Here's a tale of woe, a leadership-attendance-programming-income crisis
besetting a small regional company that's symptomatic of opera's problems
the world over.
When David Sloss announced on June 14 that he will quit as general
director of West Bay Opera, he made the resignation effective at the
end of the week, just four days away. A leading figure at the Palo Alto
company for a quarter century, Sloss took the top spot a year after the
death of Maria Holt in 1996. (She and her husband, the conductor Henry
Holt, founded the company in 1956.) With West Bay Opera about to celebrate
its 50th year, Sloss' move was sudden and surprising, but the announcement
gave no reason for the resignation.
Last week, another WBO resignation, that of Ali Jennings as the company's
business administrator, gave more of an insight into the problem. Wrote
Jennings about the reason for her action: "It is a decision that did not
come easily, but I, like David Sloss, cannot support the direction the
Board has decided to take. Without him, WBO will just not be the same."
Classical Voice asked WBO Board President Riva Bacon for comment, and
she said Sloss' resignation came after the board voted to cut his proposed
budget by about 20%, in order to reduce the deficit. "(Sloss) stated
that the cuts would not allow continuation of his artistic vision and
that he would resign," Bacon said, adding that the former general director
"ended each year (under his management) with a deficit."
From a reserve fund of $214,000 in 1998, and after "depletion of an
(unrestricted) $204,000 donation (most likely) meant to be an endowment
fund, which he used for operating expenses," Sloss - according to Bacon
- produced deficits, ranging from $23,500 to $146,000. (Those following
the fortunes of San Francisco Opera and other large companies during the
same period are familiar with significant financial difficulties caused
in part by the transition from general economic and Dotcom boom to bust,
especially in such a high-tech area as WBO's home, although the company's
audience/income slide began before then.)
Another divisive issue was Sloss' programming, which called attention
to West Bay Opera from the Bay Area, but apparently didn't do well
locally. Although calling Sloss' choices of operas (which included
Britten's "The Turn of the Screw," Meachem's "Tartuffe," Weill's
"Mahagonny," and Menotti's "The Consul") "artistically interesting,"
Bacon says they resulted in a drop in the subscription base. "In eight
years, subscriptions went from 1,012 to 657, a drop of about 35%.
Attendance in general decreased from 95% to 69%."
Board member and staff volunteer Stan Ulrich says that "Programming was
not an issue in Sloss' departure - it was all fiscal, a matter of solvency.
He proposed programming, which was then discussed in repeated committee
meetings, and then revised and approved by the Board. We don't know all
the reasons for the drop-off in subscriptions. I wish we did. My view
is that Sloss' repertoire was well balanced, but then, I may not be a
Bacon charges that Sloss "continued to hire predominantly experienced
singers, many living outside of California while the company's Mission
Statement specifies focusing on the community. He wanted to turn WBO
into a regional company without addressing the financial changes it would
require." (Singers' fees tripled from Holt's last year to 2002.) Apparently,
the dispute split the company down the middle, Sloss' "expensive vision"
getting important support. Besides Sloss, his wife (the company's
volunteer bookkeeper and casting assistant), and Jennings, three board
members resigned as well (although Bacon says two will continue to support
the company in other ways).
The board in place is searching for a new general director while continuing
operations and attempting to stabilize finances. The upcoming 50th
season (programmed by Sloss, of course) aims to present Mozart's "The
Magic Flute," Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," and Stravinsky's "The Rake's
Progress." The Website is www.wbopera.org.
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