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Cash-strapped Washington National Opera announces layoffs, other cuts

December 1, 2009 |  6:30 am


The Washington National Opera says it has scaled down its staff, enacted furloughs and reduced the upcoming season to five productions in response to a challenging economic environment that has seen various forms of income suffer.

A total of eight positions have been eliminated from six different departments, according to the company. Responsibilities will be reallocated to remaining staff.

In addition, the company said it has frozen salaries and has suspended its 403(b) matching contributions. Staff will take a one-week furlough in the last week of 2009, with additional rolling furloughs set for the spring. The furloughs were enacted to address short-term cash flow challenges, said the company.

Plácido Domingo, who serves as the National Opera's general director, said in a statement Monday that the cuts are "heartbreaking" but added that board leaders made them with the best interest of the company in mind.

"I regret the decisions, and yet, I support them because they will allow WNO to produce opera of a high quality, with world-class artists and productions, and maintain its award-winning education, training and outreach programs," said the tenor.

Domingo also serves as the general director of Los Angeles Opera, which announced its own layoffs and reductions in January.

Rumors of the WNO's cuts surfaced earlier Monday in a report that ran on the Baltimore Sun's website. The WNO's annual budget is approximately $32 million, according to the report.

The company said that its executive director, Mark Weinstein, will no longer perform his day-to-day administrative duties and instead will focus exclusively on fundraising and broad-range financial strategic planning.

Starting with the 2010-11 season, the company will mount only five productions, down from six in the current season and seven in the previous season.

The reduced season is designed "to optimize the ratio of income to expenses, and to ensure that the company continues to offer productions of high artistic quality while operating in a fiscally responsible manner," the Washington National Opera said in a statement.

Among the programs that remain unaffected by the cuts are the company's free and low-cost education and public programs.

“For several years, WNO has operated in an unstable economic environment in which our expenses outstripped our ability to raise funds through donations and ticket sales,” Kenneth R. Feinberg, the company's president, said in a statement.

"These systemic challenges must be addressed now, so that WNO can continue to produce great opera and engage our community through our education, training and outreach programs.”

-- David Ng

Photo: A view of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which serves as a venue for the Washington National Opera. Credit: Chris Wright / For The Times