Opera Carolina retuning in financial crunch

James Meena
James Meena

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Faced with funding cuts and lower revenues from tickets sales and sponsorships, Opera Carolina is looking for ways to lower costs and generate more earned income and contributions.

The nonprofit company for four months has been gearing up for the cuts, which include a reduction of $245,000, or 33 percent, in funding from the Arts & Science Council.

Now, with its board scheduled to meet July 14 to vote on a new financial plan, the organization is studying options and has formed a task force of board members and volunteers to develop a new fundraising plan.

Opera Carolina also is over half way to its goal of raising $1 million to meet a $500,000 endowment challenge grant from the Hearst Foundation in New York City.

James Meena, general director and principal conductor, says that while the organization will make changes, it will not reduce its education programs or cut salaries for its nine employees.

“We think it is incumbent on us to go back into the donor pool and raise additional money, and even do low-cost and completely-subsidized programs for schools and community centers,” he says.

The group’s education programs serve 50,000 students in 20 counties in the Carolinas and northern Georgia.

It also is working to replace the loss of a $35,000 contract with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools through the Arts & Science Council for its 25-year-old Opera Express program that has placed performing-arts groups in the schools to work with students and teachers.

And with a $20,000 federal grant, Opera Carolina in the fiscal year that started July 1 will serve another 5,000 to 6,000 students in Cabarrus County, up from roughly 1,000 in the most recent school year.

Education also is a key program in the group’s effort to secure more sponsors, Meena says.

“As we face new challenges on education funding, that opens opportunities to reengage and talk to new sponsors,” he says.

“We’ve got to be more creative in the way we’re talking to our sponsors and what we’re asking them to do,” he says. “We have to connect them as directly as possible with specific programs and specific schools.”

Part of that strategy will be connecting corporations with schools in communities in which the companies operate.

Opera Carolina, which froze salaries for the fiscal year ended June 30 after considering and rejecting cutting salaries and even staff, will not be reducing salaries as part of its new financial plan, Meena says.

Salary cuts would not begin to offset the organization’s loss of revenue, he says.

The organization is considering postponing one of its four productions and “reconceptualizing” the productions it does stage, he says.

A more minimally designed production of The Marriage of Figaro this year saved $80,000, Meena says, and a request to contracted artists to make cost concessions for Figaro and for the production of Turandot saved a total of roughly $60,000.

Ticket sales and sponsorships are covering roughly 60 percent of the cost of a production, down from roughly 70 percent before the recession, and the company is finding it tougher to secure sponsors, Meena says.

That represents an annual decline in revenue of roughly $150,000 to $200,000.

The new fundraising task force will be focusing on strategies to secure corporate and foundation sponsors for Opera Carolina’s education programs and to develop major gifts from individuals to help underwrite the costs of individual performing artists.

It also will develop plans for special events, including whether to resume an annual golf tournament that was cancelled this spring and possibly add another spring fundraising event.

Opera Carolina is able to adapt itself to cope with the recession, Meena says, because “we do think outside the box.”

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