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Opera Theatre Reports A Record Financial Year

photo of Tim O'Leary
Courtesy Opera Theatre of St. Louis

A celebratory concert for donors to Opera Theatre of St. Louis began with a thank you. Donations and total assets had both grown substantially.

General Director Timothy O'Leary had announced earlier on Dec. 9 that donations were up 17 percent over the previous year. For the first time in the company's history, contributions designated for productions and operating support exceeded $5 million. 

The assets were tallied after the company finished its fiscal year with $9.4 million in operating expenses. Total net assets grew by $4.6 million, rising to $37.1 million from $32.5 million. The St. Louis company's success comes as some opera companies and other arts groups across the nation struggle to survive.  Opera Theatre has never run a deficit in its 38-year history. 

The generosity of contributors is the main reason for the increase in assets. And 358 donors made new or increased gifts to help the company raised $1.5 million and meet the Andrew W. Mellon Foundations' three-year $1 million "challenge grant." That grant backs the company's commissioning and presenting a cycle of three new operas by American composers called "New Works, Bold Voices."

The first of these new operas opened in June: "Champion" by jazz composer Terrance Blanchard and lyricist Michael Cristofer. It not only won critical national and internation praise, 98 percent of the seats were sold during its run. That made the jazz opera based on a true story centered around a death in the boxing ring the highest-selling premiere of the more than two dozen world premieres in Opera Theatre's history. 

The Monday evening concert featuring soprano Elizabeth Zharoff and tenor Theo Lebow included masterpieces by Handel, Mozart and Gounod. Robert Ainsley, OTSL head of music staff and chorus master served both as master of ceremonies and accompanist.  

Both singers have roles in the 2014 spring season. Zharoff served up an introduction to American composer Ricky Ian Gordan's style of melody. With lyricist Royce Vavrek, he's writing "Twenty-Seven" the 2014 opera in the "New Works, New Voices" cycle. It tells stories of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other ex-pat Americans in Paris in the 1920s. Zharoff sang six of Gordan's song settings for Emily Dickinson poems. The concert ended with an appropriate send-off, a duet of  Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside."

After the concert, Opera Theatre's board chairman Spencer Burke deflected personal congratulations. "It's due to many, many people," he said. 

He's been board chairman since 2008, the year O'Leary became the company's third general director. O'Leary also deflected personal praise.

“We are deeply grateful to the St. Louis community, to our board, to our national patrons' council, our subscribers and to the staff, volunteers, and artists who make Opera Theatre’s mission possible,” he said in a statement. “We are looking forward to another landmark season in 2014 thanks to this inspiring team effort.”

In the five years of O'Leary-Burke leadership, the company has attracted a younger and more diverse audience and has increased its endowment portfolio 58 percent up from $16.5 million,according to Joe Gfaller, director of marketing and public relations.

New audiences accounted for 28 percent of all households last spring. Family attendance increased; with the promotional "family four packs" selling three times as many as in 2012, he said. 

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