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Opera Theatre ends season on a high note

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2009 - Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 33rd season closed Sunday with ticket sales up nearly 5 percent over 2008. The new OTSL general director Timothy O'Leary announced the company's happy stats late Wednesday.

Despite the international financial crisis, which has curtailed offerings by many opera and music organizations and forced a few to close, OTSL continues its 33-year tradition of having no deficit.

Early last winter, the company's staff, and its artists under contract, agreed to freeze salaries and fees, which helped keep costs in check. Despite a drop in travel throughout the world, the company continued to draw visitors to St. Louis for the season - from 43 states and nine foreign countries, O'Leary said.

About one-third of he season's 28 performances were sold out. Over the six- week season, which featured four operas, 90 percent of the Loretto-Hilton Center's overall seat capacity was sold.

Even so, ticket sales cover only 26 percent of expenses. Opera -- with highly trained singing actors, (nearly all have graduate degrees), chorus, symphony orchestra players, costumes, sets, props and video designed by visual artists -- is the world's most expensive theatre. Donors and foundations pay for three-quarters of costs.

In his first year as general director, O'Leary worked to reach out to new groups, especially younger music lovers. He succeeded. According to replies by ticket buyers, about 15 percent of this season's audience had never attended an Opera Theatre performance until this year.

O'Leary, its staff and volunteers built a once-dormant Young Friends of the opera group to a membership of 150. Many members enjoyed pre- and post-opera events and educational opportunities.

The company moved more boldly into electronic communications and offered video previews and documentaries on its website of each of its productions shortly after each opened. The company also used Facebook and Twitter.

Casting, set and costume design and other efforts are well underway for the company's 2010 season, which will include four operas: "The Marriage of Figaro," "Eugene Onegin," "A Little Night Music" and the world premiere of "The Golden Ticket," based on the children's story "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.