Financial uncertainties prompt TCO restructuring

The Tri-Cities Opera Board of Directors and TCO General Director Reed Smith presented a major restructuring of the 61-year-old opera company at its annual board and guild meeting on June 22. The following is a press release issued by TCO: 

“The Board of Directors of Tri-Cities Opera have announced a variety of changes to better position the company financially while improving its service to local and regional audiences .As a result, the following changes have already taken place.

Months of research have examined opportunities to reduce expenses, off load costs and provide better efficiencies. Most recently TCO concluded a workshop looking at these issues with the President and CEO of OPERA America.

1) The development of new partnerships through Binghamton University’s School of Music.

2) Peyton Hibbitt, Co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus, has been offered an adjunct faculty position as part of the MM-Opera program at Binghamton University.

3) Duane Skrabalak, Senior Artistic Director, has retired.

4) Peter Sicilian has been asked to be the Stage Director for “Cosi fan Tutte,” the first production of the 2010-2011 season.

5) John Mario Di Costanzo has been engaged by both Tri-Cities Opera and Binghamton University. He will be music director and conductor of the opera performances at The Forum and he will teach classes and give individual instruction at the University.

6) The Resident Artist Training Program will continue with available resources concentrated on fewer singers and with added opportunities for the singers to network with artists working in the industry.

 TCO was founded in 1949 by Hibbitt and Carmen Savoca. By 1950 they had launched this community’s first full-scale opera “Cavalleria Rusticana,” using a full orchestra, native language and complete stage settings — rare for any local opera … anywhere.

In 1971, TCO began its Resident Artist Training Program (RATP). Through the 1990s singers came to train and stayed for several seasons before launching careers. These singers provided the primary talent for TCO’s main stage presentations.

Over half of North America’s opera companies were established after 1970, and one quarter of the total were established since 1980, making the growth of opera throughout North America a relatively new phenomenon. Many of these newer companies also offered training programs with greater financial support than was available at TCO and the added value of important exposure to industry professionals. This made it more difficult for TCO to attract and keep singers. In the past few seasons, the company has had to engage singers outside the company for primary roles.

“The business model which served us well is no longer workable,” said General Director Reed Smith. “However, with the guidance of OPERA America and given the strengthened relationship with Binghamton University we believe we are now headed in the correct direction.”

OPERA America serves the opera field by supporting the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera. It counts 117 professional companies in 43 states in its membership, including Tri-Cities Opera. It also provides support and consultation to opera companies.

“The re-structuring of Tri-Cities Opera represents an important step forward for this historic company,” said Marc A. Scorca, President and CEO of Opera America. “For more than 50 years, the company played an essential role in the development of young American artists, paving the way for an explosion in the number of training programs across the country. With the recent re-structuring, the company is making a bold and strategic move to improve its service to local and regional audiences, and increase its financial stability into the future. As it did in 1949, Tri-Cities Opera is responding the current needs of its community.”

“Tri-Cities Opera is making some bold changes but the fundamentals of the company are still intact,” said Dirk Olds, TCO Board Chairman. “It was absolutely necessary that the company re-tool itself for the future and we feel these changes will result in a wonderful improvement of our services. It’s as if we have just upgraded to ‘TCO Version 2.0’.”

The release concluded with a listing of main-stage (Forum) productions for the 62nd season: Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” Oct. 15 and 17; Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Feb. 11 and 13, 2011, and Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” April; 29 and May 1. In an interview prior to the meeting, Smith said that, as part of the changes, TCO would be “stepping back” from the annual small stage (Opera Center) production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” but that BU was likely to be stepping in.

“That would be a very good thing for us,” he said, pointing out that TCO has been losing money on its small productions and that an on-campus performance could help reach more of the BU population. “BU wants to enhance its MM program,” he said, adding that he would “not be adverse” to a main-stage production moving to a campus stage.

Smith reiterated the reasons for revamping TCO: that the training program is no longer the unique commodity it once was in the opera world; that the RATP is not financially competitive with other training options with other companies (i.e., small roles or salaried chorus), and that the downturn in the Greater Binghamton economy has impacted both the opera company’s fund-raising efforts and the ability of resident artists to find non-operatic employment in order to be able to afford to stay in (or move to) this community.

Last December’s workshop with the Opera America CEO, in which comparisons were made between TCO and similar companies and between Binghamton and similar markets, opened eyes and got people talking, Smith said. “The board made a switch that day,” he said, although it was thought at the time that change would not come so swiftly. No artistic staff members attended the workshop, only board members, Smith said, because, in a nonprofit organization, the board is “absolutely responsible” financially.

As someone who has been both a singer and an administrator at TCO, Smith acknowledged that change comes hard, especially when personnel is involved, but he is firm in his support that the changes are necessary for TCO’s long-term survival. “If I wasn’t convinced that this is the right thing to do, I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

Regarding those personnel changes, Smith said that Peyton Hibbitt had retired from an earlier adjunct position with BU, but that BU was offering one again. He said Duane Skrabalak’s retirement was mutually agreed upon by Skrabalak and the board, which has approved the new organizational plans.

So far, John Mario Di Costanzo is contracted only for the upcoming season. Because of his dual responsibilities to BU, he will be expected to be on campus three days a week for classroom and individual coaching. During TCO production weeks, he will be in Binghamton fulltime. Di Costanzo, who is known to opera audiences in Syracuse, on Long Island and elsewhere, has what Smith called a “thriving studio in New York City,” and it is hoped that he will be able to share his connections with both TCO and the MM program.

Although the resident artist program is being reduced (from 10 members to five, according to the cable news channell YNN), Smith expressed hope that RATP could grow again if the economy improves. “I would love that we could have MM kids for two years, and they could stay a third year (as resident artists),” he said. Smith stressed that MM students still will have the opportunity to perform in main-stage productions. In fact, at least two have leads this fall in “Cosi.”

The TCO chorus will continue to be a volunteer, community-based organization, Smith said.

Although the rumored changes have prompted some criticism (see earlier blog posts), Smith said he has been receiving positive feedback, including from sources of funding.

One Response to “Financial uncertainties prompt TCO restructuring”

  1. smdellaversano Says:

    As someone who has had the pleasure of working with Maestro DiCostanzo several times over the last 8 years at Syracuse Opera, I personally think his coming to Tri-Cities Opera and Binghamton University will be an asset to both organizations, and to the artistic fabric of the Greater Binghamton area.

    Change is difficult in many organizations, especially those with such historically, closely-held ties, but I sincerely hope, for the sake of TCO and the gift of full-scale opera in the Binghamton area itself, that the arts community and community at large here gives him, the singers, staff and Board of TCO their full support as they restructure and move forward.

    Given that support I do not think we will be disappointed.

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