – the Orlando Ballet and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra – Orlando Opera Company operated at a significant deficit for years. In the face of declining revenues, it chose to increase ticket prices and raise spending in an effort to stave off disaster. In hindsight, it was exactly the wrong thing to do.

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"It's like throwing kerosene on a fire," says Margot Knight, president and chief executive officer of United Arts of Central Florida, who notes that 10 of the 13 major arts organizations funded by United Arts actually came up in the black last year. The fire was isolated.

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Lost in the process of trying to grow for growth's sake was most of the passion for the art of opera, which for decades was centered in the persona of former director Robert Swedberg. In 2007, Swedberg was forced out and sworn to silence. This is the first time he has spoken publicly about the decline and fall of Orlando Opera since.

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Orlando's opera history began in 1884, when Charley Weimer worked with N.C. Stubblefield to build the city's first opera house, between Pine and Church streets downtown. The venture didn't pan out financially, and the building was eventually converted into a skating rink.

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A second attempt materialized in 1911, when movie-house operator Bailey Magruder erected another opera venue for live performances. The Lucerne Theater was initially so successful that another movie company rented it out in 1920 just to keep it closed down and halt competition. It was converted to an arcade in 1927.

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It wasn't until the third try, Feb. 13, 1958, that the Junior League of Orlando, in conjunction with the Florida Symphony Orchestra, established opera's foothold in Orlando when it produced the first "Gala Night of Opera," featuring imported talent from New York's Metropolitan Opera Company performing famous arias.

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"We are in the midst of the biggest season culturally in Central Florida, if not in Florida history," conductor Frank Miller boasted in an Orlando Sentinel story at the time.

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By the mid-'60s, the annual white-tie affairs had taken off. The Junior League gave way to an official Opera Gala Guild formed under the auspices of the Florida Symphony Association, which attracted up-and- ; comers like Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman and Beverly Sills. In 1977, the Gala Guild became the Orlando Opera Company, and in 1979 Orlando Opera Company Inc. was established as a nonprofit with a board of directors. By 1988, the Orlando Opera Company firmly established itself, showcasing Luciano Pavarotti to a crowd of 11,000 at the Orange County Convention Center.

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By 1990, the opera's annual budget had grown to $1.5 million. That year it hired Swedberg as the director.

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"There was already a pretty high degree of quality of production," he says, speaking of the marquee names coming in. "But the problem then is that you have to surround them with an ensemble at their level. It's not as though we were trying to avoid the bigger names, but it didn't make sense in this market to do that."

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From the outset, Swedberg – who now teaches and directs operas globally on a contract basis – worked to organically develop the opera's presence in a manner that he thought suited the region.

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"This is not New York. This is not the Metropolitan Opera," he says. "The people who want to go to the Met can easily hop on a jet and go there. So an arts organization here, an opera company here, would have to do something that would work for the community … maybe doing something that other opera companies aren't doing."

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For Swedberg, that meant hosting a radio show, Opera With Robert Swedberg, on WMFE 90.7-FM beginning in 1993, and organizing outreach and educational programs. He was essential in the establishment of the Orlando Philharmonic when the Florida Symphony Orchestra declared bankruptcy in 1993. He worked to blur the lines that kept opera stigmatized as an elitist affair -– incorporating the Orlando Magic dancers here, utilizing local lesbian cabaret artist BabyBlue there – to connect with younger audiences, something that would be necessary as the elderly core audience dwindled. In its own way, says Swedberg, opera could be "hip."

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"I know a lot of people don't think it is, and a lot of people act like it is, a lot of people are into it. But I've always seen it as the most wonderfully complete art form … including all the great things that we could find in music, theater, dance, spectacle, literature, all of that in one package. What's not hip about that?"

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Hip or not, opera is expensive. By the summer of 2006, the Orlando Opera Company had accumulated a deficit of $589,000 on its $2.7 million budget under Swedberg. That decade-long deficit, he says, originated when the end of the fiscal year was changed from April to June in 1996, adding two months to operating costs.

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According to a 2005 grant application, the deficit was $331,807, which seems odd when you realize that for the fiscal year ending June 2004, it had a surplus of $292,950. But instead of being used to erase debt, the extra money went to boost the opera's endowment fund in the hope of reaching the $1 million threshold, which would qualify it for Level III state funding. Level III meant the opera could get an extra $50,000 in state grants annually. The catch is that an organization's funding level can only be adjusted once every four years. So when the board of directors decided to reach for that brass ring, they were committed. By 2006, the opera had achieved Level III status, but had to maintain its $1 million endowment, along with an operating budget that had grown to about $2.5 million.

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Swedberg says it was a matter of priorities. Those who worked with him recall him as someone who preferred to work on the cheap: hand-me-down computers, hand-crafted costumes and wigs, and low pay.

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"We wanted to put all our money onstage and into the product," says Swedberg. "We didn't get the salaries we could have gotten. We didn't engineer budgets to favor ourselves."

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Perhaps, but as the opera board pointed out until the company's demise, it was under Swedberg that the deficit initially ballooned.

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"It wasn't as harmful as people might imagine," he says. "And I almost hate to say this, because it sounds like excuses for a deficit being OK, which it isn't, but it was made up of things that were not as harmful as one might suspect."

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Those things, in large part, involved some poorly executed staff changes that resulted in the company taking on a "disaster" of a fundraiser and managing director. He maintains that the $300,000 deficit was manageable and could have been addressed with the additional Level III funding.

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But the economy was slowing down, and the opera had to make up $260,000 in funding cuts from United Arts of Central Florida between 2001 and 2004. Swedberg was skimping wherever he could.

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"We never got any credit from United Arts for doing that," he says. "United Arts was always, ‘Well, you've got this deficit.' But the way we [were] going to get rid of it [was] not to put money towards the deficit, but to get up to that new state level where then money that will flow in from the state will wipe it out. Plus, it's [endowment] money that will be held earning interest in perpetuity. That's the beauty of it."

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It wasn't beautiful enough. Swedberg would be out of the picture by 2007.

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;; ;In July 2006, the opera board created a new chief executive officer position and hired Jim Ireland to fill it. Ireland was a veteran of the Houston Grand Opera and the Hartford Stage Company with more than 40 years under his belt. According to board minutes from September 2006, Ireland's job was to "take the organization to a higher level of artistic quality and [create] a more financially and managerially stable arts institution." He would do so "supported by the recognized artistry of Robert Swedberg.";

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"They used me as bait," Swedberg says, adding that it was unlikely that Ireland would stick to the numbers and leave Swedberg to handle the creative side. "He wanted to do the casting, wanted to do the arts stuff, hadn't really done it, but claimed that he had."

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By April 2007, Swedberg was given his walking papers. Reports at the time said that he had "resigned" as general director, but would stay on to direct Don Giovanni for the company in November of that year.

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In reality, Swedberg had been handed a separation agreement with 26 provisions, among them an order not to discuss the separation (or make "derogatory comments" in regard to Ireland or the opera) and a severance of $6,667 monthly for six months, plus $10,000 for work on his final opera in November. (Now that the Orlando Opera Company is gone, he felt it was finally time to speak out without fear of repercussions.)

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In the same September 2006 meeting at which the board announced Ireland's hiring, they also laid the groundwork for an ambitious new fundraising campaign, "50 and Forever," intended to capitalize on the opera's historic anniversary. They set a goal of $2.1 million in funds raised and planned to spend $700,000 for infrastructure upgrades, including new computers and office equipment.

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By March 2009, "50 and Forever" had only netted commitments of $1.7 million; $647,500, actually, considering that ; they had to write off $325,000 in written commitments and $425,000 in verbal commitments. The new computers were purchased nonetheless.

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Meanwhile, in April 2007, with the help of a marketing company and in a joint venture with the Orlando Ballet, Ireland eliminated the $45 balcony seat option for the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, meaning the cheapest seats cost $105.

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Swedberg says that in his one year working with Ireland, he saw the mission of the opera decaying and becoming less in line with its public: The outreach programs were dwindling, the old Opera Guild had been silenced, and the productions were out of touch with the community.

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"There have been so many collaborations that have been built over long periods of time, even before me, that we tried to maintain those and build new ones," says Swedberg. "It didn't make any sense at all in the year that I was here overlapping to see them in front of my eyes being cut. It was like feeling body parts being ripped off."

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In the years since, the opera underperformed. Fiscal year 2007 saw revenues of $1.1 million; fiscal 2009, only $576,000. Attendance dropped 74 percent, from 124,736 in 2007 to 33,141 in 2009, resulting in United Arts investment per seat rising from $2.64 in 2007 to $9.47 in 2009. The annual Grand Masque fundraiser to benefit the opera, ballet and philharmonic was cancelled. The opera was falling apart.

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By March 2009, the opera was signaling its own imminent failure with a call to arms that effectively threatened the community with the opera's closure if it couldn't come up with $500,000 in donations to keep it going. It was called "Carry the Voice." On April 10, United Arts agreed to advance the opera $92,000 of the $148,000 it was scheduled to disburse on July 1. Meanwhile, staffers were applying pressure to subscribers to hurry up and purchase their seats for the 2009-2010 series, slated to include three of the most popular and expensive-to-stage operas, La Boheme, Carmen and La Traviata.

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"Other companies cut complete productions, and that certainly could have been done before the end of last season," says Swedberg in an e-mail. "That would have been understood and tolerated. Going on with the season under such circumstances was premeditated – likely ego-driven – suicide."

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In a letter dated Feb. 26 attached to a grant application, Ireland details just how bad things had become. The opera board had decided to do the unthinkable: It would dig into its endowment for operating costs.

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"In fact, this spring cash flow is such a concern that the board voted unanimously (with one exception) to convert endowment funds into funds for current operations; the decision was not made lightly," he wrote.

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According to Marc Scorca, chief executive officer for Opera America, the national organization supporting the art form, that's a bad sign.

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"When you start to withdraw from the endowment beyond the historic value, you really are sacrificing the long-term stability of the institution for short-term purposes," he says. "And you may very much be violating the intentions of the donor, and perhaps even some of the rules and regulations governing endowments in your state." Such situations are easily avoidable, as well.

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"Deficits don't happen in and of themselves. They are not naturally occurring situations," he says. "I do recommend to companies that they grow budgetarily as little as possible, that growth should never become an objective in and of itself. Growth should be the reflection of successful fundraising campaigns, successful marketing campaigns. Growth should be the result of audience demand. It should be the result of excellence onstage."

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Scorca, who is unaware of the particulars of the Orlando Opera situation, emphasizes the importance of leadership in keeping opera companies afloat during a recession. A board of trustees should comprise people who are "trustworthy," not just interested in advancing their names in the nonprofit world.

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"You need to have a board of people who understand the importance of their work as trustees, but you also need to have within that board real leaders who can galvanize the work of that board, who can communicate with the community in ways that are persuasive," he says.

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Some of the opera board's recent actions raise doubt about whether its members understand that principle. In early June, just after filing for bankruptcy, board chair Sabol sent a letter to board members requesting donations to send Ireland on a "dream cruise," while angry subscribers awaited refunds to the tune of $154,000 (see "No refunds," June 25). By June 16, she had raised $1,751 and was angling for about $1,300 more.

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"Happy summer everyone and may you have smooth sailing in the months ahead," she wrote.

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On Aug. 27, with the dust barely settled on the Orlando Opera fracas, the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra announced that they would assume the task of keeping opera alive in Orlando. With $190,000 coming in from United Arts and $150,000 from the Dr. P. Phillips Foundation (among other supporters yet to be named), the Philharmonic will produce two stripped-down concert operas, Carmen and Porgy and Bess in February and April, respectively. There will be minimal set and costume elements, and the orchestra will be present onstage rather than in the pit.

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Unlike the opera, the Philharmonic ended its fiscal year at the end of June with a balanced $3.1 million budget. A $17,000 surplus will eliminate their $16,000 deficit from the previous year, the first deficit the organization has incurred in its 17-year history. In the 2007-2008 season, the orchestra raised $300,000 in subscription income; this year, they're already at $390,000 with several months to go, according to executive director David Schillhammer. "And this is without raising ticket prices," he adds. He's also never had to write off any donor pledges.

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"What we've done is we have understood the economic realities of the situation, we have offered programming consistent with our audience survey, and we were price-sensitive," says Schillhammer. "And those things all collided in a wonderful circumstance where we're seemingly bucking all local trends of sales, and certainly national trends for American orchestras."

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Schillhammer hopes to restore the faith lost in local arts by the mishandling of the opera situation – those who purchased tickets for the canceled opera season will receive comparable tickets to the new performances – and plans to include the community's remaining opera performers and enthusiasts in the upcoming schedule. With a new performing arts center partially sold to the public on the presence of opera in the community, it's a wise business move, he admits. Also, the irony that his organization was born out of the opera in 1993 is not lost on him.

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"Here we are many, many years later, so we're turning the tables on that as well," he says, adding, "I believe this is the level that the community will support right now. I think all eyes are upon us, and we intend to succeed at this and we'll see where it goes in the future."

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Could that mean Swedberg's return?

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"I could be involved in that," Swedberg says. "I've actually enjoyed not being involved in fundraising, not being involved in marketing and not being involved with board relations. … Actually going through the stress of dealing with some of those situations again? I don't know if I want to do it."

; bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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