Building an opera program these days isn't for the meek.
Operas and philharmonic orchestra programs around the country are closing or cutting programs from the lack of funds and declines in ticket sales. Close to home, for example, Orlando Opera Co. suspended its operations in April because of the recession.
But a core group of dedicated opera lovers has been building a successful young opera program in Naples, which had largely escaped the recession until this year.
Opera Naples' box-office ticket sales are 23% ahead of last year at this time. Attendance at its grand operas has averaged about 700 per performance. Although overall donations are flat over last year, small fundraisers have been more successful this year.
Now in its fifth year, Opera Naples recently purchased a 10,000-square-foot building in foreclosure in Naples for $830,000 that will serve as its rehearsal headquarters and education center once it's renovated. Organizers say that will help attract donors who might have waffled in the past because the organization is so young.
Supporters say the success of Opera Naples is that it strives to grow its own talent and produce top-quality performances rather than bring in productions from the outside. The nonprofit organization involves local residents with a young artist and student apprentice program. While its operas feature leading professional singers and producers from outside Naples, most of the cast and musicians in its operas are local artists.
One of the biggest challenges has been to persuade opera lovers in Naples that the local performances are as good as they are in larger cities. “We're not going to run a church-basement operation,” says Steffanie Pearce, an accomplished professional opera singer and artistic director of Opera Naples.
Because it doesn't yet have a permanent home, it was initially difficult to attract opera lovers from tony Naples neighborhoods to the performing-arts hall at Gulf Coast High School. But its audiences and fans have grown since it launched its inaugural season in 2005.
“As we're gaining momentum, there's a feeling we're here to stay,” says Gerald Goldberg, the chief executive officer of Opera Naples.
New York to Naples
Pearce, who has performed in leading roles at more than 50 opera houses in the U.S. and Europe, moved to Naples in 2000 to be close to her family. “I came here because I was tired of New York,” she says.
Pearce had considered Palm Beach or Sarasota because of their better-established opera scenes, but chose Naples instead because she met her husband six weeks after moving here.
Initially, Pearce began teaching voice lessons to students in Naples and started meeting philanthropic individuals who had a passion for opera. What's more, the economy was booming and Naples had become an established community for retired chief executives from all over the country who craved cultural programs. “It grew because it was the time for it to be here,” Pearce says.
But Pearce didn't want Naples to be a stop on the opera circuit like Sarasota, where entire productions roll into town at the beginning of the busy winter season and pack up in late spring. She wanted to create a regional opera that was here permanently throughout the year to help grow local talent, attracting year-round residents and not just temporary winter residents.
“People who truly love opera notice the difference,” says Thomas Moran, founder of The Moran Asset Management Group in Naples, an opera enthusiast and sponsor. “When you bring in the traveling shows, you can't produce the same quality products.”
In a full-scale opera that Opera Naples stages, for example, 75% of the cast and crew are local. Soloists, conductors and the director are professionals it hires from outside, but most of the other performers are local.
Operas aren't inexpensive to stage. An opera costs about $250,000 to produce. Besides the cast, there are stages to build, costumes to make and orchestras to conduct. “We do it for $150,000,” says Goldberg, saying that the opera isn't sacrificing quality.
Through her connections with other artists, Pearce says she's been able to persuade famous soloists to cut their fees to help grow the young Opera Naples. In February, the opera will feature well-known Irish tenor Anthony Kearns in a production of Romeo and Juliet, for example.
And the opera has sought less-expensive venues, moving to other locations such as the outdoor Cambier Park in Naples and the Miromar Design Center in Estero. Previously, the acoustically superior performing arts hall at Gulf Coast High School charged $15,000 per week. By contrast, Cambier Park charges $3,000.
Still, ticket sales cover about $75,000 of the cost of an opera. The other half is funded by donations from individuals and corporations.
Raising money is always challenging, but even more so during a recession. “In the last years, it's been more and more difficult,” acknowledges Goldberg, a former real estate developer who moved to Naples from the Washington D.C. area 15 years ago. Through June 2008, the latest figures available, the opera reported more than $292,000 in patron donations and $33,700 in corporate gifts.
Goldberg says donations this year have been even with last year, though it's getting harder to find new donors and many existing donors have given less because their portfolios have shrunk.
Despite the recession, the list of regular ticket buyers has grown to 2,000 and full operas attract as many as 700 people per show. And fundraising events have generated more contributions than in the past.
For example, Pearce hosted a ladies luncheon in the exclusive Port Royal neighborhood in Naples earlier this year. Three voice students performed during the luncheon and a generous couple gave the opera $10,000. At another fundraising event at a Naples private home, the opera hoped for 50 people but had to close the event after 120 people signed up.
Pearce says the biggest challenge has been to encourage residents of wealthy enclaves of Naples to attend performances in public places. “Once they experience it, they're sold,” Pearce says.
Building the opera
Nothing conveys permanence better than a building with your name on it.
Earlier this year, Opera Naples acquired a 10,000-square-foot building on Linwood Avenue for $830,000 in an area of Naples that has been slated by the city for redevelopment into a cultural and arts neighborhood.
TIB Bank in Naples had foreclosed on the building and provided $330,000 toward the opera purchase and it financed an additional $400,000. Opera Naples secured short-term private loans to cover the difference.
When it's renovated, the building will house administrative offices, rehearsal space with room for 100 musicians, a set-construction shop, a costume shop, warehouse storage and a performance venue with seating for 225 for fundraising events and other small performances.
“Having a physical location will give people a sense that we're financially solid,” says Thomas Moran, founder of Moran Asset Management Group in Naples and a significant contributor to the opera. “People might want to support us financially if they are reassured that we're to stay.”
While the new venue will help artists rehearse, it will also serve as an educational center for local students. Currently, Opera Naples has a student-apprentice program for children ages 12 to 18 and a young-artist program for those ages 19 to 32. Pearce estimates that Opera Naples' outreach program has already reached 10,000 children in area schools.
Ultimately, the dream of every opera company is to perform in its own opera house. “Some day we will have a permanent home at a proper opera house,” says Pearce.
Jean Gruss covers the Lee-Collier region. He can be reached at [email protected], or at 239-415-4422