Opera Pacific's future in doubt
After being bailed out repeatedly over the years by a small corps of big donors, Opera Pacific, Orange County’s professional opera company, appears to have sung its swan song — barring a fairy-tale rescue.
If it succumbs, the company, founded in 1986 as part of the burst of arts energy in the county surrounding the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, will be a casualty of this year’s crisis on Wall Street. A limited circle of patrons has been unable to swing the $4 million to $5 million in donations needed to fund a typical season's budget of about $7 million to $8 million.
Board chairman Sebastian Paul Musco did not quite acknowledge Wednesday that Opera Pacific is finished but was left clinging to a prayer that the company might dodge Gotterdammerung once more.
Asked what the future might hold, he answered with a plea: “Send me a miracle, send me an angel.” Musco, founder and chairman of Gemini Industries, said his own gambit would be playing the lottery and donating the jackpot to Opera Pacific should his number come in.
On Tuesday, the company announced that the two remaining productions of its 2008-09 season had been canceled; that it had put its office, set-storage and rehearsal building in Santa Ana up for sale to settle its debts — including refunds owed ticketholders; and that it had laid off all but two members of a staff that Musco said had numbered about 20.
The canceled operas are the “The Grapes of Wrath,” a new work by Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie, and Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” with soprano Deborah Voigt in the title role. The recent production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” was saved only with a last-gasp fundraising effort that brought in about $350,000, said Robert C. Jones, Opera Pacific’s president and chief executive until his job disappeared Tuesday. Ticket sales for the four performances fell about $200,000 short of the break-even point, Jones said.
Musco said that the limited number of donors who had funded the opera company no longer could come up with the necessary gifts in the wake of drastic hits to their investement portfolios and the demands of other causes that needed their support. “We’re exhausted,” he said. “We want to go out of this thing gracefully with our heads up high.”
Jones said that the national economic crisis hit the company just as it was planning a new approach aimed at expanding its audience and donor base. Instead of mounting a typical fall-through-spring season, starting in 2010 it would produce a monthlong summer festival of three operas at the Costa Mesa performance center. That, he said, promised to reduce costs and allow it to stage satellite events and other attention-getting activities that come with a festival.
Jones said the Opera Pacific building was recently appraised at $3.1 million but would probably fetch “much less” in the current market. Still, he said, the sale should cover the company’s outstanding debt. Jones and Musco would not specify how much is owed.
Musco said the 28-member board had yet to address whether it would try to keep Opera Pacific on long-term life support by preserving its name and nonprofit status with hopes of its being resuscitated as a summer festival. “It’s on my wish list, but it’s there only if we can fund it,” he said.
In 2000, Orange County tech billionaire Henry Samueli and his wife, Susan, delivered Opera Pacific from a large deficit with a $5-million donation -- the biggest chunk of the $16 million the two opera buffs have given the company since 1999.
“You can’t keep asking people like the Samuelis, 'Give us another million,’ ” Musco said. “In all fairness, where’s the rest of the community?”
Gerald Solomon, executive director of the Samueli Foundation, said the Samuelis were not approached for a bailout-size donation this time. He said they would support whatever decision the board made about Opera Pacific’s future and continue to donate “to the extent that’s possible.”
Musco said he had donated more than $5 million himself over the years, including a $2-million loan he made in 2005, then later forgave as part of a fundraising effort. Jones said the company’s debt had been erased in 2007, positioning it to stage its current season, then transform itself with the summer festival plan -- until the stock market plunged.
The collapse of the opera season means a possible loss of $300,000 to $400,000 in rental income for its landlord, the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Terrence Dwyer, the center’s president, said the venue would try to book substitute events.
“It’s very sad news for everyone in the community,” Dwyer said, adding that “opera is a very important part of the mix.” He said the center had not approached Los Angeles Opera about possibly importing one of its productions, but “we will do a full exploration as soon as we can of all the options out there. It’s important to realize we have to ensure that funding is in place.”
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: "The Barber of Seville," which closed Nov. 1 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, could be Opera Pacific's last production.
Photo Credit: Nicholas Koon