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Many key people quit in power struggle at city opera


Less than two years after barely averting bankruptcy with an emergency fund-raising campaign, the Baltimore Opera Company is coming off an unprecedented internal power struggle that could threaten its future.

A quarrel among the company's trustees about the possibility of a crippling deficit has led to several resignations, to questions about the leadership of BOC general director Michael Harrison and to revelations about behind-the-scenes goings on that are closer to soap opera than grand opera.

Among the recent developments that have shaken the opera company founded more than 40 years ago by the legendary diva Rosa Ponselle:

* Chairman Lowell R. Bowen, the architect of 1990's "Save the Opera" campaign, was replaced in a narrow vote of the board of trustees earlier this month by John R. Young, who says he wants the BOC to become a "world-class," rather than just a regional company.

It was the first time in the memory of those associated with the company that rival slates of officers had been presented to the board and reflected a tug of war between those who favored fiscal prudence and those who advocated artistic aggressiveness.

Mr. Bowen's replacement provoked five resignations from the company's 39-member board -- a number that some predict could grow to 15 by the end of the year.

* Chief financial officer Nizam Kettaneh, brought in 2 1/2 years ago to help save the company, resigned last week, saying the opera resented the kind of financial controls he represented.

Mr. Kettaneh, who is Lebanese, also charged Mr. Harrison made an ethnic slur against him, a charge Mr. Harrison denied.

* Operatic director Bliss Hebert, who has staged 23 productions for the BOC over the last 20 years and directed this season's opening production of "Turandot," vowed in a letter to the board of directors never to return, criticizing the company for its "malaise, discontent and disorganization."

Mr. Hebert said in the letter and a subsequent interview that Mr. Harrison hired security guards to prevent him from attempting to take a curtain call on opening night. This he viewed as a possible reprisal for making an emotional farewell speech after the dress rehearsal.

* After pledging to donors to its emergency fund-raising campaign to maintain an even balance sheet, the opera incurred a nearly $100,000 operating deficit last year on a budget of $2 million and knowledgeable sources predict this year's deficit could top $150,000.

"This is a most serious situation. At the moment, things are in a terrible turmoil," said Arthur F. Dellheim, a longtime board member and large contributor who resigned earlier this month.

"If this continues, we may have to put on opera by CD," he added.

Mr. Young, the new board chairman, denied that the recent events would deter the opera from its mission, calling them "the normal things that happen in the course of an organization doing its business."

"The Baltimore Opera has never been in a better position with respect to artistic product, staff, finances, marketing and development."

Whatever differences of opinion exist over the state of the company and where it is going, there is little dispute that the battle lines began to be drawn several months ago.

In December, a year after the successful completion of the $1 million "Save the Opera" campaign, Mr. Harrison's initial three-year contract expired.

Some board members who felt the company was making artistic progress under his direction wanted to renew his contract; others, disturbed by what they saw as his financial extravagance and failure to communicate with his staff and visiting artists, wanted him fired.

As a compromise, the board decided to retain him on a month-by-month basis -- an arrangement that remains today.

The divisions deepened this spring, when the final financial figures for the 1991-92 season were added up, according to several board members.

Although the opera announced publicly that it had finished the season with a $50,000 surplus, it did not point out that the surplus included $150,000 from the 1990 fund-raising campaign.

According to a statement of the company's finances provided to The Sun, the opera actually incurred a $99,434 operating deficit for that season.

Mr. Young, the new board chairman, dismissed the significance of those figures. "Cash flow is the name of the game," he said. On that basis, he added, the opera has shown a surplus for the last two years.

Nearly half of the 120 professional opera companies in North America finished in the red last year, according to Marc Scorca, chief executive officer of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization.

But some BOC board members found the 1991-92 operating deficit disturbing, coming as it did less than a year and a half after the opera nearly went bankrupt.

And it further widened the split on the board between those who believed that the opera's first responsibility was to control its expenses and those who felt the opera's paramount mission was to present the best performances it could and find a way to pay for them later.

Fissures also began to appear over Mr. Harrison's artistic efforts between those who regarded him as an operatic genius and those who thought his artistic effort was uneven and who worried about the fact that his last company, Opera Columbus, nearly went bankrupt the year after he left.

At a September board meeting, the nominating committee proposed a slate of officers headed by Mr. Bowen, under whose leadership the opera had avoided bankruptcy.

But instead of the routine approval that usually greets such nominations, a second slate headed by Mr. Young was proposed. That slate won a bare 20-19 vote victory in a secret mail ballot earlier this month.

Mr. Bowen describes the vote as a plebiscite on the future of the opera, adding he would resign from the opera's board because he is too closely identified with "the contrarian view."

The extraordinary vote for board chairman was followed by a scathing five-page letter from Mr. Hebert, the operatic director who resigned.

Citing what he called a pattern of insults and poor communication, he said a "once happy company" had been turned "into the saddest in the country."

Mr. Harrison called the dispute a difference of "artistic temperament."

But Mr. Hebert is not the only artist who has complained about Mr. Harrison, and even more disturbing to some board members was the allegation of discrimination leveled by Mr. Kettaneh, the former chief financial officer, who filed a complaint with the state Commission on Human Relations.

The complaint was dismissed in August without ever going to a hearing because the commission ruled the opera did not have enough employees to come under its jurisdiction.

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