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Opera Festival Ends 20-Year Tradition

Candace Braun

It's curtains for the Opera Festival of New Jersey, announced its board of trustees on Thursday, November 6. The reason for closing the 20-year-old company is exorbitant amounts of debt, despite significant community financial support over the years.

The company has had financial problems for the last three years, and was able to reduce its debt by more than 20 percent in the past year. However, OFNJ's debt remains at $680,000, down from $895,000 last year.

"Continuing financial difficulties over the last several years have made this the only responsible decision," said Board Co-chair Markell Shriver.

The company, which was located at McCarter Theatre in Princeton for the past five years, has had many memorable shows grace the stage. The Tempest, which made its world premiere in 1993 due to the generosity of an anonymous donor, enhanced the reputation of the company, getting rave reviews from critics.

Generous donations over the years from this anonymous donor, as well as the company's founder, John Ellis, who gave a large sum two years ago, have kept the company from falling into debt before now, said David Agler, artistic director for the company.

"Too much of our budget was dependent on too few people," he said.

Current plans to ease the debt include liquidating assets such as costumes, stage sets, and office equipment. However, this will not allow the company to break even, said Deputy Executive Director David Brown.

"We are trying to get our major creditors to forgive our debts to them, in hopes that we can make payments to smaller creditors," said Mr. Brown. The company announced that they are hoping to be able to pay their employees what they are owed before all the money is divided up.

Community Loss

According to Mr. Agler, most of the company's employees were already laid off by the end of the summer, leaving only himself, Jill Hermes, production manager, and two development employees. A total of seven employees worked for the company.

"As opera companies go, that is a very small number of people to run a company," he said. However, other community groups will also suffer from the closing of the company, including the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, who was employed by the company for all their shows, as well as members of the chorus, including students from Westminster Choir College, Rutgers University, and Temple University.

"A lot of people are going to miss this very much," said Mr. Agler.

Founded in 1981

The Opera Festival was originally founded in 1981, when Princeton University music professors, Michael Pratt and Peter Westergaard, proposed the establishment of a professional summer opera festival at the Lawrenceville School.

John Ellis, chairman of Lawrenceville's Music Department at the time, became founding chair of the board of trustees, and the Opera Festival was born.

The June Opera Festival, as it was first called, was based on the Glyndebourne Festival in England, with audiences picnicking on the lawn while they enjoyed a show. Operas were put on at Lawrence- ville's Kirby Center.

According to Mr. Brown, the move to McCarter Theatre five years ago was a significant factor in the company's money loss. He said that while OFNJ was able to upgrade the artistic performance, they were not able to find matched funds on the administrative and fund-raising side.

However, according to Mr. Agler, it was more a matter of the board of trustees not branching out to the extended community. "When the company moved into McCarter Theatre, it was in the position to become thoroughly professional," he said. "The company should have marketed itself in a more modern way."

The artistic director, who was employed by the company two years ago when it was already in trouble, said many board members were local, and didn't try to reach out to those communities that may enjoy a New Jersey-based opera company.

"I think it's remarkable that in a state of 9 million people, it's not possible to sustain one opera company," said Mr. Agler.

With the closing of the Opera Festival, only one opera company in New Jersey remains, the Boheme Opera Company in Trenton.

One alternative considered was to move the group back to their original Lawrenceville location. But Mr. Brown said that after a thorough discussion, the board agreed that this would compromise the level of artistic performance audiences had come to expect at McCarter Theatre.

"I suspect [the board] would have found that the good old days were not so good," said Mr. Agler, recalling that many factors at the Kirby Center were what encouraged the company to move in the first place, such as issues with space and accessibility.

He said that despite the financial problems the company has suffered, in reviewing the company's income the year it moved from Lawrenceville to Princeton, he found that the company's income almost doubled.

Over the last year individual contributions have increased, but it wasn't enough to pull the company out of debt, he said.

"[The closing] is a great loss for Princeton and the wider community," said Mr. Agler.

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