Voce Morta

Last weekend Bella Voce delivered what its fans have learned to expect from it over the last 22 years: three flawless, historically accurate performances of early music. With artistic director Anne Heider conducting, the a cappella choir, in this case 16 strong, presented pieces from 15th- and 16th-century France–exquisite, bell-like polyphony that filled the vaults of Saint James Cathedral, Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, and Wilmette’s Saint Joseph’s Church. But this week Bella Voce announced that after this year all we’ll hear from it is the sound of silence. In spite of consistently glowing reviews and the unique role the group plays in Chicago’s music scene, the Bella Voce board of directors says this season will be its last.

Originally called His Majestie’s Clerkes, the group was launched in 1982 by countertenor Richard Childress. He wanted to perform music of the Tudor period, and recruited professional singers who shared that interest, including Heider, a composer and music professor at Roosevelt University. When Childress left in ’89 to pursue his career in England, Heider took over. She led the group through the 90s, when audiences and money “rolled in,” and by ’95 was able to hire a part-time manager. “It seemed simple then,” Heider recalls. “Like the Field of Dreams–if it’s beautiful, they will come.” But after 2000, ticket sales softened and pressure began building for Bella Voce to change its programming, which had already expanded beyond Tudor music to include modern and commissioned works.

“There’s a lot of free advice out there about making your concert programs more enticing to a younger generation of ticket buyers,” Heider says. “But when I really thought about changing, I realized that I wasn’t interested in having a mime troupe performing while we were singing or having children’s programs.” Two years ago Heider concluded that “it would serve the ensemble best if I retired. I told the board president I’d done everything I could for Bella Voce, and I also thought Bella Voce had done everything it could for me.”

Disbanding the group wasn’t part of the plan, she says. “All through the 90s [the board] wanted this ensemble to become a permanent part of Chicago’s art scene. We had a strategic plan that was already three years old that was aimed at establishing it as an institution.” (The name change, to reflect the broader repertoire, had been made in 2001.) The board began a search for Heider’s successor, and a list of candidates was whittled down to three, who were scheduled to audition as guest conductors in the 2005-’06 season.

Bella Voce had never drawn huge audiences. In good years attendance was about 200 at each concert. But in 2000-’01, average attendance fell to 165. Instead of cutting expenses at that point, the board responded aggressively. In 2002 they hired their first full-time administrator. “One of the things we supposed was that a full-time person would be able to write lots more grants and handle all the administrative stuff, plus bring in more contributed income,” Heider says. It didn’t work out that way. Last June, after two more years of falling attendance and dwindling finances, the position was terminated. A new part-time manager, Tamara Schupman, began work in September.

“When I got into the books and saw what the production costs were versus the amount of money they were bringing in, it was clear to me that they didn’t have a plan that would continue to cover the cost of producing their concerts,” Schupman says. On an annual budget of about $110,000, Bella Voce produced a season of four programs, each performed in three venues. Last year it had total expenses of $119,000 and income of $113,000. A $6,000 deficit doesn’t sound big enough to be fatal, but Schupman says after multiple years of deficits the group’s cash reserves (which once totaled $50,000) had been eaten away. Meanwhile, a regular donor had served notice that the group would have to match any future funds. “Tamara’s predecessor informed the board,” Heider says, “but no one went out to find the money.”

“Perhaps I should have raised a ruckus,” Heider muses. “But since I’d made the decision that my retirement would serve the ensemble better, I wasn’t in there pushing.” Now, she says, “it’s such a large amount that’s needed right away. And suppose we could find an angel who would dump $50,000 in our lap–is that going to change ticket sales?”

Bella Voce still plans to give its spring concerts in April and May. And Heider’s hoping a May gala, where her singers will cut loose with selections from opera to jazz, will raise $10,000, which would permit them to finish existing projects–including a final CD–and “go out in style.” Schupman says the group’s nonprofit status will stay in place, in case someone comes along to break the silence.

Oh, the Humanities!

The Chicago Humanities Festival prides itself on being a “catalyst for dialogue,” but there wasn’t much in the way of official dialogue to explain the dustup there last week. After 16 years of wedded bliss (well, OK, maybe not bliss), the parents of the CHF had a nasty split: the board, headed by founder and chairman Richard Franke, asked for the resignation of founder and president Eileen Mackevich. Amid rumors of tension between them over management and succession–and of a battle over bragging rights as the festival’s creator–the CHF issued a press release praising Mackevich as it noted her departure. Under her leadership the festival grew from eight events on a single weekend in 1990 to about 200 programs over three weekends and throughout the year for an audience of 53,000.

On February 25 the CHF sent an equally mealymouthed letter to supporters, signed by Franke and three other board officers. Mackevich is “a wonderful person and we respect her decision. She deserves to enjoy what life has in store for her,” that letter says. “While we will miss her . . . we all look forward to watching the Festival grow into a new phase of stature and prosperity.” Stature and prosperity? Peter Kuntz, hired by Mackevich as her second in command and now the acting president, says there’s “no mandate for change in programming.” And although the festival reported a $90,000 operating deficit in 2003 on a budget of $2.75 million, no one is citing money problems either: the CHF closed the 2004 fiscal year on Monday and expects to be in the black.

“It’s bewildering to me that they would fire the woman who was mainly responsible for developing the most outstanding humanities program in the world,” says donor Howard Conant. “I’ve spoken to a number of board members [who were out of town at the time] who are shocked and dismayed at firing the star performer. It’s like firing Michael Jordan at the height of the Bulls’ success. Do you fire the superstar? You shake his hand and pat him on the back. But maybe some of the other players are jealous that the superstar gets so much credit.”

Mackevich says she “can’t discuss” the circumstances behind her resignation from the $150,000-plus position, but the turn of events took her by surprise. She expects to continue working, “but where I’m not sure.”

Board member Barbara Levy Kipper resigned last week in protest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.