James Wright was on a panel at an Opera America conference, scheduled to speak first after the keynote. During that opening session, speakers urged delegates to be pioneers and entrepreneurs to keep opera thriving, but also presented a staggering statistic: In North America, 70 per cent of opera companies were reporting deficits.
"And I got up and I just looked at this crowd of 300 or 400 people and I said, 'You know, for the first time in over 30 years, I don't know what to do. And I don't have any answers.' And they burst into applause," recalls Mr. Wright, who became a sort of folk hero at the event because of his candour. "I didn't realize what a nerve it was going to hit."
The conference was a couple of years ago, but it was fresh in Mr. Wright's mind as he returned to his job as general director of Vancouver Opera this week after a four-month sabbatical, a much-needed break after a few difficult seasons, he explained in his office at the O'Brian Centre for Vancouver Opera.
"It's been a pretty challenging three or four years: the move into here, the staff changes, Nixon [in China], Lillian [Alling], West Side Story, the big deficit year, the crawling out of it. It's been hard," said Mr. Wright, 63. "But I'm fortunate enough to have this ability to get this breathing space and think about things and come back re-energized and refocused."
Beyond the tasks of remembering passwords – and people's names – Mr. Wright is facing challenges familiar to any classical arts organization: how to keep the seats – and the coffers – filled. This will be a major theme when the Opera America conference lands in Vancouver this spring, hosted by VO. With the theme "Opera Out of Bounds," the conference will ask the big, if familiar, questions: how to find new audiences and address changing demographics. Or, as Mr. Wright puts it: "How do we save this art form? These are harrowing times."
Indeed. In 2010-11, VO reported a budget shortfall of $1.4-million, resulting in an accumulated deficit of $831,000 and the elimination of four positions. A surplus in 2011-12 of more than $500,000 helped counter that, but the company was still running a deficit. It's certainly not alone in these challenges. B.C. has seen a number of cultural organizations struggle or fold over the last year.
In a strategic plan, presented to the board last September, VO considers new revenue models for becoming a sustainable and fiscally healthy opera company.
On the donor side, challenges include attracting new individual donors and maintaining current, large gifts. Corporate donations are particularly challenging in this town, with company headquarters leaving Vancouver, taking their money – and decision-making – elsewhere. Mr. Wright estimates a turnover of 25 per cent of corporate gifts each year, which means VO must find new corporate donors with deep pockets annually.
At the same time, VO needs to sell tickets and subscriptions. "There's no easy answer," he says. "Slash prices so more people can come? Who makes up that difference? Raise prices and bring in more revenue and become more elitist?"
A big change is coming next season, in an effort to fill those seats: the addition of a Sunday matinee, and the elimination of the Tuesday night show. Three of four productions will be classical, safe opera – Puccini's Tosca, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's Don Carlo – and the fourth will be Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring, a co-production with Pacific Opera Victoria.
VO will not, for the foreseeable future, be embarking on any new commissions on its own, given the cost (the commission Lillian Alling and the new production of Nixon in China each cost about $1.5-million) and the box-office gamble that comes with doing new work. They are, however, eager to partner with other companies, and have a couple of potential projects in the works. Mr. Wright is not ready to provide details on either.
A boost for the company, he says, would have been the construction of an opera house. He saw what a new facility did in his previous two postings – in Charlotte and Anchorage, where new venues opened on his watch. But it wasn't in the cards for Vancouver, and he is confident it won't be, for some time.
"There's no hope for an opera house in the next two generations," he says. "I just don't see it. And it's one of the bitter disappointments of my career, frankly."
Mr. Wright's contract expires at the end of June, 2015. He'll be 65. Whether he renews his contract or not, it's clear this will be his final job, after more than 35 years in the opera business.
"What I'm working very hard to do is be excited about the challenges instead of disappointed that my career is ending at a time of such challenges," he says. "I think we're going to have to be a lot more innovative than before, all of us. …We're going to have to go for it, instead of sulking in the corner."
Editor's note: The headline was changed to better reflect the story. Also, a reference to the closing of Toronto-based Queen of Puddings Music Theatre was removed. The closing of the chamber opera was not related to finances.