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The collapse of Opera Hamilton, which has been in business since 1980, shows just how thin the line can be between staying alive and failing in an expensive performing art.

Two straight years in the black were not enough to save Opera Hamilton, which has succumbed to a cash flow crisis. The company has cancelled all remaining performances of its current season – including three Popera shows this weekend and an April production of Bizet's Carmen – and will shut down permanently unless new funds appear soon.

"It's all in the timing, as with most things musical," says executive director Stephen Bye. There just wasn't enough cash on hand to pay for this weekend's shows, he says, and to cover about $37,000 in production staff and musicians' wages still unpaid from an October run of Verdi's Falstaff.

"Lots of people are upset, obviously," Bye says. Anyone who bought a ticket for Popera or Carmen is now the owner of a rather expensive bookmark.

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The collapse of Opera Hamilton, which has been in business since 1980, shows just how thin the line can be between staying alive and failing in an expensive performing art. The company had begun what looked like a promising turn-around after a crisis in 2008, balancing its budget and increasing fundraising by 70 per cent over the past two years.

OH finished last season with a $53,000 surplus, Bye says, in line with a pledge to arts councils to gradually reduce its accumulated deficit. But slightly softer ticket sales, a continued decline in government support, and a changed schedule for grant payments made the company vulnerable to a mid-season cash drought, he says.

The Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council used to pay lump sums in late summer or early fall, but now pay in instalments. "Some of the instalments come after the productions," Bye says. Lump-sum payments this fall would presumably have given the company enough cash in hand to pay all its Falstaff wages. The two councils also trimmed their grants over the past two years by a total of $115,000, which is 10 per cent of the opera company's budget.

A private donation that could have deflected the cash crunch was in sight, Bye says, but didn't come through in time. Pleas for some kind of rescue effort are being made to city council, he says, but cash is also short for the municipal government, which like others in the area, has unexpected bills from the recent ice storm.

For much of its history, OH performed at Hamilton Place. In 2011, however, it moved to the cheaper and much smaller Irving Zucker Auditorium at Theatre Aquarius's Dofasco Centre for the Arts. The 750-seat Zucker is acoustically dry, like all rooms designed for theatre, but Bye says his audience doesn't seem to mind the less resonant sound, and likes the intimacy of a hall where the cheapest seat is only 60 feet from the stage.

"We actually picked up a lot of people" after the move, he says. The tiny pit area only seats 32, so the company performs cut-down versions of big scores, which save on musicians' wages.

Bye seems guardedly optimistic that the halt in operations may turn out to be an unplanned intermission. "If a couple of significant donations come in, I think we could still do Carmen in the spring," he says.

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