Fort Worth Opera cutting budget, makes changes to 2015 festival


Ensemble in the Minnesota Opera production of Silent Night, which the Fort Worth Opera will produce in 2014. . 

Robert Francis

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Budget cuts at the Fort Worth Opera will reduce its 2015 festival from four to three productions. Fort Worth Opera officials, in announcing the cuts Feb. 16, noted that fundraising has not kept pace with rising costs, and General Director Darren K. Woods said he believed the budget increases could not be sustained. “I’m the general director and I’m also the artistic director, so I’m the CEO and the artistic guy and I have to remove one hat sometimes and put the other hat on … but this was the right fiscal decision to make,” Woods said in an interview with the Fort Worth Business Press. The budget cuts will primarily come from the elimination of a new work commissioned by the opera, A Wrinkle In Time, based on Madeleine L’Engle’s book by the same name. “Throughout this recession, arts organizations like ours have lost much-needed support from all sectors,” said Woods. “Unfortunately, as giving has decreased, costs and expenses either remained at their current level, or, in many cases, have continued to increase annually.”

Woods said the company’s budget has increased every year, hitting $5.3 million this year. The 2015 budget would be just under $6 million. Cutting the world premiere of American composer Libby Larsen’s A Wrinkle In Time, a production that called for the purchase, development or rental of new technologies in the sound and video area, would save about $1.2 million. Woods said the new budget of $4.5 million for 2015 was more in line with charitable philanthropy at this time. “The budget was increasing almost half a million a year every year. I just decided – after four sleepless nights – and I called the senior staff in and said I think we needed to get budget back to about $4.4 million,” he said. Bill Lawrence, principal of Lawrence & Associates, who works with a variety of area nonprofit organizations, said arts funding has always been challenging even as the organizations make up “an integral part of our economy and social fabric.” Making cuts when necessary helps an organization maintain its contract with its supporters, he said. “Donors generally give to an organization because they believe in their mission,” he said. “When funding is not available for a program or service, then an organization has to take appropriate action and be fiscally responsible. Taking that sensible approach gives donors the confidence to continue their support of the organization.”

Fort Worth Opera still plans to produce A Wrinkle In Time, which is now complete, but Woods hopes that partners can be found to bring the technically challenging work to the stage. “Our plan for the piece had always included partnering with co-producers around the nation who would help bear the burden of creating such a tremendous set and innovative technology,” he said. “However, without these partners, the production cost of $1.2 million was beyond what our company could shoulder alone. Now that this incredible piece is finished, it is our hope that potential producers will come forward and partner with us to bring A Wrinkle In Time to life sometime in the near future. “Wrinkle in Time has been a dream of mine for over a decade and something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Woods. “Now we have a score and it’s agonizing, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Woods said the Fort Worth Opera is still on track to premiere the opera JFK during its 2016 season. That opera, a co-production with the American Lyric Theater, was conceived by the Fort Worth Opera to celebrate its 70th anniversary and as the final work of Phase One of Opera of the Americas, its 10-year artistic commitment to produce work from contemporary composers of the Americas. The production will focus on John F. Kennedy’s last night in Fort Worth before his assassination. Repertory for the 2015 season will now comprise two productions, still to be announced, to be performed at Bass Performance Hall, plus a chamber opera, Dog Days, by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, scheduled to be performed at Scott Theatre. Fort Worth Opera has received praise in recent years for its series of new opera commissions, its innovative productions and its move to a festival format. That festival format has allowed patrons to see three productions in one weekend, Woods noted. Last year’s festival saw visitors from 28 states and six countries staying in Fort Worth to see the operas. “The Convention and Visitors Bureau loves us,” Woods said.

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Woods has been leading the opera for 14 years. He received the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County’s Innovator in the Arts Award in 2013. Though the opera has not run a deficit in the past 10 years, Woods noted that fundraising has not kept up with rising costs of labor, transportation and rental fees, among other expenses. Many local corporations have changed hands and cut back on arts funding, he noted, while foundation donations have remained relatively flat. Production head Kurt Howard noted that the cost of bringing a stage set to the Fort Worth has more than doubled in recent years. “To bring a set here used to cost $1,500 one way; now it’s $3,000,” he said. “That’s not a cost we have any control over.” To help provide a more stable budgeting process, Fort Worth Opera is working toward building a stronger endowment fund to give the opera a self-sustaining source for future seasons. There are other areas where the opera can look for more support, officials said. Woods said that Fort Worth Opera’s ticket buyers don’t contribute additional funds at the same level as patrons do at other opera companies “Most opera companies get contributions from between 38 and 45 percent from ticket buyers, but we average about 18 percent,” he said. “We need to let them know that what they paid for their ticket does not pay for all they see on stage.” Woods also noted that Fort Worth has many generous families and individuals and that they helped the company survive and even thrive during the recession. But he did not believe he could tap that resource again. “I felt it was unfair to be going back to them again and ask for another million dollars,” he said.

Some major donors are no longer giving at the level they once did, he said. “Some of those donors are not in a position to donate any longer,” he said. The 2014 festival, running from April 19 to May 11, will include the professional premiere of With Blood, With Ink, by composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask; the regional premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell; Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, and Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.