The Closing of Opera Boston

Opera Boston, the city’s second-largest opera company, ceased operations on January 1st, citing an “insurmountable budget deficit” of $500,000 and devastating Boston’s avid opera-goers. A denouement dramatic enough to warrant its own aria, the sudden closure of the celebrated opera company came without warning, startling the city’s cultural community and frustrating Mayor Menino, who voiced his disappointment with the company for not sounding an alarm before it was too late.

The closure occasioned a panel discussion on January 24th at the Boston Public Library on the viability of opera in Boston, moderated by Radio Boston‘s Adam Ragusea. Esther Nelson, General and Artistic Director of the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO), was joined by Aliana de la Guardia of Guerilla Opera and Sharon Daniels of the Boston University Opera Institute. (Opera Boston’s Artistic Director Gil Rose was slated to join the conversation but canceled at the last moment.) And among the audience members was Randolph Fuller, the millionaire opera aficionado who helped found Opera Boston in 2003 and to whom the public record currently attributes, at least in part, the sudden demise of Opera Boston.

As Ragusea recounted and recent media coverage suggests, the fall of Opera Boston was precipitated by a failed $250,000 grant proposal to the Fidelity Foundation, poor ticket sales, the lack of an endowment, and, most dramatically, Fuller’s withdrawal of support—an expected $300,000 donation for this fiscal year. This repudiation by the company’s biggest booster was directly linked to his abhorrence for Opera Boston’s recently appointed General Director, Lesley Koenig, the former Metropolitan Opera staffer just nine months into her job. The clash inflamed the company’s growing dysfunction, spurring several board resignations.

The panel diplomatically discussed how any arts organization or opera company, even the BLO, could fall to a similar fate. The lack of endowment, a shrinking market, and too few donors is an unfortunate recipe for disaster. Despite the community’s longstanding love and support of opera, the question did arise as to whether a town like Boston could even support two opera companies of this size—indeed a rarity.

Despite the generous tenor of the discussion, Opera Boston’s failing was not an inevitable conclusion. In the lobby after the panel disbanded, Fuller was both approachable and candid, stating frankly that the blame sits squarely on Koenig’s shoulders. “If you don’t think an incompetent director can run an organization like this into the ground, then you’re wrong. It happens all the time. And it happened here,” he said to a small crowd of anguished opera-goers.

In fairness to Koenig, the company was in debt when she arrived. Nonetheless, it is also rumored that the now unemployed director made no effort to befriend, court, or even call Fuller. With only six donors giving above $50,000 (compared to Boston Lyric Opera’s 25), biting—or ignoring—the hand that feeds you is a dangerous leitmotiv.

If nothing else, the story teaches us the importance of an innovative financial model, one where a rivaling duet cannot bring down the house.