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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Season at the Opera

All the external evidence seems to show that Opera

Festival of New Jersey, preparing to open its 19th annual season,

has grown and flourished. The festival’s overall spending rose from

$200,000 for its 1984 inaugural year to $2.2 million in 2001. The

number of productions grew from one to four by 2000. The festival

outgrew its original space. It staged ever more elaborate productions.

And audiences grew, too, almost doubling over just the past four years:

from 7,000 in 1997 to 13,000 in 2001.

But the bottom line failed to keep pace. Last year’s four productions

at McCarter Theater resulted in an operating budget deficit of $288,000.

The total shortfall since 1998 is $682,000. Moreover, no one seems

to have kept a tight rein on expenditures or a close eye on financial

records.

This fiscal gap has caused reverberations in both program and leadership.

Last October, Karen Tiller, general manager, was replaced by separate

chiefs for the festival’s artistic and business aspects. The Opera

Festival board hired Douglas Rubin as executive director and David

Agler as artistic director. It also decided to limit the 2002 season

to three productions. In another belt-tightening move, the board downsized

the administrative staff and shuffled its organization. With the new

scheme of things, OFNJ has been a merry-go-round of personnel changes.

The Newark Star Ledger reported that a one-time loan of $239,000 from

an unnamed board member helped keep the company solvent.

Anticipating a balanced budget this year, OFNJ opens

its 19th season with Verdi’s "La Traviata" on Saturday, June

22. A benefit party, "A Garden Gala," precedes the performance

at 5 p.m. in the McCarter Theater lobbies, with Governor James McGreevey

and Dina Matos McGreevey serving as honorary chairs. The summer season

will continue with Rossini’s "The Barber of Seville," and

Britten’s "The Rape of Lucretia," making their debuts on June

29 and July 6, respectively. Most performances are preceded by a free

lecture, beginning 45 minutes before curtain time.

Contributing to the opera’s fiscal problems — though maintaining

strong artistic standards — last season at OFNJ featured "The

Magic Flute," "Turandot," "Orfeo ed Euridice,"

and "Il Prigioniero" and "Bluebeard’s Castle" on the

final bill. Among the four offerings in 2000, was a production of

"Burning Bright" by Princeton’s Frank Lewin, directed by Karen

Tiller. The work has recently been recorded and released on CD by

Albany Records in a performance supervised by Lewin and conducted

by Rossen Milanov.

The new Rubin and Agler team managing OFNJ come from distinctly different

backgrounds. Douglas Rubin, a former Opera Festival board member is

a Princeton University graduate, Class of 1981, who holds an MBA from

the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His previous

management positions include 16 years with ALK Technologies, a Princeton

software development company. Until joining OFNJ last year, he had

no experience with either nonprofit administration or arts management.

Rubin notes that the dot-com bust hurt the arts at least as much as

it hurt the economy in general. However, he expects this year’s production

budget of $1.6 million to be matched by income, and not incur any

additional deficit.

David Agler has had an international career as conductor of both opera

and symphony. In 2001 he was actively involved with OFNJ, conducting

its widely acclaimed production of Gluck’s "Orfeo ed Eurydice."

In an interview with Agler by telephone from his Princeton office,

I asked him to compare the structure of an opera company headed by

an executive director and an artistic director with one led by a general

manager.

"In opera companies, it’s got to be one or the other," says

Agler. "There’s the one-headed monster and the two-headed monster.

For a long time there was a trend toward general managers. But now

there’s been a return to two heads because the business has become

so complicated. Probably nobody can do justice to both jobs. I have

often considered positions which would have required me to do both,

but I’ve declined. I am an artist and know how to run a production."

Agler sketches the tasks of the men at the top. "I plan the season,

choose singers and conductors, and see to the building of a production.

I oversee everything that you will see and hear when you come into

the theater. I’ve been involved with large companies and small. I

have broad experience. My colleague sees to the entire business side

— financial management, development, fundraising, and marketing.

Opera has become a very sophisticated business."

Perceiving himself as an artist, Agler underscores the separation

between finances and art. When I wonder about the impact of fiscal

matters on artists, he says, "Financial concerns do not affect

the performers. We do our job and collect our check."

As conductor, he is directly involved in this season’s performance

of Britten’s "Rape of Lucretia."

"It’s a remarkable 20th century piece," he says. "There

is a male and female chorus based on Greek theater. At the end there

is an interpretation by modern man. It’s a study of trust and the

relations between men and women. It touches on faithfulness in marriage

and the sanctity of love. It’s a very psychological study of human

nature and a reinterpretation of an ancient story. Sometimes we understand

better from a great distance."

"The opera is easy to listen to," Agler adds. "It’s tonal

and it’s sung in English — we hope clearly." Still, English

supertitles are included.

A co-production with l’Opera de Montreal, the new version of the opera

appears first in Princeton and then moves to Montreal. "We shared

the costs," Agler says. "It’s a way of saving without sacrificing

artistic quality."

Agler takes a hand in all of this season’s OFNJ productions.

He succinctly describes his role in preparations for the "Barber

of Seville," which OFNJ presented also in its 1996 season. The

1816 opera, directed by Albert Sherman and conducted by Bernard Labadie,

will have a traditional presentation. "I’ve talked with the director

and conductor, and I picked the singers," Agler says.

This season’s non-traditional "La Traviata" required more

original thinking. "We’ve moved the story to the 1920s," Agler

says. "We spent a lot of time talking about style and costumes,

looking for inconsistencies because of the changed time period. The

conductor, director, and designer put it together. I just let them

do their thing." The opera was last presented by OFNJ in its 1994

season.

Agler was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1947, and grew up in Indiana

and Michigan. His father, an engineer, owned a small steel manufacturing

company in Hammond, Indiana. The family of three brothers and one

sister sought out music, though Agler is the only professional musician.

"My father put himself through school as a jazz clarinet and saxophone

player," he says. "My mother was not musical. She was bemused

by all these bassoons, pianos, and horns that were played in our house."

Arriving at Westminster Choir College in 1965, Agler

was a piano major. He came to know opera when the Westminster choir

was invited to join the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina,

as the resident chorus. Agler went along as a choir accompanist.

Agler remained in Princeton through the early 1970s, and conducted

the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society. He relished the participation

of notable Princetonians. "I remember George Gallup as the Mikado

and Lee Hastings Bristol as Ko-Ko San."

Since then his career has taken him to Italy, Holland, Germany, Australia,

and South Africa. He has criss-crossed the United States and Canada

as a conductor of both opera and symphony, sometimes alighting for

relatively long periods in a single city. As resident conductor of

the San Francisco Opera he formed its new orchestra. As music director

of the Vancouver Opera from 1992 to 1999, he made a point of incorporating

20th-century opera in the repertoire. Currently he is active as a

guest conductor. He lives part of the year in Princeton, and part

in Vancouver.

Agler was absent from Princeton when Opera Festival of New Jersey

came into being. It sidled into place, rather than bursting full-blown

upon the scene. The vision of Princeton University music professors

Michael Pratt and Peter Westergaard, the project found the ready support

of John A. Ellis, then chairman of the music department at the Lawrenceville

School. Its first season, 1984, consisted of one opera, Mozart’s "Marriage

of Figaro." The budget was $200,000. Until 1997 the home of the

festival was the 800-seat Kirby Theater on the campus of the Lawrenceville

School. The setting, on grounds landscaped by Central Park’s Frederick

Law Olmsted, was leisurely and expansive. In this gracious environment

OFNJ expanded its offerings to three operas a season, and established

a commitment to contemporary works.

In 1998 the festival moved to Princeton’s McCarter Theater with a

seating capacity of 988, about 25 percent greater than the Lawrenceville

School theater. In addition, McCarter’s stage dimensions and backstage

facilities make possible productions far more elaborate than at the

smaller theater. Costs went up. With the move to McCarter, OFNJ’s

rent leapt from $10,000 to $72,000; it has now reached $122,000. For

the past two summers the company expanded to four opera productions

each season. In 2001 OFNJ’s total budget grew to $1.9 million.

No one expects opera to pay for itself. The rule of thumb is that

an opera company earns less than half of its expenses by selling tickets.

In the case of OFNJ, Rubin says its income from ticket sales is closer

to 35 percent. Furthermore, successful runs may have a negative effect

on the balance sheet. Compare an opera company to a business that

sells its widgets for one dollar and spends two dollars to produce

them. The more widgets the enterprise sells, the more it sinks into

the hole.

Methods of saving money in the business of opera are hard to find.

Melding together the complex of singers and instrumentalists, coaches,

choreography, sets, costumes, and lighting offers little leeway for

thrift if artistic quality is the goal. In addition, the personnel

and projects for raising funds and disseminating publicity are costly.

And civic-minded educational programs also require expenditures.

Rubin says one of his first tasks as executive director

was to improve OFNJ accounting procedures in order to keep track of

spending by production and also to understand spending on a per performance

basis. "Although it’s unlikely that any performance will pay for

itself," he says, "it is likely that many in the audience

will also be contributors. They are the ones who help us make up the

difference between the cost of opera and the need to keep ticket prices

affordable."

Is there any alternative to penalizing successful opera companies

and other pricey artistic ventures? Only if someone outside picks

up the tab. The big question for arts funding has been around for

a long time. And the answer still lies in significant government support.

We all need the nourishment of the arts as much as we need roads or

breathable air or homeland defense.

— Elaine Strauss

La Traviata, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. Season’s opening night features

Verdi’s tale directed by Renaud Doucet, with Yali-Marie Williams,

Christopher Robertson, and Mark Hervieux. Performances to July 13.

$24 to $82. Saturday, June 22, 8 p.m.

The Barber of Seville. Albert Sherman directs the opera

featuring Daniel Belcher as Figaro. $24 to $82. Performances

to July 20. Saturday, June 29, 8 p.m.

The Rape of Lucretia, Benjamin Britten’s opera, conducted

by David Agler, featuring Phyliss Pancella, David Adam Moore, and

Scott Altman. $24 to $82. Saturday, July 6; Friday, July

12; and Sunday, July 21.


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