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Raleigh opera companies to merge

Posted March 8, 2010
Updated March 9, 2010

By Ret Boney, Philanthropy Journal

The last year-and-a-half has been tough on the performing arts.

The recession kept many would-be audience members at home, and some donors and grantmakers either scaled back their giving or directed a larger share of their donations to basic needs like food, shelter and clothing.

Against that backdrop, and after several years of serving the same market with similar offerings, Raleigh's two opera companies, the Opera Company of North Carolina and Capital Opera Raleigh, will join forces this July to form the North Carolina Opera.

"I have a feeling for the tone, the flavor, the atmosphere of this company," says Francis Acquaviva, acting general director and vice chair of the board of the Opera Company of North Carolina. "It really is different from what either of us has done in the past and that's what generates the excitement."

The Opera Company of North Carolina was formed in 1996 to bring professional opera to Raleigh's premier venues.

Capital Opera Raleigh was formed in 2003 to highlight young, local and emerging artists, with professional performances of full operas in smaller venues at affordable prices, and to take opera into the public schools.

The goal of the new company is to perform main-stage opera using professional singers, provide local talent with opportunities in main-stage and community venues, enhance outreach into schools, and become the focal point for individuals and groups interested in opera throughout the Triangle.

"There were too many opera companies for too small an audience," says Bill McCulloch, president of the board of Capital Opera Raleigh. "Neither company was getting the community support they needed. We felt we could form a new company that would fill a niche in the community."

Both McCulloch and Acquaviva say the recession wasn't the primary motivator for the merger.

"It was more a question of holes in our offerings and holes in their offerings," says McCulloch. "The offerings were too fragmented, as were the donations."
However, both companies had seen attendance decrease and grants and other donations shrink in recent months.

The Opera Company on North Carolina cut its staff of four down to one contractor, who is assisted by a cadre of volunteers.

Capital Opera Raleigh, which always has had a "working board" and is staffed by volunteers, canceled its planned performance of Tosca with the goal of performing it after the merger.

"Between the Opera Company of North Carolina and ourselves, we were splitting the audience so that neither house was full," says McCulloch.

When the merger goes into effect July 1, the new organization will stage more productions than either company was performing individually, he says, and can present a united front to donors and grantmakers.

"When we went to organizations for funding support, they asked why there were two opera companies in Raleigh," Acquaviva says of grantseeking before the merger. "This gives us a unified face to go to funding organizations. Everyone we've talked to is really excited about this."

With that momentum, the new organization aims to bring in about $800,000 for its 2010-11 season, which kicks off in the fall.

It has about $160,000 in hand already, including significant, multi-year gifts from individuals and commitments from two major local corporations.

About $350,000 of the total will come from ticket sales, leaving close to $300,000 still to raise in individual donations, grants and corporate sponsorships, says Acquaviva.

He is hoping to count among the supporters the Raleigh Arts Commission and the United Arts Council, which turned down his opera company's grant request last year, but which will be receiving a "substantial" request from the new organization this year.

The effort also has the support of Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, and Bill Johnson, president and CEO of Progress Energy, has agreed to boost his company's contribution by 20 percent, Acquaviva says.

The boards of the two organizations will be combined, with each member invited to join the new board, and seven new members will be asked to join, with the final board set to number just over 30.

And the organization has launched a national search for a new general director, a process that will be managed by Armstrong McGuire, a Raleigh-based consultancy that also will assist with the group's fundraising efforts.

An artistic director is in place, and as the North Carolina Opera gains its financial and operational footing, it plans to bring on an education and community-relations director, a development director and administrative assistants.

And in this new era of cooperation and cost-savings, there's talk of collaborating with the opera companies in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte.

The soon-to-be North Carolina Opera is in talks with Charlotte about possible opportunities, says Acquaviva, and he's considering the possibility of one production that travels to various cities.

While there are logistical obstacles to such partnerships, he estimates savings of about 30 percent are possible by trimming set, housing and other expenses.

And the market, both donors and audience members, seem encouraged by the new possibilities, says Acquaviva.

"The synergy is almost palpable," he says of the merger. "People smile when we talk to them about this.

(c) Philanthropy Journal

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