Turnaround Artist

Facing a Knoxville Opera Company on the verge of collapse three years ago, director Brian Salesky has put it into the black. But can he keep audiences coming back for more?

Opera companies, particularly small and mid-sized regional ones, aren't typically break-even prospects, much less profitable enterprises. Opera is an expensive art form. The sets, costumes, and high-dollar (and high-strung) singers don't come cheap. And that's not even counting theater rentals, travel budgets, marketing, and union labor, never mind the day-to-day operations like office space, postage, staff salaries, and utilities that eat up most of a company's annual budget. Opera's one of those things that's good for you but can't pay its own way. Nobody goes to music school to make a lot of money, after all. For a long time arts organizations weren't even expected to pay for themselves. The cultural service they provided was worth a little subsidy—a government grant, in-kind services, big philanthropic gifts—and nobody expected it would ever be any different.

In the last three years, though, the Knoxville Opera Company has turned the conventional wisdom about how an opera company runs upside down. A long-running and extensive debt load that many trace back to an extravagant farewell production of Aida by former KOC head Robert Lyall has been transformed into a surplus. One board member says the company was "on the verge of collapse" at the beginning of 2005, when Brian Salesky arrived as the company's new conductor and general director. A year later, at the end of the 2005-6 season, KOC was in the black, and the company has kept an operating surplus every year since then.

It's a tenuous situation, though. Salesky walks a fine line every time he schedules an event, trying to attract new and younger audiences (potential and future donors) but also trying not to bore long-time supporters (big donors) with yet another of the same half-dozen Verdi or Mozart greatest hits. Part of the opera company's mission is to expand its audience's vision and challenge its taste. But the company has to exist in order to do that, and a regional opera company that ventures too far into the 20th century or into the minor works of little-known composers will probably get its director and his taste challenged right out the door.

So what's the head of a mid-size opera company supposed to do? Like a lot of other opera directors around the country, Salesky's not entirely sure, but he's got a few ideas. The first one is that none of the others will matter if he doesn't keep KOC in business.

SALESKY ATTRIBUTES THE TURNAROUND since his arrival to fiscal discipline. "It includes, not necessarily in order of importance, reducing expenses, an increase in productivity on an individual basis, the re-negotiation of certain agreements, and a fiscally conservative pay-as-you go method of operation," he says. One of his most important tricks has been creating an escrow account for revenue from all ticket sales. KOC spends the money for a ticket to the opera on the particular opera it's paying for, and nothing else. "This is unlike any other performing arts institution I know of anywhere that I've been."

That bottom-line approach—the maestro as chief financial officer—was a big part of what attracted the KOC board of directors to Salesky at the time, and it's a big reason why Salesky is now widely regarded as the key figure in keeping the company afloat.

Under Salesky's predecessors, KOC put on three full opera productions a year. Now, in its 30th season, the company only produces two. Each one costs, on average, $200,000. Ticket sales account for less than 20 percent of any production. The rest of the KOC's approximately $1 million budget comes from donations, grants, and proceeds from both the Knoxville Opera Guild and smaller opera-related fund-raising events that now fill the calendar.

"We had to cut the third full theatrical production and replace it with some sort of large event with orchestra, choirs, and soloists," Salesky explains. "The first three years we've done some very interesting combinations—I think they're interesting combinations—of events."

In the fall of 2005, KOC hosted a concert that included a set of Kurt Weill cabaret songs as well as highlights from German opera. The next year Salesky scheduled a Mozart festival at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in West Knoxville, an all-day event that featured selections from all 20 of Mozart's operas. Last fall was Oktoberfest at the Foundry, with a production of the 1924 operetta The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg, and a sophisticated version of the popular Three Tenors concerts with large chunks of opera included. This year Salesky plans a second Oktoberfest and a Halloween event with music from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.

Those performances serve more than one purpose. They fill out the company's season and keep opera in the public eye. They let Salesky experiment with programming in both progressive and middlebrow directions—he'd never be able to schedule a work by either Kurt Weill or Andrew Lloyd Webber as a full production, but he can use them as bait to get non-traditional audiences at an opera event. They're also significant sources of income, with ticket prices generally well above those for the two main productions.

"The cost is less for Oktoberfest," Salesky says. "Part of the business plan is that the only time we ever want to lose money on purpose is when we're producing a full theatrical on stage. Oktoberfest must either pay for itself or show a slight operating surplus. That's part of how we've righted the ship."

Salesky's business acumen has been at least as significant a part of his career as his artistic vision. He graduated from Indiana University's prestigious Jacobs School of Music in the 1970s with a degree in performing arts management and production. He's conducted for operas and symphonies in Chicago, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., and served as director of chamber orchestras and ensemble groups in New York. In the 1980s he spent six years at the New York City Opera, splitting his duties as resident conductor with administrative responsibilities. When he was hired in Knoxville, Salesky was running Holiday Concert Productions, an independent promoter and production company for musicals.

When KOC general director Robert Lyall left the company for New Orleans in 1999, Salesky was a candidate for the position. Mark Hill, then a member of the KOC board of directors and now president of the board, recruited Salesky from New York. "I happened to think he should be the first choice," Hill says. "I didn't prevail."

The company instead hired Frank Graffeo, whose five-year tenure was tumultuous and ended abruptly, in part because of his inability to stabilize the company's finances. "In 2005, we needed to do something quickly," Hill says. "We didn't have time to do a nationwide search. I suggested bringing in Brian for an interview. We were on the verge of collapse.... I was confident that he could see us through this fiscally if anybody could. We have to find an artistic person who has a head for business and likes that part of it. We just don't have enough money to do it any other way. And that was the main thing—we thought he could do both."

Even when he describes Salesky as an artist, Hill emphasizes his leadership and his management skills. "He's an exacting, demanding, play-no-favorites kind of conductor," Hill says. "I can say he's earned the respect of the orchestra, and he certainly draws a marvelous sound out of the Knoxville symphony. He's very, very experienced; he has a resumé as long as your arm. He's very musical, very sensitive. The performances he creates are amazing."

ONE OF THE CONTINUING CHALLENGES for the opera company, even with Salesky's business-like approach, is Graffeo's most visible legacy: the annual Rossini Festival and Street Fair.

"It hasn't made us any money so far," says Hill. "It's not increased subscription sales or single ticket sales. It helps us obtain grants and maybe gives us exposure, but that exposure hasn't translated into ticket sales."

The street fair is KOC's highest-profile event, a spectacular one-day free celebration of Italian opera on Gay Street that coincides with one of KOC's two annual productions—this year, it's Puccini's hot-blooded tale of jealousy and torture, Tosca. The street fair includes more than eight hours of food vendors, period-costume performers, beer, and rock music. It's the single most popular festival event in Knoxville, with tens of thousands of people gathering downtown last year. But much about the street fair runs contrary to Salesky's business principles. It costs a lot of money to put on, and so far it hasn't translated, even indirectly, into revenue for the company.

"It took me a year and a half to really understand what the street fair was and what it meant to the people of Knoxville, the political structure of Knoxville, the growth of downtown, and the potency of the street fair as an education and outreach tool," Salesky says. "Now that I understand all those elements and how they add up, I think if it's at all possible to continue the street fair we should be doing it.... Knoxville Opera does not have a huge amount of cash coming through its door in April because we produce the street fair. The revenue from vendors and the sale of beverages cannot ever pay for the street fair. It's not possible. Not this street fair, not the way it's formulated and constructed, with all the costs we have from logistics and labor. It's no different than a production of Carmen. It's a production. It's just on the street. But because of the importance the street fair has evolved into, I think it's crucial for the company to do everything it can to continue it as an annual event. But I must stress that it requires the support of sponsors, just like every other event that is done that people get to go to for free."

Hill says the fair will have one innovation this year that he hopes will offset the company's investment. "We'll have, at every entry point into the street fair, a request for a two-dollar donation. If it's a beautiful day there might be 60,000 to 70,000 people downtown. If 10,000 or 15,000 of them cough up two bucks, if that's the case, we're in business."

AS A PROGRAMMER, Salesky is bound by the expectations of mid-size opera. In 2004, when he was interviewing for his current position, he conducted a KOC performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. During his first season as general director, he led a production of Madama Butterfly, and in the following seasons conducted Carmen and La Boheme. With this month's production of Tosca, Salesky will have led his company through some of the most reliable standards of the canon. But he's also added Broadway and 20th-century pieces to the company's repertoire, in the special fundraising events, and last year's staging of Verdi's La Forza del Destino was a Tennessee premiere.

"He tries to be as innovative as he dares, but it's also really important for us to fill up seats," Hill says. "He's made it through some of the top-five workhorse operas, and he's doing Tosca [this] month. An opera company has a certain obligation to educate, but you're not going to see Dead Man Walking or Dr. Atomic here like you would in Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco."

Salesky, too, recognizes the difficulty of programming. He has a core audience he depends on for both ticket sales and donations, but those people aren't quite enough to fill the Tennessee Theatre four nights a year; he has to reach out to new audiences. And opera does, traditionally, have a role as a cultural service, which means it should introduce new and challenging works alongside the greatest hits of Italian and German opera. But traditional audiences don't respond in large numbers to 20th-century or American opera. At the same time, opera lovers who have seen the handful of standards from Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart five or six times don't necessarily want to see them again. And for a company as precariously balanced as KOC, one poorly attended production could mean disaster. Salesky points to the Halloween program scheduled for this fall, with both opera and music from Phantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd.

"This is one way of reaching out to, hopefully, a group of people who have never been through our door before, without disenfranchising our core audience," he says. "If anybody in the performing arts industry had a magic potion for how to get teenagers or college students or, for that matter, the 30-year-olds who are married with kids through their door, if we knew the precise formula to create that would bring those people in en masse, trust me, we would do it. So we do various things throughout the year to let people know we're here."

And those various things better bring in some money.

"By choice, I say we shouldn't do anything else [besides the two productions a year] that costs us. That's part of the reason we're here."