Opera Pacific cancels season

After being bailed out repeatedly over the years by a small corps of big donors, Opera Pacific, Orange County’s professional opera company, appears to have sung its swan song -- barring a fairy-tale rescue.

If it succumbs, the company, founded in 1986 as part of the burst of arts energy in the county surrounding the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, will be a casualty of this year’s crisis on Wall Street. A limited circle of patrons has been unable to swing the $4 million to $5 million in donations needed to fund a typical season’s budget of about $7 million to $8 million.

Board Chairman Sebastian Paul Musco did not quite acknowledge Wednesday that Opera Pacific is finished but was left clinging to a prayer that the company might dodge Gotterdammerung once more.

Asked what the future might hold, he answered with a plea: “Send me a miracle; send me an angel.” Musco, founder and chairman of Gemini Industries, said his own gambit would be playing the lottery and donating any jackpot to Opera Pacific.

On Tuesday, the company announced that the two remaining productions of its 2008-09 season had been canceled; that it had put its office, set-storage and rehearsal building in Santa Ana up for sale to settle its debts, including refunds owed ticket holders; and that it had laid off all but two members of a staff that Musco said had numbered about 20.

The canceled operas are “The Grapes of Wrath,” a recent work by Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie, and Richard Strauss’ “Salome” with soprano Deborah Voigt. The recent production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” was saved only with a last-gasp fundraising effort that brought in about $350,000, said Robert C. Jones, Opera Pacific’s president and chief executive until his job disappeared Tuesday. Ticket sales for the four performances fell about $200,000 short of budgeted projections, Jones said.

Musco said the limited number of donors who had funded the company no longer could come up with the necessary gifts in the wake of drastic hits to their investment portfolios and the demands of other causes. “We’re exhausted,” he said. “We want to go out of this thing gracefully with our heads up high.”

Jones said the national economic crisis hit the company just as it was planning a new approach aimed at expanding its audience and donor base. Instead of mounting a fall-through-spring season, starting in 2010 it would produce a monthlong summer festival of three operas at the Costa Mesa performance center.

Jones said the Opera Pacific building was recently appraised at $3.1 million but would probably fetch “much less” in the current market. Still, he said, the sale should cover the company’s outstanding debt. He and Musco would not specify how much is owed.

Musco said the 28-member board had yet to address whether it would try to keep Opera Pacific on long-term life support by preserving its name and nonprofit status with hopes of its being resuscitated as a summer festival. “It’s on my wish list, but it’s there only if we can fund it,” he said.

In 2000, Orange County tech billionaire Henry Samueli and his wife, Susan, delivered Opera Pacific from a large deficit with a $5-million donation (the two opera buffs have given $16 million to the company since 1999).

“You can’t keep asking people like the Samuelis, ‘Give us another million,’ ” Musco said. “In all fairness, where’s the rest of the community?”

Gerald Solomon, executive director of the Samueli Foundation, said the Samuelis were not approached for a bailout-size donation this time. He said they would support whatever decisions the board made and continue to donate “to the extent that’s possible.”

Musco said he had donated more than $5 million himself over the years, including a $2-million loan he made in 2005, then later forgave as part of a fundraising effort. Jones said the company’s debt had been erased in 2007, positioning it to stage its current season, then transform itself with the summer festival plan -- until the stock market plunged.

The collapse of the opera season means a possible loss of $300,000 to $400,000 in rental income for the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Terrence Dwyer, the center’s president, said the venue would try to book substitute events.

“It’s very sad news for everyone in the community,” Dwyer said.

Boehm is a Times staff writer.