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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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
featuring Daniel Belcher as Figaro. $24 to $82. Performances
to July 20. Saturday, June 29, 8 p.m.
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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