A Tale of Two Operas

Cleveland opera and Lyric Opera have become Opera Cleveland, and opera lovers can't wait to see what happens next.

One day in late April, Jonathon Field, former artistic director of Lyric Opera Cleveland, was on his way to buy wine goblets for a new production when his new colleague, Maidie Rosengarden, stopped him.

“If you need 10 goblets, we probably have 10,000,” she said. “Swords, shields, spears, you name it. We’ve got them all.”

“We” used to mean Cleveland Opera, for which Rosengarden was director of production. Now it means Opera Cleveland, the troupe formed when Cleveland Opera and Lyric Opera merged on April 5.

In addition to pooling resources, other changes are afoot as Opera Cleveland sets out.
Almost without exception, the folks behind the scenes are energized and optimistic, convinced their efforts will lead to something noteworthy. History is being made, and they know it.

Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, the national service organization for operas, knows of only one other operatic merger: In 1975, two Philadelphia troupes formed what is now Opera Company of Philadelphia. But that was 30 years ago, so Opera Cleveland doesn’t have a recent model to imitate.

Already, the merger has produced some awkward moments. Catherine Guin, director of marketing and public relations, smiles as she recalls the board of trustees’ first meeting in April. “Legally speaking,” she says, “we weren’t sure how to open when we didn’t even have a president yet.” Their solution was to nominate a temporary president, who resigned once the body officially elected Peter Rubin.

Rubin, president, owner and CEO of the Coral Co., says he’s leading “the financially healthiest opera company in America,” one with zero debt, manageable operating expenses and a modest endowment. Two companies that were “viable” independently, at least in the short term, have now combined into one that is “right-sized.”

All of these are notable achievements in the realm of opera, a notoriously expensive art form that’s often a giant money loser. Rubin likes to illustrate this point during pre-performance speeches by holding up a chair sawed in half, demonstrating that ticket prices cover only half the company’s budget. Grants and private gifts make up the rest.

It helps the new company that Cleveland Opera revenue was up 7 percent last year without an increase in ticket prices, while the number of tickets sold had increased 24 percent. (This was because each production was extended to run over two weekends, giving people time to tell their friends or go see it again.) This was a welcome change from the previous five seasons, in which sales declined an average of 10 percent each season.

Bold moves, especially those in the artistic realm, hold out the possibility for dramatic success, but they can also be profound flops. In this case, too, some fear the two companies’ unique identities will get lost in the whole. Cleveland Opera presented major works of the standard repertoire while Lyric Opera specialized in smaller, lesser-known or more unusual works.

The merger will certainly result in fewer operas in Cleveland — the number of grand operas per season is to be halved from four to two. Meanwhile, the new company will continue presenting three smaller-scale operas per year, just as Lyric Opera Cleveland did. There will be at least six performances apiece of the “Lyric” operas.

Season ticket-holders at Cleveland Opera will notice a drop in their subscription prices while Lyric Opera subscribers will see a slight increase. It’s also likely the new company’s season calendar tilt more heavily to spring and summer, when Lyric Opera Cleveland traditionally came alive.

But even if it’s painful to let go of two full productions, the potential benefits are easy to see: Opera Cleveland is a surer bet for the future than either component organization was individually.
“If this means they’re a robust company sure to exist in 10 years, that’s a definite plus,” Opera America’s Scorca says.

Other possible upsides include better quality and greater diversity of repertoire. With fewer operas, each show would have an increased budget for talent, sets and costumes. Field, who is now artistic director of Opera Cleveland, says he plans to invest his portion of the new company’s $4.2 million budget in singers, conductors and orchestral players stronger than those Lyric Opera Cleveland could typically afford. They won’t be stars, but they should be artists whose careers are on the rise.

Repertoire will change because it finally can. The majority of Opera Cleveland professional performances — 18 of 26 — will be staged at Cleveland Play House, while the remaining eight will be at the larger venue of Playhouse Square. Not having to fill a mammoth theater as often unlocks a range of titles that are more intimate and, for Cleveland, more adventurous. At the same time, the new company can approach both large- and small-scale productions with the artistic freedom and intensity that follows when there’s more financial wiggle room.

Rosengarden tosses out a tantalizing list of composers whose operas have traditionally been off-limits to both Cleveland Opera and Lyric Opera Cleveland because they’re too expensive, challenging or avant-garde for either company to mount: Handel, Strauss, Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass. There’s also the lingering possibility of contemporary works such as the one Opera Cleveland staged soon after the merger, Paul Dresher’s “The Tyrant.”

“It’s nice to now be able to consider everything from traditional, baroque, modern and light opera, even musical theater,” says Rosengarden, Opera Cleveland’s director of production.
Field’s partner from Lyric Opera Cleveland, Cliff Wilson, says he feels elated these days. His job in production services is much easier since he’s gained access to Cleveland Opera’s set shop and costume warehouse and its larger staff.

“It’s like going from a one-man show to a fully-staged show with many characters,” he says.
Field is more reserved in his assessment. He believes the merger was the most sensible option, but he wants to make sure the new company adds up to more than the sum of its parts. “I’m pretty optimistic,” he says. “I’ve got a lot more committee meetings now, but I’m looking forward to working with all the new people. They’re all bright and the exchange of ideas should be good.”

Opera Cleveland raises its first curtain in April 2007.

“Be excited,” Rosengarden says. “It’s a new model, and if we’re successful, we’ll have everyone in Cleveland admitting that opera is their guilty passion.”

Share this story: