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For the first production of its season, Austin Lyric Opera presents Leoncavallo’s 'Pagliacci'

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Joseph Specter, the new general director of the Austin Lyric Opera, says the organization is in a good place after a rough couple of years.

Joseph Specter says that Austin Lyric Opera is a whole new organization.

Over coffee recently at Monkey Nest, Specter, on the job as the opera’s general director for a little more than six months now, reports that ALO is in the black.

ALO’s first production of the season, Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” opens Saturday at the Long Center. The tragic story of love and jealousy set in an Italian commedia dell’arte troupe, “Pagliacci” features one of opera’s best-known — and most-appropriated — arias, “Vesti la giubba (Put on the costume),” that tenors from Enrico Caruso to Placido Domingo to Luciano Pavarotti have sung.

But rather than play four shows, as ALO productions have for the past decade, there will be just three for “Pagliacci,” like all productions this season.

The cutback is one of several the organization has made in the past couple of years in order to overcome what as recently as May 2011 was $2 million of debt. ALO fell harder with the economic downturn than most Austin arts organizations.

Staff cuts (there are now just 12 staff members, down from more than 30) and jettisoning its Armstrong Community Music School off to be its own organization also brought expenses down. So did the December 2011 sale of ALO’s purpose-built facility on Barton Springs Road for $5.45 million.

Now, the smaller staff has offices in rented space in North Austin.

Subscriptions at ALO have ticked up, Specter said: 3,150 currently compared with 3,000 last season. The organization’s $3 million annual budget is greatly below its one-time high of $5 million and is now in the black.

None of ALO’s rocky financial past dissuaded Specter, 38, from taking the job. Trained as an opera singer (he’s a baritone, though he also has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tufts University), Specter had left performing years ago and was working at the Metropolitan Opera where he was director of institutional fundraising.

“I love the organizational, the business side of the arts,” he said. “But at the Met I was so far away from the artistic side. I wanted to get back to that — to the opera.”

Growing up in Miami, the son of university professors, Specter discovered his talent for singing as a young child and fell in love with the opera in high school at the New World School of the Arts. (The first opera he saw was Donezetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”)

Specter now lives in South Austin with his wife, Kate, (a soprano) and their two daughters, ages 4 and 18 months. Sophie, the 4-year-old, has found her way to classical music early, just like her dad.

“Her favorite song is (Tchaikovsky’s) 1812 Overture. It’s on the iPod we have in the car, and she asks for it by name,” Specter says.

Specter is particularly happy with the recent’ success of “The Pagliacci Project,” a collaboration with UT’s Butler School of Music that had students performing a scene from the opera in the most unlikely places: the patio at a Central Market, a Twin Liquors store, a Tex-Exs tailgate party, and Cheer Up Charlie’s, a funky alt East Austin bar.

“We had the largest audience at Charlie’s,” said Specter. “There’s a food trailer park right next door, and we were performing on the patio, and everyone at the park just came flocking over.”

It was proof of opera’s immediate and ultimately unpretentious appeal, says Specter.

“I think the message we wanted to say is that at ALO, ‘come as you,’ ” he says. “You’ll find something you love.”