The Dallas Opera begins its third season at the Winspear this month on a somber, if not exactly a flat, note.Over the summer, the company canceled a production, Leos Janacek’s 1921 masterpiece, Katya Kabanova, which it had staged once before, beautifully, in 1997. The Dallas Opera must figure that a prudent amputation is better than losing a patient’s life.

No matter what boosters will tell you, the arts are not exactly thriving anywhere. Things have not gone well for most arts organizations over the past few years. Revenues are down; staffs are being cut; changes are being made. In Dallas, opera might have suffered the most. It is expensive to produce under the best of conditions, especially now that “the visuals” cost almost as much as the singers. But The Dallas Opera incurred additional costs by moving the company to the Winspear Opera House. Not only is the venue itself more expensive to operate, but now the company has just 2,200 seats to sell, where once it had more than 3,400 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Instead of four performances, the company must stage six to accommodate the same number of patrons. More performances require more labor. Stage hands don’t work for free.

Given August’s grim, swooping and leaping, gyrating turmoil on Wall Street, people may buy even fewer seats now than before. When the going gets tough, the customers go home. From my experience, The Dallas Opera can’t afford much slippage. Last spring I was riveted, for four hours, during two performances of the company’s first production of Boris Godunov. Not so, other attendees. Each time, the house was not entirely full at the start of the first act. Two hours later, following the single intermission, the house was even less full. People applauded on their way to the parking lots after a long Act 1.

To say the least, then, The Dallas Opera stands at a pivotal moment. What is the future for the company in its second half century? I sat down last spring with Keith Cerny, general director and CEO, as he was finishing his first year at the helm, to find out. This was before the latest wounds. How, I wondered, will a man with a Ph.D. in econometrics keep the Winspear humming?

With a long, expressive, engaging face (think of Ray Bolger), and a calm, engaging self-presentation, Cerny combines gravitas with youthfulness. He tends not to betray emotion. He measures his words thoughtfully, but he has no aura of self-importance, let alone heaviness. He looks younger than 48, more like a boyish dad, which he is, than a head honcho. His four sons—8, 10, 12, and 17—all attend public schools. With his British wife, Jennifer, he has happily settled into a 90-year-old house in tree-shaded Highland Park. And he has taken over the reins of The Dallas Opera at both the best and worst of times.

The best? Now that the company has established itself in the Winspear, it has found it easier to engage top-notch vocalists who would otherwise be at least reluctant, and perhaps totally disinclined, to perform in Fair Park. When the baritone slated to sing the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto last spring backed out at the 11th hour, Cerny and Jonathan Pell, the company’s artistic director, persuaded the Italian Paolo Gavanelli to modify his schedule and come to Dallas. The results were excellent. Opera companies must plan well in advance. (One of Cerny’s first moves was to put The Dallas Opera on a five-year schedule, rather than three, in order to accommodate both artists and costs.) Last-minute glitches always occur; singers get sick and cancel. The Winspear’s fame helped save the day last spring.

The worst? Budgets. Money. It’s what every artistic CEO must think about. Luckily, Cerny comes to us with talents on both sides of his brain and complementary credentials. He grew up in Berkeley, not in a musical family. At 7 he already knew he wanted to play the piano; he also sang. In college he majored in physics and music. And to top it off, he earned an MBA degree from Harvard, as well as a doctoral dissertation on option pricing theory. He worked, sometimes merely in an advisory capacity, for seven other opera companies, including San Francisco’s, before heading to Dallas. Like any other suit, he sprinkles his conversation with words like “brand,” “structure,” and “initiatives,” but coming from his lips the lingo of the board room sounds neither pompous nor boring, just part of the process needed to get the product (opera) and its message (sales) out to the buyers (audience).

The days are long gone when Larry Kelly and Nicola Rescigno, with the blessings of Maria Callas as a fairy godmother, could come to Dallas from Chicago without (as my grandfather would say) “a pot to piss in” and exclaim, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes in Arms: “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” Grand Opera is Big Business and requires more than a wing and a prayer to keep alive. And The Dallas Opera has had money problems before now. In 1970, Dallas Civic Opera—the name of the earlier incarnation—racked up a $1 million deficit. Checks bounced. When Helga Dernesch, the great Austrian soprano, arrived in the fall of 1971 to start rehearsals for her American debut, in Beethoven’s Fidelio, her first words were, “Where is check and where is bank?”

There have been some pretty rough spots during the past few years for the company as well. In 2008, George Steel came and then decamped for New York within five months. Last May, the stalwart Graeme Jenkins, The Dallas Opera’s music director for 17 seasons, who has molded the orchestra into a splendid ensemble, said he would not return when his current contract ends in the 2012-2013 season.

song_02 The Dallas Opera’s production of Boris Godunov photography courtesy of the Dallas Opera

This past year at the Winspear had moments of transcendence and moments of ordinariness. Such is to be expected. The season, as befits Dallas tastes, tended to the safe and conservative side: so-so productions of Don Giovanni, Anna Bolena, and Roméo et Juliette, but then the dazzling Rigoletto and the awesome Boris Godunov. Notice: nothing avant garde or discordant.

I talked to Cerny about audiences, how to build them, keep them, challenge as well as entertain them. I learned a lot. For example, 25 years ago, two-thirds of opera companies’ revenues came from ticket sales. Now it’s about one-third, at best. Development and endowment, not ticket buyers, keep a house in the black. And another thing: although opera seems to appeal to the old, the gray, and the wealthy, opera audiences really are no grayer than they ever were, and it’s important that they remain gray, because that’s where the money is. People in their 50s, with children away from home, perhaps out of college and off the payroll, are the ones who need to be cultivated for gifts.

The Dallas Opera has announced a seven-figure deficit for the fiscal year just past (the estimated shortfall is between $3.8 and $4 million). But it also raised $1.25 million in a special appeal last July and has secured an additional $3.5 million in multiyear commitments. The projected 2011-12 deficit will be smaller, and the company has plans to get back into the black at the end of the 2014-15 season. Next season, in addition to chucking one entire production, it will cut down on the number of performances of three of the operas. Only Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s The Magic Flute, tried-and-true audience-pleasers, will get a full roster of six performances. Any junior high school student will tell you that this reduction will cut revenues as well as costs, but Cerny must figure that it’s worth doing.And as for attracting tomorrow’s graybeards? Cerny is working on several fronts, juggling several balls. He’s looking into an annual concert series, and into doing two free, public simulcasts next season, similar to what the Met does through HD broadcasts into movie theaters around the world. Ours will be at local sports venues. Cerny didn’t say where. Don’t expect 100,000 new opera-goers at Cowboys Stadium, he warns, but something more modest: “This will get us out into the community.” And—best of all for a marketer—The Dallas Opera gets several enormous mailing lists of sports fans. Cerny acknowledges the HD broadcast in a ballpark doesn’t automatically translate into ticket sales for the Winspear, but it’s a “public benefit-oriented event.” You’ve got to admire the jargon. In plain English: stuff like this builds awareness. It makes a bid to produce an investment that will pay off not right away but decades from now. Especially when music education in most public schools has taken a real hit, maybe beer and Bizet, hot dogs and Handel, can work some magic. After all, at NorthPark simulcasts from the Met, we can have popcorn and Puccini.

song_03 Paolo Gavanelli in Rigoletto and George Steel photography: Steel by Sean McCormack; Rigoletto courtesy of the Dallas Opera

Apart from the Janacek cancellation, The Dallas Opera has announced some intriguing programming for 2011-12. In collaboration with the Dallas Theater Center, across the street at the Wyly Theatre, the company will mount three performances of Peter Maxwell Davies’ chamber opera The Lighthouse, a work both musically innovative and fairly short. We’ll also get, next year, the company’s second production (the first was 35 years ago) of Wagner’s revolutionary Tristan und Isolde, but now only semistaged. Not much actually happens in Wagner, anyway, at least for the eye; the lovers and other characters in Tristan spend a lot of their time just standing onstage, bemoaning their fates. The Dallas Opera has re-engaged Elaine McCarthy, who did the brilliant computer-generated projections for the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick last year. Light staging and projections—“light” in two senses—will cost less than renting costumes and sets.

One thing Cerny doesn’t want opera to be is “fussy.” Going after students, young people, new audiences is all well and good. But the advertising that the marketing gurus have generated might astound and annoy even someone lacking old fogey status. In print, we see this for next season: “Lucia di Lammermoor: Dead Men DO Wear Plaid.” And “La Traviata: Let’s Party Like It’s 1849!” And on the radio, you may recall the far from fetching interchange last March advertising Rigoletto: “It’s about a jester”; “Surely, you jest”; “Don’t call me Shirley.” Fort Worth Opera is even worse, with so-called “real” conversations between timid, scared first-time opera-goers who need reassurance that everything will be all right. I am not a stuffy fuddy-duddy, but these people sound—not to put too fine a word on it—imbecilic.

My question to Cerny: aren’t these radio spots demeaning and condescending, not just to the art form but to the potential audiences who are being insulted as crude and barbaric by the very group trying to woo them? He said that even in San Francisco, the supposedly more sophisticated city on the hill, similar ads produced positive results. The public loved them. Go figure. I guess people like being talked down to; it calms their nerves rather than insults their intelligence.

Of all the arts, opera is the costliest because it is the most collaborative. Demographically, its audiences are older than those at the symphony. Audiences for dance, even ballet, are younger still. One understands why: dance gives you bodies in motion. It’s sex onstage. And neither dance nor orchestral music threatens to take as much of your time as an evening of “Grand” (horrible adjective) Opera. The businessmen, creative people, and the patrons who hold the purse strings must work together to keep what was a lively popular form in the 19th century, the age of most operatic masterpieces, alive. If ads that seem vulgar to an academic like me will do the trick, I’ll be happy to reap the benefit of their success. If ramping up revenues requires dumbing down advertising, so be it.

Whatever works, works. In arts organizations, what has worked best and most, until now, is longevity. And this presents a real problem today. The late Peter Marzio directed the Houston Museum of Fine Arts for nearly 30 years. He built up relations with local donors; he increased the stature of a great museum. Ditto David Gockley, who turned the Houston Grand Opera into an internationally acclaimed company, famous for new commissions and premieres, during his even longer tenure, until 2005, when he left for San Francisco. Going farther afield, we find the conductor James Levine, however faltering, in his 40th year at the Metropolitan Opera. Philippe de Montebello held the reins at the Metropolitan Museum for three decades.

No Dallas arts organization has had the good luck or the luxury of such lengthy directorship. Keith Cerny won’t stay here for 30 years. The question is: can he, and other arts leaders, work their miracles in shorter time spans? One of Cerny’s fans is Arlene Dayton, a major arts patron who has worked for just about every organization in town. She calls Cerny “knowledgeable in music, management, and finance, a strategic thinker with ideas and plans about how this opera company should look in the 21st century.” She is playing her cards close to her vest. Major musical organizations across the country—the estimable Philadelphia Orchestra and George Steel’s New York City Opera most prominently—are beginning to totter or sink. Some will disappear. Cerny and The Dallas Opera will succeed if they deliver the kind of product, and nurture the kinds of audiences, they want and need. And if they can do this while also living within their fiscal means, then they will have made an important statement about the artistic value of economic prudence.

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