Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Arts Reporting: The Austin Lyric Opera in Crisis, by Paul E. Robinson

A thoughtful account and analysis by Paul Robinson at his blog, May 25:

The Austin Lyric Opera in Crisis: No Easy Answers!The Star, Austin Lyric Opera

by Paul E. Robinson

The news just keeps getting worse from opera companies across the United States. As the economy ever so slowly rights itself after a devastating recession, ticket buyers and generous donors are hard to find. Endowments have taken a tremendous hit from the stock market collapse. The New York City Opera has been struggling for years and recently announced that it would have to leave Lincoln Center in order to cut costs and remain in business. David Gockley, the San Francisco Opera’s highly-regarded General Director, said that his company was feeling the heat and needed to do some radical restructuring. While Texas has weathered the recession better than most states, the Austin Lyric Opera (ALO) finds itself in serious financial turmoil. General Director Kevin Patterson handed in his resignation in the face of a growing deficit.

ALO Repertoire: Popular Mix too Much for Austin?

Austin is neither New York nor San Francisco, either in size or in the importance of its opera company; it is, however, a vibrant and growing major population center (the Austin Metro area is about 1.4 million people) and problems facing its opera company are fairly representative of what’s facing cities all over the country.

The ALO’s current budget is $4.3 million and its season is comprised of three main stage productions – presented at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, with each opera given four performances. In addition, there are some smaller events and the ALO also runs the Armstrong Community Music School.

Under Kevin Patterson as General Director and Richard Buckley as Principal Conductor, the ALO has developed a reputation for excellent work and for deftly mixing standard fare with off-beat contemporary repertoire. This past season the ALO offered Jonathan Dove’s wonderful opera “Flight,” and the previous season it mounted a production of Chabrier’s rarely-heard opera, “L’Etoile. In 1997, it presented Philip Glass’ “Waiting for the Barbarians.” One of the AOL’s most enjoyable productions in recent years was an Austin-oriented version of “Die Fledermaus (The Bat).” As travelers to Austin probably know, one of the city’s prime tourist attractions is the daily emergence downtown, at sundown, of something like 1.5 million bats from under the Congress Street bridge.

On the whole, the ALO has given the community a consistently high quality of sophisticated and entertaining repertoire. Although there are few recognizable names among the singers, the mostly young and mostly American singers have been well-chosen and Buckley’s presence in the pit has guaranteed well-rehearsed and well-executed performances. Such quality comes at a price, however, and it is a price that the Austin community apparently is no longer either able to, or prepared to pay.

Several years ago the ALO moved from the Bass Hall on the University of Texas campus to the new Long Center downtown and the move was expected to be a boost for the company. The Bass Hall had 2,900 seats and the Dell Hall in the Long Center only 2,400. With fewer seats to fill, the ALO still averaged only about 45% capacity.

Read more at Robinson's blog The Art of the Conductor . . . .

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