Baltimore Opera seeks Chapter 11 protection

After 58 years and more than 200 productions, the Baltimore Opera Company will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-law protection today amid dwindling ticket sales and contributions.

The remaining two productions of the 2008-2009 season, Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, have been canceled. Ticket-holders will not receive refunds. Singers engaged for next season are being released from their contracts, but the company plans to continue fundraising in an effort to resume productions in the future.

Deborah Goetz, senior director of marketing and communications, confirmed yesterday that Baltimore Opera's board of trustees voted Dec. 4 to file for Chapter 11 protection.

"My heart sinks," said soprano Evelyn Lear, now retired and living in Rockville. She starred in three Baltimore Opera productions during the 1970s and 1980s. "The company had high standards, good productions, a good orchestra. I'm distraught that this may mean that opera is finished in Baltimore."

Famously guided for decades by legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, the organization was incorporated in 1950 as the Baltimore Civic Opera Company. Its roots go back further; a more loosely organized ensemble, established by conductor Eugene Martinet, began performing under that name in the early 1930s.

The newly chartered Baltimore Opera debuted with Verdi's Aida in April 1950. Two years later, performances moved from the Maryland Casualty Auditorium on Keswick Road to the Lyric Opera House, which remained the company's permanent home.

Stellar singers performed with the Baltimore Opera over the decades, among them sopranos Beverly Sills and Anna Moffo and tenors Carlo Bergonzi and Placido Domingo. Bass-baritone James Morris, mentored in his early years by Ponselle, launched his career at the Baltimore Opera.

Last month, the company reported a major cash-flow shortage, attributed largely to a shortfall of more than $200,000 in projected ticket sales for the season-opening production of Aida in October. A board member had to make a personal guarantee of salaries for last month's production of Bellini's Norma.

In addition, contributions declined this fall, "placing ongoing operations in jeopardy," according to the official statement.

The company, which has faced cash-flow issues for several years, has an accumulated deficit of "maybe $800,000," Goetz said. The annual operating budget is about $6 million.

"We regret the impact that [the bankruptcy filing] will have on our creditors and associates, but we take this action in order to preserve one of the region's most significant cultural institutions," board Chairman Allan D. Jensen said in the statement.

The opera company is the largest casualty among local arts organizations since the economy began its steep decline in September. Due to declining revenue, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra recently canceled events scheduled for January.

"Naturally, we are saddened to hear that the Baltimore Opera will close its doors for the rest of the season," said Eileen Andrews Jackson, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's vice president of public relations and community affairs. "The BSO is certainly sympathetic to all area arts organizations now being affected by an extremely challenging economic environment. It is our hope that the Opera can turn itself around and re-emerge as a vital contributor to Baltimore's cultural life."

Goetz acknowledged that "there probably will be some challenges" to the no-refund policy for ticket-holders. Letters will be sent explaining an option of treating their purchase as a tax deduction.

The Baltimore Opera board named M. Kevin Wixted, a financial consultant, to the post of general manager. He will be responsible for directing the reorganization effort and future planning. Wixted served as the BSO's interim chief financial officer for seven months in 2007.

Longtime general director Michael Harrison relinquished that job last month to become artistic director. He will continue in that capacity and assist in fundraising. "Michael has been the lead fundraiser for the last 20 years and will remain very much involved in that effort," Goetz said.

She said that James Handakas, who was named acting general director last month, is leaving the company to accept an out-of-town job offer, and that board president Lisa Di Julio Bertani resigned within the past two weeks.

Various educational programs are expected to continue during the reorganization, and "the company will continue to solicit contributions to create an operating account to subsidize future productions," according to yesterday's statement. Goetz said that no staff member "has been let go yet."