Times are tough for local arts. Tightening belts are squeezing sensibilities along with budgets.
The board of Mobile Opera terminated the position of artistic director at an April 14 board meeting, the result of a fiscal crunch and uncertain venue status. Andy Anderson, who has served in the role since August 2008, was told of the situation prior and dutifully submitted his resignation.
“He’s been a gentleman, been good to Mobile Opera,” Mobile Opera General Director Scott Wright said. “We’ve been really happy with what he did.”
Anderson was previously artistic director of the Civic Opera Theater of Kansas City, assistant conductor for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and music director for the Kansas City, Missouri Civic Orchestra.
The last year has been tumultuous for the fine arts mainstay, recognized by Opera America as the nation’s 15th oldest opera organization. They were caught unaware when the mayor’s office told Mardi Gras organizations at the end of 2014 that the Mobile Civic Center would be eliminated. Mobile Opera, along with Mobile Ballet depend on the Civic Center Theater as their venue.
“This discussion started back in January when we heard about the fate of the Civic Center,” Wright said. “Our individual contributions dropped significantly when that announcement came out. We’re trying to be proactive with regard to the closing of the Civic Center and the rising costs [for the facility].”
Wright also noted a general restructuring of Mobile Opera is needed. He hinted at rising overall expenses for the productions and a possible new format.
“We’re trying to do some things that will be quality opera like we’ve been doing, but it will be a smaller audience setting with the actors in the room with the patrons,” Wright said. “It’s not the normal thing Andy has done. We don’t have the same needs as far as our production team.”
Wright mentioned overlapping duties as a cause for the position’s eradication. He declined to disclose the money saved by redlining the artistic director’s seat.
“The opera is in very, very serious financial trouble, so that was where they were going to start cutting costs,” said John Hafner, a longtime board member. “Most of the people in the room were pleased with Andy and supportive of him.”
Hafner said he was so upset by the development that he and another member resigned their positions. The former Spring Hill College professor was one of a small group who traveled west to survey Anderson’s work following the 2007 resignation announcement of previous artistic director Jerome Shannon.
“There were some tentative plans presented [at the meeting],” Hafner said. “One suggestion was that the opera continue to exist but as dinner theatre and we would do first ‘Pagliacci,’ then ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ in the Shrine Temple and have tables and seats and dinners.”
Hafner also said he was with a group of opera advocates who reached out to city hall. Their goal was compromise.
“Several of us had gotten in touch with the mayor to ask that they keep the theater and just tear down the [Arena and Expo Hall],” Hafner said. “The complication there is that they’re all on a single services system, all the power, the water and everything is apparently one system.”
The executive director elaborated on the difficulties. There is more than schematics involved.
“The word I have is it is definitely closing in April 2016 even if it is ultimately kept and refurbished but there’s a lot of renovation that would have to go on even if it was cut free because there’s a lot of electrical work that has to be done to make that free-standing, the parking and all that,” Wright said. “Plus, I’ve heard the building might have some compliance issues that need to be addressed. I’ve heard a million dollars tossed around as a figure for all that but it’s not been confirmed.”
Both men noted space issues with utilizing the Saenger Theatre for opera and ballet. Inadequate dressing rooms, lack of a backstage area, a larger stage and an orchestra pit are problems for the companies.
This rough financial patch isn’t the first for Mobile Opera. A deficit occurred during the 2003-05 seasons, estimated at $150,000 at one point. Following poor attendance at a Hurricane Ivan-delayed concert featuring mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, then-Mobile Opera Executive Michelle Kitson resigned.
“Since I first sang for Mobile Opera back in 1980, I’ve sung with at least eight different conductors but we got used to consistency when Jerry Shannon was here for so long,” Wright said. “I hope we’re not headed for a dark age. The city’s decision not to fund the arts and to take the venue away on its heels, I think that sends a bad signal about what the city wants and how we view the arts. But the only thing permanent is change and we’re trying to go with that flow.”