- - Thursday, September 8, 2011

The financially ailing Washington National Opera opens its new season Saturday following a timely rescue from further decline by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and its president, Michael Kaiser.

Under an agreement signed this summer, the WNO became an affiliate of the Kennedy Center, effectively creating a financial comfort zone for the opera company, which had a persistently climbing deficit that had reached about $11.6 million.

Both sides insist on not calling the new arrangement a merger. “We now share a set of financial books, fundraising, marketing and legal operations, and at the end of the day we have one combined audit,” was how Mr. Kaiser defined it to The Washington Times last week. But he pointed out that the WNO “retains its own independent board” and plans its own seasonal programs — which, however, will require Mr. Kaiser’s approval.

Whatever it’s called, the deal with the WNO reinforces Mr. Kaiser’s position as surely the most powerful performing-arts manager in America. As president of the Kennedy Center since 2001, he controls — besides the complex of theaters itself — a leading symphony orchestra (the National Symphony Orchestra), a ballet company (the Suzanne Farrell Ballet), VSA (the international organization on arts and disability), the De Vos Institute of Arts Management, several educational programs and now an opera company.

Kenneth Feinberg, who was president of the WNO at the time the yearlong negotiations with Mr. Kaiser began, said seeking shelter under the Kennedy Center umbrella “became an option that was too inviting to pass up.”

In reality, the attraction was not so much the institution itself as Mr. Kaiser’s reputation as something of a survival guru for troubled performing-arts organizations.

Mr. Kaiser, 58, is widely credited with restoring financial stability to London’s Covent Garden Opera, which had a $30 million deficit. He also helped erase the debts of a number of other groups, including the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation and the American Ballet Theatre. Last year, he toured all 50 states and spoke to groups of arts managers and board members on how to stay afloat in a time of global financial crisis, stressing the need for structure, marketing and attention to the bottom line.

WNO trustees hope Mr. Kaiser can arrest the company’s downward slide following the departure this summer of supertenor Placido Domingo, who became its artistic director in 1996 and subsequently its general director.

Mr. Domingo’s tenure started off as golden years for the WNO. Star-studded major productions boosted its prestige in the opera world. Suddenly, the WNO’s programs were an exciting blend of old favorites such as Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and American contemporary works such as William Bolcom’s “A View From the Bridge.”

But excitement alone doesn’t run an opera company. “We needed a fiscal discipline that frankly we had trouble developing,” recalled John J. Pohanka, a member of the board of trustees since 1989 and author of a recent book, “Wagner the Mystic.” “Somebody needed to be doing [cost] analysis, and nobody was.”

Spiraling production costs became a major problem. Mr. Domingo’s numerous musical commitments around the world led to frequent absences from Washington, making him something of an absentee landlord and — among other disappointments — leaving him little time for fundraising.

The current economic slowdown was a further challenge, and the company had to cut its 2010-11 repertoire to five productions, down from seven in 2008-09.

“We were reducing our budget each season,” said Mr. Feinberg, well-known for mediating compensation claims for the relatives of 9/11 victims and administering the fund established to pay claims arising from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “The issue was whether we could continue to perform at the height set by Placido Domingo.”

The WNO’s agreement with the Kennedy Center “is about long-term financing, not short-term Band-Aids,” he said.

As a federally mandated institution, the Kennedy Center received $40 million in financial aid from Congress, the Department of Education and other government sources this year, including $22 million for building upkeep and maintenance. Its other sources of income are ticket sales and a vigorous fund raising program. Mr. Kaiser, who was described by one WNO board member as “a genius as a fundraiser,” said that under the new arrangement the WNO would share in the Kennedy Center’s fundraising activities.

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