City, arts leaders should fight to keep Opera Boston alive

"Beatrice et Benedict by Hector Berlioz" at Opera Boston Pictured: Julie Boulianne as Beatrice and Sean Panikkar as Benedict Night. Photo credit: Clive Grainger 24beatrice
Clive Grainger
Julie Boulianne, left, and Sean Panikkar performed in “Beatrice et Benedict by Hector Berlioz” at Opera Boston.

AN OPERA company in distress might be excused for over-dramatizing its plight in the hopes of finding a financial rescuer. But with barely a whimper, Opera Boston - the city’s second largest opera company - announced last week that it was closing its doors as if it were nothing more than the corner sub shop.

It’s both a strange and sad outcome. The official reason given by Opera Boston’s board was an “insurmountable budget deficit.’’ But the roughly $750,000 deficit and liabilities weighing down the company struck few experts as insurmountable in a city of Boston’s size and cultural tastes. While some of the opera company’s powerful board members may have grown tired of their commitments, they could have found a way to exit the stage without dismantling the company.

Like the Institute of Contemporary Art, the risk-taking Opera Boston helped make the city culturally relevant. Just this year, Opera Boston was the talk of the town for commissioning and premiering “Madame White Snake,’’ by composer Zhou Long, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music. The ambitious opera company, which made special efforts to reach younger and minority audiences, is also credited with pushing the more mainstream Boston Lyric Opera in more adventurous directions. It’s a significant loss. And it is far from clear that it had to end this way.


In the fall, a group of newer board members volunteered to form a committee to get a better understanding of the company’s finances with an eye toward improving cash flow and fundraising. Ideas started to percolate, including canceling the current season only in order to regroup, soliciting new donors and foundations, seeking loan forgiveness, and even putting together a syndicated loan with cash collateral. But the 17-member board’s clubby, 5-member executive committee put the kibosh on the effort, prompting several of the newer board members to resign. It would have been far better had the executive committee members resigned, and placed the organization in the hands of board members with the passion to save the company.

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Board president Gregory Bulger, a local arts philanthropist, said the absence of an endowment, the failure to secure a previous foundation grant, and slow ticket sales due to a bad economy were simply too much to overcome. Bulger would not reveal the tally of the board vote to dissolve Opera Boston. But he said members explored “all avenues’’ to save the company.

But some obvious avenues were overlooked. Mayor Menino said he was shocked to read that the company would be dissolved. And no one had sought help from him or the city’s office of arts and culture to drum up support for the opera company. In addition to its artistic significance, Opera Boston played a role in the commercial renaissance of downtown near its leased performance space at the Cutler Majestic Theater.

Boards have the power to dissolve nonprofit charitable institutions as long as they follow their own bylaws. Before anyone closes the final curtain on Opera Boston, however, the attorney general’s public charities division should investigate whether everything was done by the book and in keeping with proper organizational hygiene.

It’s nothing short of a tragedy for the city that such a cultural institution could be dissolved with so little transparency - and without a fight.