Opera Adds the Numbers

An elementary equation is key for future success at Cincinnati Opera: 3+1. That's how Managing Director Patricia K. Beggs and key staff members explain things during a recent morning meeting just a

An elementary equation is key for future success at Cincinnati Opera: 3+1. That's how Managing Director Patricia K. Beggs and key staff members explain things during a recent morning meeting just a week after Artistic Director Nicholas Muni abruptly announced his departure.

Three represents the number of familiar or popular productions necessary to make a four-season opera attractive to season subscribers. One is the number of avant-garde production slots per season — works like Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins and Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, which reflect Muni's creative preferences and arguably the best work presented by Cincinnati Opera since his arrival in 1996.

Beggs refers to these avant-garde productions as "stretch" pieces for the Opera, but that's where the ambiguity about the company's future begins.

"Stretch" pieces, by Beggs' standards, also includes traditional operas unfamiliar to Cincinnati Opera audiences, such as The Daughter of the Regiment this past season, or new commissions like next year's Margaret Garner.

No one is going to confuse Margaret Garner with The Maids, composer Peter Bengston's 70-minute minimalist chamber opera based on Jean Genet's play, Les Bonnes. There will be nothing avant-garde about Margaret Garner in terms of staging, music or content.

Yet when it comes to calculating the 3+1 formula, Margaret Garner constitutes that desirable, edgy "one" spot, pushing out a planned revival of Muni's 1998 production of Leos Janacek's Jenufa.

Despite its unanimous acclaim and casting, Jenufa was pulled by the Opera's board of trustees after the recent summer season and replaced with a yet-to-be-scheduled production of the crowd-pleasing The Barber of Seville, keeping the essential 3+1 formula intact.

Challenging operas, like the recent production of The Maids and its companion piece, The Emperor of Atlantis, divide audiences by their risky nature. But no one could have predicted the vitriolic hatred for the 2004 double-bill from audiences and Opera board members — not Beggs and certainly not Muni, whose sudden exit follows bitter complaints about the productions and the final decision to replace his beloved Jenufa with The Barber of Seville.

"I've heard two schools of thought," Beggs says, speaking about reactions. "There are those who thought it was absolutely brilliant, and I'm among that group. There were others who did not like it at all. There was a very strong negative backlash about it as well."

Pages of statistics show a slide from the Opera's peak of 4,696 subscribers in 2000 and total attendance of 30,504 in 2001 to 3,468 subscribers in 2004 with a total of 28,497 patrons.

There is a price to pay for creativity and artistic verve, a financial risk. Arguably, Muni's risk-taking, despite the international acclaim he brought to Cincinnati Opera, was becoming a financial drain. Operas like The Maids weren't attracting the anticipated new subscribers.

When subscribers threaten to leave because there aren't enough operas they want to see in a given season, when donors threaten to hold back much-needed funds because they don't approve of what's being staged, an artistic director sadly has little option but to leave as soon as possible.

Muni, who will serve as an artistic consultant to Cincinnati Opera through August 2005, wasn't available for comment, leaving a number of questions in his wake.

Will avant-garde productions be part of future Opera repertoire? What will happen to the plan for festival programming, staging a variety of operas at a second venue? Will prospective artistic directors see Cincinnati Opera as a creative place or as a company with a conservative board that squelches risk-takers?

Finally, what of those Opera patrons who enjoyed Muni's risky undertakings, the ones captured by his imagination? Will they cancel their subscriptions upon learning the details behind his departure?

Beggs, the company's marketing director before assuming the managing director post, has already begun the spin. "You know, Nic wasn't the only one with a sense of adventure around here," she says.

In an organization that seems rife with political backstabbing, it makes sense for its leader to speak like a seasoned politician.

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