Classical Music

Keith Cerny's Plot to Save the Dallas Opera, One Dollar, and One Diva, at a Time

The Dallas Opera's current production of Aida opens the company's fourth season inside the still shiny and new Winspear Opera House. The company has had some financial woes during the transition from its previous home at Fair Park. In 2011, facing substantial deficits, TDO announced it would cut back the number of productions per season until it could get its fiscal house in order.

The plan was to produce only three main-stage operas per season, with a chamber opera added every other year. Last year's chamber opera, Peter Maxwell Davies' chillingly beautiful work, The Lighthouse, proved that in addition to being smaller and less expensive to produce, chamber operas are also an innovative and interesting artistic genre to explore. Unfortunately, this year marks the "other" part of "every other year," leaving Dallas opera-lovers with slim pickings this season.

Last week, amidst the excitement of the impending opening night of Aida, I sat down with The Dallas Opera's CEO and General Manager, Keith Cerny, inside the company's offices. I wanted to check in on the financial and artistic status of the organization and find out when we can expect to see a fuller roster of programming.

Cerny started with the good news. "In the first three years at the Winspear," he explained, "we raised more than 46 million dollars when you include operating, endowment and money raised for the company's offices inside the Winspear." He went on: "That 46 million dollars is nearly double what we raised in the last three years at Fair Park. So the community has been extraordinarily generous with us."

See also: The Dallas Opera's Aida at the Winspear: Good on Paper, Bad in Bed

Cerny is particularly proud of the endowment the company has built, which currently stands at nearly $25 million. That's a big jump from TDO's historical endowment balance of less than $5 million, a number Cerny points out was "much too little."

The annual distribution from this endowment accounts for about a third of the opera's income stream, with the other two-thirds coming from ticket sales and money raised from donors. "So," Cerny said, "we're very pleased with the total amount of funds we raise and we're very pleased that we now have a meaningful endowment for the company."

But that leaves the bad news. Namely, that the company has faced deficits in the last two seasons.

"Last year we had a planned deficit of 1.9 million dollars. We beat that by around $460,000 so we had an actual deficit of 1.4 million dollars for 2011/2012," he said. "That is significantly better than the $4 million deficit we had the year before. We have cut back expenses significantly. We had to cut staff, which is never an easy thing to do but we had to do it, and, for now, we've cut back programming."

Cerny was quick to point out that they are trying to cushion the cut backs in big productions with a variety of less expensive programming options. In February, they will put on two free performances of Lee Holby's loving parody of Julia Childs, Bon Appétit, at the Dallas Farmers Market.

"We're also doing a lot more recitals," he went on. "We just had Laura Claycomb here. We have Rod Gilfry singing his cabaret act in November. We're bringing in distinguished composers. We had Todd Machover here recently and we're bringing in two other very prominent composers later this year. So we're doing a lot wrapped around those three operas."

The target date for the company to hit the black is the 2014-15 season, but Cerny and the board are actively pursuing a "special campaign" to meet their goals sooner. There are no plans to expand programming until finances until those goals are met, so Cerny seems to be almost singularly focused on balancing the budget.

It's no surprise that an opera company would find itself in a financial bind these days. The recession has left arts organizations around the country short on cash, and opera companies in particular have been hit hard. So how much does your average opera production cost?

"Well," Cerny said, "if we were to build a new production we could spend a million dollars on sets and costumes without trying hard. For chamber opera, a new production might be a few hundred thousand."

Seating is an issue, too. The Music Hall at Fair Park seats upwards of 3,000, while the Winspear is limited to just over 2,000. If TDO wants to sell around 12,000 tickets to any given production, they now have to put on six performances rather than four. With performers often paid per-night, the cost increase is significant.

Cerny was very clear that the issue of limited performances is not a facilities issue. "We have the contractual right to perform up to six operas a year the way our facilities use agreement is structured with the AT&T Performing Arts Center. So the space isn't going away."

And while the opera is essentially a tenant in ATTPAC's building, Cerny was clear that the facilities agreement he negotiated (about an 85-page document) is fair. Rent, Cerny said, is not the problem because "the deficits [TDO] has experienced are in no way the result of excessive rent."

"When we moved into this facility, there was a very conscious effort to take our artistic standard even higher. We are bringing in stronger casts, more sophisticated and elaborate productions, and taking advantage of all of the bells and whistles available back stage in this very modern facility."

Bringing the company's artistic standard to a higher level is something Cerny speaks passionately about. In particular, he's dedicated to bringing in new commissions and expanding TDO's commitment to 20th and 21st century opera.

"What I've been very careful of," he said, "and what we need to continue to do as a company, is make sure our artistic standard is very, very high. I'm very proud that even in a time when we've had to cut back, we've maintained or even increased the artistic quality of what we do."