The Dallas Opera’s Future Without George Steel
The Dallas Opera has big plans for its smaller new home. But it also has no manager-director and an uncertain economy to deal with. What does the future hold?
I moved to Dallas in August, 1971. I was not happy. Texas seemed like Mars. But in November I hitched a ride (I was carless for the first two years) to one of the productions in the Dallas Opera’s 15th season: Beethoven’s Fidelio, with the burnished-voiced Jon Vickers and, in their American debuts, the conductor Charles Mackerras and the radiant German soprano Helga Dernesch. I sat through most of the second act in tears. As I left the theater, I said to myself, “Dallas is going to be all right.”
It’s been a long first chapter in the Dallas Opera’s history—52 years, to be exact, of which I have shared 37, give or take a few owing to my academic sabbaticals. I have seen hundreds of productions, some more than once. The last season in the old house—the cavernous and acoustically unappealing Fair Park Music Hall—ended with the work with which the (then) Dallas Civic Opera had begun: Rossini’s youthful, sparkling L’Italiana in Algeri. This piece of vocal fluff, the origin of all those wonderfully silly Victorian Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, can still give cultural theorists of gender and Orientalism something to chew over. Whatever the faults of the last production, mostly on the vocal front, there was something judiciously hopeful in the hero and heroine’s exit: they left the stage of the Music Hall in a balloon in order to return to Italy. Past is past.
Now everyone is looking forward to October 23, when the Winspear Opera House, one of the anchors of the new Arts District, opens with a production of Verdi’s late masterpiece, Otello, last seen here in 1962.
This anticipation is compounded of equal parts civic pride (the world’s eyes will be on Dallas); genuine musical curiosity (the Winspear, with 2,200 seats, will be—if the acousticians have done their job properly—more congenial to opera than the 3,400-seat Music Hall); and economic wonder. No one could have foreseen, when the Winspear and the Wyly Theatre were in their planning stages, the current state of the world economy, which—at this writing—shows every sign of getting much worse before any improvement is in sight. How much money has the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts collected for the building? How much money is available for maintenance? And where is it? How many people have reneged on their pledges? How much are those pledges worth? As of last June, the Opera proudly announced that the company had ended fiscal year 2008 in the black. Will this condition continue?
Every cloud has a silver lining. According to Jonathan Pell, the Opera’s longtime artistic administrator, the very fact that the Opera never had a big endowment has meant that it didn’t have much to lose in the economic downturn. In addition, he says no one has reneged on a pledge, although some people have asked for modest delays in making good on them. And, most of all, the excitement surrounding the Winspear is helping to generate funding.
But who is at the helm? The Opera has gone through three general directors in a decade. None liked the job well enough to stay. None did well with the general schmoozing that is a more than a modest prerequisite of all arts administration positions these days. Affable George Steel was gone before the lease on his six-month condo rental apartment ran out. Who is minding the store? And where is the vision? According to Kern Wildenthal, president of the Opera, a new search committee, yet to be named, will begin soon to look for a new head. Wildenthal chose his words carefully when describing the hunt: “Deliberate, not hasty.” He also said that they hope to find someone able to work “within a 10-year time frame,” which means both planning for a decade and—if possible—staying at the helm for an entire decade. If they can pull this off, and also manage to keep the company in the black, or close to it, Dallas Opera will have succeeded spectacularly just as other musical organizations founder dramatically.
Things were only a little easier during the “can-do” days of the mid-1950s, when the conductor Nicola Rescigno and the wunderkind impresario Larry Kelly, then all of 29, left Chicago, thinking that Dallas was the perfect spot (a city full of money and people of cultural ambitions who could be charmed) for a new opera company. The “Say, kids, we can put on our show right here” attitude did well for Kelly and Rescigno, and they did well for and by Dallas, even though the early days were marked by near financial disasters and cost overruns. In 1964, finances were so bad that the young company mounted only two productions. Major artists often went unnoticed. On many nights at the opera, the house was half-full. Joan Sutherland made her American debut in Handel’s Alcina—not exactly a big crowd-pleaser—in 1960, to a 55-percent capacity audience. And leave it to ever-conservative Dallas to host some embarrassing political shenanigans: when John Houseman directed Otello in its only other incarnation here, he was picketed for his left-wing leanings. On November 22, 1963, a date known by everyone of a certain age, the curtain was to go up on Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, a controversial work at its Italian opening because its story involves the murder of a monarch. Dallas Civic Opera delayed its opening-night performance, but, even after the show went on, everyone on stage and off was in shock or tears.
There were good days, of course. After the opening of L’Italiana in Algeri, the local mogul Leo Corrigan said to Larry Kelly, “This is better than My Fair Lady.” Kelly immediately named him chairman of the board. Maria Callas sang Medea here the day after Rudolph Bing fired her from the Metropolitan for insubordination. Dallas was at the heady center of the international music world for a moment or two.
In the intervening decades, Dallas has turned itself into—by my modest estimation—this country’s fifth-most important opera city, after New York (with its two companies), Chicago, San Francisco, and neighboring Houston. Much of the style of the city and its arts organizations has changed during these years. It’s unlikely that the local conservative forces would raise a fuss over a controversial performer or production. When the company staged Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (2000), this famously discordant expressionist 12-tone work played to enthusiastic, almost-full houses for all of its four performances.
Glitterati no longer count the start of the social season by their late-autumn appearance in the long-gone Dallas Morning News’ rotogravure Sunday fold-out section, with designer photos of local patrons decked to the nines in jewelry and furs, with their children in tow, lounging in glamorous houses, getting ready for opening night. The Dallas Morning News barely exists, and its rotogravure section has vanished, replaced by such august glossy entities as Paper City and Park Cities People. Somehow, these don’t quite strike the same note, and, anyway, they don’t cover high culture. When I arrived here, those old patrons embodied all the clichés about Texas wealth. Things are more tasteful now. As in opera houses everywhere, you see just as many men wearing jeans and no ties, and ladies in slacks and flats, as you see suits and women in big hair and ball gowns. Democracy has triumphed. I am nostalgic, at least a little, for the old days. Out-and-out vulgarity had a lot to recommend it.
Several big, but not insuperable, problems face the Dallas Opera. The first will be finding an appropriate, permanent head, with the personal charm, business savvy, and physical health necessary for a CEO-type position. And the person must also know and love music. The second is the whole gamut of perennial financial problems—now much exacerbated—of producing this most expensive of collaborative art forms. The Opera will expand its season next year by 50 percent. Instead of five productions with four performances each, there will be five productions with six productions each. Singers do not work at a discount, nor will they get paid less just because they are singing to fewer people in a smaller, more acoustically sound house. The six performances, if sold out, will produce as much revenue in the new house as four performances in the old house. Ticket sales have never come close to paying all the bills, however, so more fundraising, at both the corporate and the private levels, will have to take up the slack. Can opera survive a downturn? Symphony orchestras everywhere, most recently the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, are doing badly; opera companies, like the New York City Opera, even worse.
One piece of good news for would-be opera-goers, and for possible new (read: younger) audiences is that tickets for the highest tier in the hall will be kept low, although the fanciest seats are going to cost more. In a good small house, because sound rises, pouring upward and outward, the best seats are often those in “the gods.” So young people, students, everyone on a budget will be able to hear—and see!—as well as, or better than, people down below. The back wall of the highest balcony at the Winspear is as far from the stage as the front row of the balcony at Fair Park. An art form that began in Italy around 1600 amid cozy surroundings will finally have appropriate modern intimacy in Dallas.
The wonders of the Winspear will include technical resources unavailable at Fair Park and also, owing to backstage size and construction, the ability to store sets for different productions in the wings. Next season Dallas will begin to do what Houston and even Fort Worth, not to mention the first-rung companies, have long been doing: opera in repertory. In winter and spring of 2010, two pairs of operas will have overlapping performances. The big draw of this, of course, is not for the locals, but for out-of-towners who might want to come here for a weekend and do Dallas: catch two operas plus the requisite dining, shopping, and museum-hopping that might turn the city into more of a tourist destination spot than it has been. (Starting in the 2010 season, the single opera will be sandwiched between the two pairs, one in the fall and the other in the spring.)
For 2009-2010, the Opera is offering a tentative compromise between conservative, tried-and-true programming, and something more daring. The season opens in October with a hard-to-bring-off masterpiece. In the spring, it will give the world premiere of—thar she blows!–Moby-Dick, by the hot young composer Jake Heggie, whose 2000 Dead Man Walking is frequently performed. Otherwise, it will be business as usual: Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and (semi-yawn) Madama Butterfly.
The company has claimed that 46 percent of its audience is under the age of 35. Sitting downstairs at the Music Hall, one would never suspect as much; perhaps they are all up in the nosebleed section. But if this figure is accurate, and if the percentage holds true, then Dallas Opera has been doing something right. It has attracted a new generation of opera-goers. And if the level of artistry remains high (this just in: the 2010 season will open on October 22 with a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni starring matinee idol and Tony winner Paulo Szot), then perhaps hopes, too, will remain legitimately high for the next 52-year chapter. Jonathan Pell speaks like a booster, but also like someone who knows the truth, when he says, “At last the company has a home worthy of its legendary reputation.”
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