Phantom Opera

Since it debuted in 1996, the small, nonprofit American Opera Group has lived hand to mouth, but last week the hand came up empty. The company was scheduled to present Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Athenaeum Theatre on September 29 and October 1, with two more performances to follow this weekend at the 1,050-seat Norris Center in Saint Charles. But lackluster ticket sales forced Paul Williams, AOG’s founder and general director, to pull the plug on all four performances, and the Norris Center has reciprocated by canceling the company’s engagements for the remainder of the season. “I didn’t want to take a chance on those shows not happening too, if Mr. Williams’s funding fell through,” says Robert Destocki, executive director for the center. Williams says that he regrets waiting until the last minute but that he and his board of directors felt it was the prudent thing to do from a financial standpoint. “Paul is very strong on the artistic end,” says board secretary Mae Cohen, “but it has been hard for him to attract the money people.”

Cohen met Williams four years ago, when the company was performing Walton’s The Bear and Menotti’s The Medium at Rosary College. Williams had been involved in opera for over 30 years, doing artistic and managerial work for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera, Opera Theatre of San Antonio, and the Die Bühnen der Stadt Köln in Cologne, Germany. By founding AOG, Williams hoped to give talented young singers a chance to perform with a large orchestra (usually comprised of players from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago). He was reasonably pleased with the production at Rosary but dissatisfied with having sold only 500 tickets. Two summers later he directed The Barber of Seville for the Comedic Chamber Opera of Munich, “a quaint little opera house out in the middle of a cow pasture,” and during the run an aspiring American singer offered him $10,000 to start an opera company in the U.S. if Williams would cast him in one of the productions. By 1999, Williams had returned to Chicago and was busy reviving American Opera Group.

The city, he decided, was too competitive a market for the fledgling company, so he approached John Scharres, managing director of the Woodstock Opera House. The landmark building reminded him of the Comedic Chamber Opera, and the affluent Woodstock community had a track record of supporting the arts. According to Williams, Scharres connected him with a local arts patron who was supposed to help him make contacts in town, but that relationship fell apart and Williams was on his own. He drew up a $150,000 budget to cover three productions: Don Giovanni in May 1999, La boheme the following October, and Carmen this past May. Tickets went on sale well in advance and were modestly priced at $18, $32, and $40; with the opera house’s aggressive marketing AOG sold more than 75 percent of its available seats. “Our ticket sales managed to cover all but about $3,000 of our total expenses,” says Williams, who claims he took out a personal loan to cover the shortfall.

Williams began planning the 2000-2001 season, but this time, he says, Scharres was uncooperative. “This is a supposition on my part, but I had the feeling we didn’t have enough clout in the community.” Scharres contends that the center was booked up and that Williams turned down the only available weekends, which coincided with the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays. When Williams realized that AOG wouldn’t be returning to the opera house, he cut a deal with Destocki at the Norris Center. Destocki says he expected to sell at least 600 or 700 tickets to Madame Butterfly by opening night: “A lot of people were looking forward to the operas.” But Williams knew from his experience in Woodstock that the production would require sustained marketing and wasn’t impressed by the Norris Center’s efforts. Three weeks before the Saint Charles engagement the company had sold only 104 tickets–about $3,500–to cover a $42,000 production. Williams was about to start rehearsing the 26-piece orchestra, which would have cost the company $2,500 per session, when he and his board decided to can Madame Butterfly.

Now that he’s locked out of the Norris Center, Williams has redoubled his efforts to get back into Woodstock, aligning himself with three businessmen who he says are well connected in the village. He hopes to convince Scharres to book AOG at the opera house next spring for a production of Rigoletto. “These are all successful and powerful people he has working with him now,” says Cohen. Yet the board secretary says she’s learned one thing from her involvement in American Opera Group: “Managing the business of opera is an art form in itself.”

There’s Gold in Them Thar Vaginas

The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s bold performance piece about female sexuality, has broken the box-office record for the Apollo Theatre, according to owner Rob Kolson. The show opened September 24, and early this week total ticket sales had exceeded $300,000 despite sharply divided reviews from the Chicago dailies. Lucia Mauro of the Chicago Tribune raved about the production, while Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed it as “the exorcism of a very unhappy woman.” Reader critic Kelly Kleiman weighs in this week in Section One.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.