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Opera's anniversary celebration muted by financial concerns

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The "For Sale" signs hanging on the Austin Lyric Opera's headquarters on Barton Springs Road make it awkward to discuss the group's 25th anniversary, which will be celebrated Saturday with the opening of "The Magic Flute," the Mozart opera that marked the beginning of the company in 1986.

Across the street from the Long Center for the Performing Arts, the three-story opera building — with its soundproof studios and large rehearsal space — opened in 2000, after the opera raised $4.5 million from Austin donors.

Now the building is on the market for $5.6 million, its sale necessary, opera board members say, to shore up the organization, which announced early this year that it was nearly $2 million in debt.

Other recent cuts include trimming the number of performances from four per production to three, outsourcing box-office operations to the Long Center and jettisoning the opera's Armstrong Community Music School. Staff has been winnowed down, as well.

Since the economic downturn began in 2008, financial problems have plagued regional opera companies nationwide.

The Dallas Opera canceled one of its five productions for this season to curb expenses amid a $4 million deficit. Baltimore's Opera Vivente canceled its entire 2011-2012 season. Lyric Opera San Diego filed for bankruptcy protection.

The difficulties besetting opera companies are not news to soprano Sally Wolf and bass Kevin Langan. Both were in the early stages of their careers in 1986 when they accepted roles in "The Magic Flute" at the then new-fangled Austin Lyric Opera.

Now, the two are back as seasoned veterans. Wolf will sing the role of the First Lady; Langan, the Speaker of the Temple. This "Magic Flute" is the eighth ALO production for Wolf; the fourth for Langan.

The couple, who are married and share a home in New Jersey, recalled being somewhat surprised when they heard there was an opera company starting in Austin, of all places.

"I remember thinking, is there a market for opera in Austin?" says Langan. "But when we got down here we realized what a cosmopolitan city this is. There were so many people so into the art form (of opera). It was incredibly exciting."

On the cusp of the high-tech boom, Austin felt like a place of growth and possibility, Langan recalls.

Opera-wise, Austin was indeed riding a trend of opera companies starting up in medium-size U.S. cities. The service organization Opera America now counts 119 professional companies in 42 states as members. Yet more than half of those were established after 1970 and one-quarter since 1980.

Opera in North America — especially outside of the larger cities — is a relatively new phenomenon.

Langan and Wolf have had front-row seats to the changes, having spent most of their careers working in regional companies, a shift from the generation of singers who came before them who usually had no choice but to head to opera houses in Europe.

Reflecting on the catalysts behind America's growing opera audience, the couple point to several developments.

Supertitles that offer English-language translations of the mostly non-English opera repertoire removed a major hurdle.

"Once you had translations and people could understand what was going on, that opened up a lot of people to opera that never would have come before," Langan says.

Also, outreach programs to children made inroads, acquainting youth with an art form heretofore available only in major cities.

"On the regional circuit, I find that you see many younger people coming to opera now," Langan says.

And Langan and Woolf credit the advent of live HD opera simulcasts from New York's Metropolitan Opera in regional movie theaters for making world-class opera accessible to audiences far outside the Big Apple.

"What I like about the regional companies, too, is that if the audience likes something, it'll let you know right away," says Wolf. Forget stuffy conventions. Outside the big cities, folks will applaud whenever they feel the love, never mind interrupting the music.

Still, away from the long-standing major companies in big cities, times are tough for what's one arguably one of the most expensive art forms.

"It's a hard economic environment right now to keep a smaller, younger company going," says Langan. "And (as singers) we've had a number of contracts change or canceled over the last few years with companies that have folded or cut back on the number of performances."

At least for the moment here in Austin, the opera goes on.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'The Magic Flute'

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and on Nov. 11, and at 3 p.m. Nov. 13

Where: Dell Hall, Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $19-$135

Information: 472-5992, www.austinlyricopera.org