Building to a Crescendo

Dallas Opera was once the toast of the nation. Now it is reaching for that high note again.

In the end, the quality of a performance on any given night--how movingly the leads translated the material, how powerfully they sent their voices through the opera hall--is not the simple, if subjective, yardstick in judging opera companies.

When experts and aficionados rank the world's best companies, they point to more concrete criteria: how many productions they stage a year, how many performances are held each season, the company's ability to draw the opera world's leading performers and brightest stars, the hall in which the opera is staged, the quality of the orchestra, the ability of management to discover rising young talent.

When Patrick Smith, the editor of Opera News, and Mark Scorca, the head of Opera America (the organization to which most of the country's professional companies belong), insist that Dallas Opera is among the 10 finest in the United States, it is upon that criteria they hang their praise.

"I can say the Dallas Opera has, from any perspective, a tremendous track record of growth in terms of numbers of productions, numbers of performances, and numbers of audience members," says Scorca, who has worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. "And there is artistic growth, as well, as measured by American works produced there and world premieres staged there. And it is all done in the context of sound fiscal management."

The current season, which began in November with Puccini's immortal La Boheme and concludes in February with a staging of the Gershwins' mainstay Porgy and Bess, was the first time Dallas Opera expanded its number of productions from five to six; similarly, the number of performances blossomed from 16 in 1990 to 34 this year. And though that's a far cry from the more than 20 productions and 200 performances held at the Met, it's also considerably more than most opera companies in the country.

When La Boheme opened the season, it was with a new staging from wildly erratic film director Herbert Ross, responsible for the critically praised Pennies from Heaven and the panned Footloose. And Dominick Argento's The Dream of Valentino made its Southwestern debut on the Music Hall stage this year--notable not simply for its prestige, but for the bad reviews that followed.

And it was in Dallas where opera's reigning female superstar, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, performed in 1993--long before she appeared on the Metropolitan Opera stage. Such a coup recalled Dallas Opera's glory days, when the likes of Dame Joan Sutherland and a 19-year-old Placido Domingo made their North American debuts here, or when Franco Zeffirelli, who rose to fame as the director of Romeo and Juliet, served as stage designer on a number of productions.

But Dallas Opera has its faults, some that may be insurmountable. Dallas Opera needs a new home, a better orchestra, more performances and an even wider variety of productions. As David Littlejohn, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an opera expert, points out in his book The Ultimate Art, Dallas does not fit the bill of an international company because it does not have the capability to stage 10 different operas and 40 performances a year.

A major hurdle to growth is the Music Hall in Fair Park, which has been roundly condemned--by performers such as Bartoli, by architects, and by the Dallas Opera management itself--as "a facility as acoustically dismal as it [is] sprawling," as former Dallas Symphony Association executive director Leonard Stone once described it.

These are all criticisms Dallas Opera general manager Plato Karayanis has heard since arriving here more than 17 years ago. He is well aware they are the things that separate a good local opera company from a great international one--in effect, Dallas 1990 from Dallas 1960.

"What we are trying to do [is] for not only our audience currently, but also to perpetuate the art form into the 21st century and beyond," Karayanis says. "The vision we came up with was opera for the 21st century--new initiatives, new audiences for a new world. The opera going into the 21st century has to be something that builds on an audience and sustains their interest."

But he is constrained, he says, by a budget that allows only limited flexibility. The Dallas Opera operated on a budget of $8.6 million for the 1994-1995 season--up from $4.8 million just four years ago.

Among the 115 professional companies that belong to Opera America, Dallas ranks in the top 20 when it comes to annual budget--or at the Level One, as Opera America classifies it, the cut-off point being $5 million or more. But Dallas Opera is not among the top 10, ranking below the Met, San Francisco, the New York City Opera, Chicago, and even Seattle and Houston in spending. The Met's operating budget for this year alone is $134 million, with more than half of the revenue coming from ticket sales.

Almost every dollar that comes in to Dallas Opera this year--$4.1 million from ticket sales, $4.1 million from private and corporate donations, $114,000 from the city, and more than $260,000 from other miscellaneous income--goes out almost immediately. A majority of the money, more than $5.5 million, is spent on the productions themselves, from hiring the performers to paying the orchestra to constructing and hauling sets. The rest of the Dallas Opera's income is spent on promoting the company, paying the management, and operating the Music Hall.

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