Symphony and Opera Upbeats


Just as the Ottoman Empire became known as the â“sick manâ” of Europe in the early 20th century, the Knoxville Symphony and the Knoxville Opera began looking like the â“sick menâ” of the community's cultural scene in the early 21st.

After halcyon years in the 1990s when they performed before full houses in the Tennessee Theatre, attendance began to run down and deficits to pick up. Season subscriptions to the symphony's Masterworks concert series dropped from 2701 in the 1997-98 season to 1536 in 2005-06. With the audience for its Pops concerts also on the decline, the symphony incurred a deficit that year of $285,000 that had grown to a cumulative $533,000 at the beginning of the fiscal year that ended May 31. Only a $500,000 bank line of credit, guaranteed primarily by Knoxville's foremost philanthropists, Jim Clayton and Jim Haslam, kept the symphony afloat.

Not blessed with comparable backing, the Knoxville Opera Co. had virtually suspended operations in early 2000, having exhausted its endowment to pay off outstanding debts. No season was even planned for 2005-06 when Brian Salesky arrived that May from Connecticut to take the opera company's helm.

Thence began dramatic turnarounds, financially at least, for which Salesky and the symphony's volunteer president Mark Mamantov deserve a great deal of the credit. In his first year on the job, Salesky managed to stage only one full-fledged opera, down from the traditional three. But he coupled it with a bravura solo performance by a long-time friend, soprano Catherine Malfitano, while sustaining the Rossini Festival that's become one of downtown's most cherished attractions. Perhaps most importantly of all, he got the opera company in the black. He kept it there this season with two full operas at the Tennessee Theatre and a Mozart Festival staged with a bare-bones budget at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church. For the coming season, productions of La Forza Del Destino and Tosca will be complemented by a concert version of The Student Prince over dinner at The Foundry and a Three Tenors rendition of arias at the Bijou Theatre. â“I believe we have a realistic budget for the season, and that the worst case scenario is break even,â” Salesky says.

In some ways, the challenges facing Mamantov at the symphony were even more daunting. For one, the $3.7 million expense budget that Mamantov inherited when he began his two-year term as president was three times larger than the opera's had been, and the symphony's ticket sales decline had been more precipitous. For two, the symphony's expenses include the cost of a full-time core orchestra of 22 musicians who play not only for the symphony and the opera but also support the symphony's extensive educational outreach efforts. Moreover, the symphony executive director's position has been vacant for most of the past year, which meant Mamantov had to double as its CEO while still maintaining his law practice.

Yet with very little reduction in its programming, the symphony now expects to be in the black to the tune of about $90,000 for the fiscal year that ended May 31. And that doesn't count $112,000 in special gifts, which, along with the net income, is expected to reduce the accumulated deficit to about $330,000 at year-end. The budget for the fiscal year ahead is balanced on what Mamantov believes is a conservative basis. More ambitiously, with more special gifts in prospect, he says, â“We hope to have the deficit wiped out by the end of fiscal year 2008.â”

Cost cutting was a big factor in getting both the symphony and opera back on terra firma. Symphony expenses have been cut from over $3.6 million in fiscal year 2006 to slightly under $3.3 million in the fiscal year ahead, mainly through reductions in outlays for artistic personnel. Salesky also cut opera expenses by about $300,000 to around $1 million during his first year.

Has the $300,000 cut in the symphony's artistic personnel expenses over the past three years hurt the quality of the orchestra? Mamantov doesn't think so; nor does long-time symphony violinist Norris Dryer who insists, â“The orchestra sounds the best it ever has.â” Most of the expense reductions came in guest artist fees for the symphony's financially chancy pop concerts, which have been scaled back. The size of the core orchestra has been allowed to shrink to 17 from 22, but Mamantov calls these five positions vacancies rather than reductions. And for a city Knoxville's size, having this many full-time players (a majority of whom hail from Europe and Asia) is remarkable. The symphony's ranks are fleshed out by local per-service musicians.

The past couple of years have also brought a modest reversal of the decline in season subscriptions to the symphony's seven concert masterworks series. They rose to 1,568 this season from 1,536 the year before, and sales for next season are running seven percent ahead of a year ago.

A new executive director, Rachel Ford, came on board in April to fill a long-standing vacancy. She had previously been executive director of the Waterloo-Cedar Rapids Symphony, which has been experiencing both audience gains and profitability that she hopes to replicate here. But the challenge of continuing to make a predominantly 19th century repertoire resonate in the 21st century is no easy task. â“We need to make coming to a concert part of having a good time,â” Ford says.   But she goes on to lament that, â“People will look at a new art and read new books, but they won't listen to new music.â”  

â" Joe Sullivan


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