Business

How Keith Cerny Mended The Dallas Opera

The Harvard Business School grad used his background to help the organization grow its audience.

The newly opened Winspear Opera House worked like a spinning lure on a hungry bass in attracting Keith Cerny to The Dallas Opera, which had churned through five leaders in the decade before his arrival. Cerny assumed the general director and CEO positions in May 2010, becoming both the business and artistic head of the company. Upon his arrival he was thrilled by “this amazing building with its extraordinary performance space and almost legendary acoustics” and “these amazing offices where we spend our time,” he recalls, reminiscing there one recent day in a sunlight-flooded, glass-walled conference room.

Just six weeks into the job, however, the musically trained, Harvard Business School graduate discovered that some big problems were lurking beneath the Winspear’s shiny new surfaces. Some were years in the making, some were a result of the Great Recession, others were a byproduct of the Winspear itself—the way the new house cut into the opera’s economies of scale. When the Arts District venue opened in October 2009, its seating capacity of 2,200 was 1,220 seats smaller than Fair Park Music Hall, the company’s former home. The Winspear had higher production and operating costs as well.

(left) The 2016 season included the production of Massenet’s “Manon.” (right) Opera singers perform Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” during the 2014 season.

“The organization was perilously short of cash, and in fact was going to run out of cash in the fall of 2010,” Cerny says. To tide the company over for that season—which had been planned several years earlier—he struck a deal with The Dallas Opera Foundation for a loan of up to $3.5 million, which bought him time to figure out a longer-range solution.

In July 2011, Cerny gave his board’s executive and finance committees a look at what would become his bold new plan for the organization. He proposed canceling the fall performance of the opera “Katya Kabanova,” and reducing—at least in the short run—the number of works to be presented  each year. He set out a multiyear plan to return the company to balanced budgets, and to gradually grow it back to its five-productions-a-year output.  At the same time, he proposed the company commission and stage a new work by American composer Jake Heggie, a seed that would grow into the world premier of “Great Scott” in 2015.

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Cerny escorts a VIP through the Winspear Opera House.

While the cancellation of the Leos Jancecek “Katya” opera was greeted with disappointment in the opera world, Cerny’s two-pronged strategy—cutting costs while creating new projects to excite and inspire donors and supporters—has proved to be a smart one.

“It showed this organization was totally serious about rethinking its business model, and it was a point of credibility on which we began raising all this money,” Cerny recalls. “It generated many millions of dollars. I had Inner Circle members [donors of $3,000 or more] coming up to me saying, ‘Keith, you should run for Congress. We need this kind of thinking in Washington.’”

Beyond setting The Dallas Opera on the road to balanced budgets—which have been realized in each of the past four years—Cerny redirected the company’s artistic focus in a way that was probably unthinkable before its budget crisis. “We had a reputation nationally for having very good singers and very conservative programming—a conservative model,” says Cerny of the company, which is now in its 60th season. “The silver lining of that financial crisis, that 12 to 18 months, was that I was able to make a case that we needed to change direction on an artistic level. The board agreed that the old model had put us in a very precarious position.”

Cerny’s new formula has been to construct each season out of two or three classics—such as this season’s “Madame Butterfly” and “Eugene Onegin”—as well as several contemporary works, including the occasional commissioned premier. He similarly put an accent on cutting-edge visual projections, new stagings, simulcasts, and special programs—such as an institute for up-and-coming women conductors—that, taken as a whole, put The Dallas Opera on a new artistic trajectory.

Opera America, the art form’s premier organization in the United States, is bringing its annual conference to Dallas May 4-8, largely in recognition of some of the new programs Cerny has instituted, says Marc Scorca, the Opera America president and CEO. “Keith has moved the company from being locally focused to again being an opera company of national and international stature,” Scorca says. There have been other benefits—hard-nosed financial ones—to Cerny’s approach as well.

It’s one of the ironies of American opera today that a company that puts on a season of classic operas will draw traditional opera-goers and sell a lot of tickets—and at the same time jeopardize that company’s underlying financial health. Cerny, who gives considerable thought to these matters in Dallas and also as a former chair of Opera America’s strategy committee, says that is because ticket sales typically cover only 20 to 25 percent of a company’s budget. And while ticket sales have not grown, costs have steadily increased. “This means we have to raise an enormous amount of money each year,” he says.

Of the nearly $19 million in revenue The Dallas Opera identified in its 2016 financial report, grants and contributions made up about $15 million. Cerny says that foundations and corporate donors, and increasingly individual donors, “don’t want to see an arrogant, ivory tower opera company. Nobody’s interested in that anymore, no matter who’s singing. I could hire Caruso and they’d still not be interested.

“They may be interested in who’s singing ‘Madame Butterfly,’ and we’ll share that, but what they really want to know is how are you engaging the community. Are you helping young people? Are you developing the next generation of talent? What are the demographics of the audience you are reaching?”

As for constructing a season, there is an emphasis on new works to turn opera back into a living art form. “It’s rare that a donor will say, ‘Gee, I really want to underwrite a ‘Tosca,’’” Cerny explains. “Generally speaking, the donors [accept] the bread and butter repertoire, which we cast with love and do to a very high standard … [But] they’re interested in what’s new.”

All this explains where Cerny has taken The Dallas Opera during his six-plus-year-tenure. “Thirty years ago, you might have had five to eight new works across the country. In 2015, we had three world premieres, and across the field there were 45,” he says. He concedes they won’t all become immortal, but the search for the next great work is a major focus. Ask Cerny what he’s reading and the answer is books that might yield potential ideas for a new opera: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a memoir that explores what it’s like for a medical patient to be aware but unable to move or communicate, and “Blind Descent,” about extreme cave exploration.

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Every year, the Dallas Opera season kicks off with the First Sight fashion show and luncheon.

Donor-friendliness lies behind many of the projects Cerny has led at the company, from his first season onward. A free, October 2010 simulcast at the Annette Strauss Square in the AT&T Performing Arts Center was a first for the company. It was followed up with a free simulcast to 15,000 people at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington in 2012, another at Klyde Warren park in 2013, and another to nine cities in the U.S. and Europe in 2014. Cerny says no company other than The Metropolitan Opera has ever attempted such a wide simulcast.

The February 2014 performance of American composer Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers” highlighted a cutting-edge opera including a dozen robots, a musical chandelier, and giant light displays to go with the live singers and orchestra. With Nicole Paiement on the conducting stand, the performance was the first time in 40 years that a woman has conducted a main-stage opera in Dallas. Paiement was later named the company’s principal guest conductor.

Several more simulcasts have followed, and they’ve become a Cerny staple because of their ability to attract new audiences. Approximately 70,000 people have viewed the dozen or so The Dallas Opera has produced since 2012, with the audience skewing younger and more diverse than for a typical opera performance. They have also led to three major gifts—in the $250,000 to $500,000 range—and attracted not only local donors but Silicon Valley individuals drawn in by the technology involved. In all, Cerny has increased donor support from about $9 million in 2012 to the $15 million the company reported in 2016.

“It’s become the official advice of Opera America: Don’t retreat into your beautiful opera house and cater solely toward your traditional base,” Cerny says. “Think about how you’re going to build support in the community.”

Another of Cerny’s initiatives that has attracted widespread attention is the Hart Institute for Women Conductors, an innovative program for women on the cusp of major careers. The international program, which began in 2015, supports diversity in a field that lacks it and has had at least two notable side effects. It has attracted contributions from donors such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—a multibillion-dollar endowment that has never before been involved with the company—and it has drawn some of the top opera talent in the world to Dallas. “We’ve had a series of well-known conductors come to lend their talents,” Cerny explains. “Very prominent people come talk about everything from personal branding to the executive search process, all these kinds of elements.”

About 70,000 people have viewed the simulcasts that Dallas Opera has produced since 2012, with the audience skewing younger and more diverse.

Raising Dallas’ profile as an innovator helps attract “not only the world’s best singers but directors, composers, set designers. The most prominent artists—they can get paid everywhere,” Cerny says. The key is giving The Dallas Opera the kind of exciting, welcoming profile that makes those artists want to be part of it, he says.

Cerny’s career trajectory suggests he’s been training his entire life to lead a major opera company. It turns out that’s no accident. At age 10 or so, he recalls, he decided leading an opera company would be his life’s goal. As a professor’s kid growing up around the University of California at Berkeley, Cerny taught himself to sing while listening to his parents’ 33 rpm Beatles records. “I had a music teacher in grade school who heard me sing in class and said, “You ought to audition for the San Francisco Boys Chorus,’” he remembers. He went ahead and sang “Eleanor Rigby” for the try-out and made the cut.

Neither his father, a nuclear physicist doing research at the university, nor his mother were musical, but they relented to their son’s “begging” for a piano. Two years later, when he was 12, he could play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The Dallas Opera has gathered large audiences for simulcasts at venues like AT&T Stadium.
The Dallas Opera has gathered large audiences for simulcasts at venues like AT&T Stadium.

Cerny’s musical talent and academic aptitude had him entering Berkeley at age 15, graduating Phi Beta Kappa with degrees in music and physics. Winning both a Fulbright scholarship and a Hearst fellowship, he did graduate work in conducting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. It was in London that he met his wife, Jennifer, who was singing in a university opera chorus.

Cerny, who practices his piano playing frequently, decided that a move to musical administration would require some management training. So in 1989, he was admitted to Harvard Business School, where he majored in finance. Following graduation, he spent the next 15 years in the financial consulting business, working in San Francisco for McKinsey & Co. and Accenture. His clients ranged from Silicon Valley technology and telecom companies to nonprofits, including a number of opera companies struggling to raise funds or balance budgets.

Cerny’s ability to gain control over The Dallas Operas’ finances grew out of that experience. He can wax enthusiastically about having budgets drawn out to “2019, 2020, with a 600-line-item level of detail.”

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Performers debuted “Becoming Santa Claus” during the 2015-2016 season.

“It’s not the kind of topic that gets you lots of people coming up to you at cocktail parties saying, ‘I hear your budgeting is really good at The Dallas Opera,’” he says. “But in fact, opera companies are very complex, and very often their finances get out of control because people don’t really know what their costs are.”

Cerny landed his initial opera-company management position in 2004, at the San Francisco Opera, where he got his first crack at major budget repairs as the executive director and chief financial officer. “I was brought in by the board to design and lead a turnaround, but here also the organization did not really know well enough on the cost side what they had,” he says.

Since coming to Dallas—where, in contrast to San Francisco, he was given full financial and artistic control—Cerny has lent his expertise to other companies such as the San Diego Opera, which was on the verge of closing in 2014.

“It was life and death for us,” says Carol Lazier, president of the San Diego company’s board of directors. “We needed everything. Financial transparency. Better governance. We needed renovation from top to bottom, and he was willing to give us a lot of his time and share his knowledge. The guy knows everything.”

The 54-year-old Cerny can read an opera score as well as a balance sheet and writes a monthly column for TheaterJones on opera and classical music. As rarified as those abilities may seem, one of his most obvious qualities is his affability. “He’s approachable for people who love opera and those maybe only curious about opera,” says Veletta Lill, who worked with Cerny when she was  director of the Dallas Arts District. “He’s pretty comfortable with everybody. He has a fun sense of humor.”

Cerny’s current contract with the company runs through 2022—its federal tax disclosure lists his total annual compensation as $564,318—and he has settled into Dallas life. As Northern California transplants, Cerny, his wife, and their four sons have found their Highland Park neighborhood comfortable enough, except in one regard: “To avoid the inferno of Dallas in July and August,” he says, “we go to our vacation home in Santa Fe.”

The New Mexico retreat allows Cerny to keep up with the opera company there, work on longer-term projects, and relax with his family. Three of his sons are in high school and his youngest, who sings in youth choirs, has as much of a passion for music as he does. Cerny says his father encouraged him to study something “practical,” in case a career in the ultra-competitive world of musical performance didn’t work out. Cerny says he finds himself delivering the same advice to his son.

The opera’s world premiere of “Everest.”
The opera’s world premiere of “Everest.”

Away from work, he likes searching out exceptional restaurants—Geronimo in Santa Fe and Abacus in Dallas are among his favorites—but he says he has as much fun taking his sons to breakfast at Waffle House.

As a teenager, Cerny recalls, he practiced piano five or six hours a day and, in his early 20s, practiced as much as 10 or 11 hours. “It’s never been a labor. I just always have loved playing,” he says. Through a door to his conference room sits a state-of-the-art electric piano he finds himself playing, to an empty meeting room, most mornings. He occasionally sits in on piano for rehearsals as well.

While he’s pushing the art form forward, Cerny says his personal favorites come out of opera’s illustrious past. He could be cast away with Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” he says. As for his favorite performance, it’s more Wagner, at the famous La Scala opera house in Milan: “A ‘Lohengrin’ there a few years ago with [singer] Jonas Kaufmann and [conductor] Daniel Barenboim was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever heard in my life,” Cerny says. “In the famous moment at the end, the whole audience just melted into their seats.”

Comments

  • FOmeOLS

    And yet, no youth orchestra. No outreach to young musicians who have never played a note with a singer, who have no idea of the challenges of working with singers and who have played almost no music of the major composers who wrote mostly opera( Wagner, Puccini, Verdi, Britten)