Compared with just about every other company in the business, Lyric Opera of Chicago continues to ride above the economic turbulence that is buffeting so many of the nation's other not-for-profit performing arts organizations. Not soaring, but riding.
The overall news coming out of the company's annual meeting Monday night was positive. The company exceeded its fundraising goal for fiscal 2012 and also scored impressive gains in ticket revenue, contributions and ticket sales that spoke to opera's central importance in the classical music life of the area — weak economy or not.
Despite an aggressive marketing and branding campaign, Lyric suffered a slight drop in the percentage of seating capacity sold for the season — from 91 percent in 2010-11 to 88 percent in the eight-opera season that concluded March 25 in the 3,500-seat Civic Opera House.
Given the ever-rising costs of opera production, the company was forced to draw approximately $3.8 million from its reserve funds to break even for the fiscal year. Lyric had tapped into its Campaign for Excellence Fund to the tune of $4.3 million in fiscal 2011, and $2.7 million the previous year, to balance its books. All three were planned withdrawals.
“Our subscription sales continue to be the best on the continent, but the percentage of the revenue budget they cover is not what it used to be,” general director Anthony Freud said in a prepared statement. “Extraordinary additional marketing efforts were needed to reach our excellent individual ticket sales numbers this year, and clearly this is the wave of the future.”
The board and administrative leadership are developing a strategic plan whose goal is to generate new revenue streams from operating and contributed income, he added.
Ticket revenue for the season was reported to be $25 million, $1.3 million higher than for the 2010-11 season. Lyric also raised more than $21.1 million in contributions, $3 million more than in the previous season.
Indeed, contributed income reached its second-highest level in the company's history, after that of Lyric's 50th anniversary season in 2004-05, according to President and CEO Kenneth G. Pigott.
A total of 233,113 tickets were sold in 2011-12, roughly 3,000 more than in the previous season.
The Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical “Show Boat,” Lyric's most recent venture into the American musical theater genre, sold at 95 percent capacity and brought in new audiences, Freud said. Almost 50 percent of those buying individual tickets to “Show Boat” were newcomers to Lyric, he added.
“Overall box office sales of 88 percent is outstanding, relative to the entire field. While it may be lower than the remarkable 100-plus percentages of Lyric seasons in the 1990s, this level of capacity utilization is still noteworthy,” said Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, the Washington-based national opera association. “Very few companies exceed 85 percent of capacity. We continue to view Lyric Opera as one of the strongest companies in the country, from every analytic dimension.
“It is difficult to speak about the overall fiscal health of opera companies nationwide because of the extreme range of conditions,” he added. “Some companies continue to struggle while others are exhibiting fresh artistic energy and financial momentum. Also, generalizations are impossible to make since the fate of an opera company is tied so heavily to a city's local economy and growth dynamics, as well as to the quality of local staff and volunteer leadership.”
Lyric's fiscal year will move from April 30 to June 30 in 2013 to accommodate 16 performances of a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's “Oklahoma!” in May of that year. The extension of the fiscal year and an increase in activities mean that operating expenses for fiscal 2013 are expected to increase to $65.7 million. The fundraising goal has been raised accordingly, to $22.9 million. Casting and production details for “Oklahoma!” have yet to be announced.
Lyric has operated in the black for 24 of the last 25 years and is among the few major opera companies in America that is not carrying an accumulated deficit. Fully audited financial statements will be issued in August.
Pigott said that union negotiations were “proceeding as planned” with the two unions representing Lyric musicians, the Chicago Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists. Contracts with both unions expired on April 30.
The other news to emerge from Lyric's annual meeting is that the contract of music director Andrew Davis, which was to have expired at the end of the 2014-15 season, has been extended through Lyric's 2020-21 season. He has held his present position since 2000.
The 2012-13 season will begin Oct. 6 with a new production of Richard Strauss' “Elektra,” conducted by Davis, directed by David McVicar and starring Christine Goerke, Emily Magee, Jill Grove and Alan Held.
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