What’s Wrong With Chicago Opera Theater?

In a move that was sudden, yet seemingly inevitable, the board of directors of Chicago Opera Theater mercifully shut down the ailing organization last week, canceling a production of Don Giovanni, which would have been the second and final opera of the company’s 19th season, and suspending any plans for a 20th- anniversary season next year. In a burst of perhaps unwarranted optimism, the COT board indicated that the company intends to produce again (at an unspecified time) after a review of its operations, initiation of a new or refocused strategy, and attempts to generate additional financial support for the company, which had accrued a deficit of around $360,000. But if COT wishes to rejoin the ranks of functioning opera companies, it will have to emerge from this shutdown with a clearly defined mission, a strong administrative staff, and a take-charge board of directors, crucial assets lacking for most of the past several years as the city’s second opera company sank in a sea of red ink and internal upheaval.

COT’s demise really began as long ago as the fall of 1990, when it bid farewell to Marc Scorca, who left his post as general manager after six years with the company. After encouraging a bold expansion in programming that included lavish productions of Carousel at the Shubert Theatre and Where the Wild Things Are at the Chicago Theatre, Scorca walked away to become executive director of OPERA America. COT was left with $100,000 in unpaid federal payroll withholding taxes and an operating deficit of more than $200,000. At the time key COT board members claimed the financial chaos was a big surprise to them. Maybe it wouldn’t have been if they’d been doing their job as the company’s overseers.

In the immediate aftermath of Scorca’s exit, there were few encouraging signs the company would be able–or even know how–to regain its footing. Through some desperate fund-raising efforts a portion of the burdensome deficit was quickly eliminated, though not enough to pull the company out of jeopardy. But more tellingly, COT never managed to field an administrative team that could reinvigorate the company. For the past few years founder and artistic director Alan Stone has been battling to recover from major surgery to remove a brain tumor, an operation that left him partially paralyzed for a while and ill-equipped to handle the demands of his post. In the meantime the company’s board of directors did not bring on someone who could actively commit to revamping the company’s artistic product.

On the business side Scorca was replaced by Mark Tiarks, a quiet, well-meaning general manager who disappeared into the woodwork when the company needed a bold business leader. He was replaced by former board member Jean Perkins, an unpaid and inexperienced interim manager who at least kept the company alive. But she clearly could not take firm control of the company, and COT continued to drift. Last year, for instance, the company chose to mount its final opera of the season at Rosary College in River Forest, a move that forced subscribers used to seeing their operas at the Athenaeum Theatre on the north side to drive far out of their way.

When Joseph De Rugeriis finally came on board in January as the new, salaried general manager, the opera company’s fate already may have been sealed. As De Rugeriis noted last week, loyal supporters had turned away from the company in droves in the absence of an effective marketing campaign. When COT shuttered, its subscription base had plummeted to around 2,200, down from more than 4,000 at its peak, and attendance at recent fund-raisers also was way below projections. Major philanthropic foundations postponed promised grants to the company, and corporations had cut back their support. At the box office too many potential ticket buyers shied away from unfamiliar modern work such as COT’s recent critically acclaimed mounting of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts.

While all the signs of imminent collapse were at hand as the opera company moved fitfully forward with its 19th season, its board of directors seemed off in their own little world, dealing of all things with a long-range planning study being prepared pro bono by a Boston-based consulting organization. But when De Rugeriis presented the sad facts of the current situation to the board last month, they unanimously agreed to cease operations immediately. Observers familiar with the local arts scene do not believe COT will be able to climb out of the deep, dark hole it now finds itself in, no matter how determined its efforts. But founder Alan Stone is taking the rosy view: “I understand that after 20 wonderful years on the operatic fast track the company must pause just long enough to catch its breath. We are, after all, in the race for the long run.”

Betty Buckley’s Not a Belter

Though she’s got one of the strongest voices in musical theater, actress Betty Buckley, now starring in The Fourth Wall at Briar Street Theatre, does not appreciate being thought of as a Broadway belter. And that certainly is not the style in which she recorded the 14 show tunes on her new album Children Will Listen, released this week on the New York-based Sterling label. Most of the tunes on the album were arranged by Buckley, Kenny Werner, and Michel Colombier in a jazz-inflected style that is quiet and soothing rather than loud and brassy. One of the songs, “When There’s No One,” is a beautiful ballad from the musical Carrie, which Buckley starred in on Broadway. Though Carrie bombed in its ill-conceived debut, Buckley still has faith in the show and says she would be happy to go to work again on the material. The album may be one of an increasingly rare breed; it comes after Buckley spent many years fighting to get a record contract. “Record companies today don’t know how to market Broadway musical theater singers,” maintains Buckley, “so they have overlooked us.”

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