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Eugene Weekly : News : 04.27.06

A Plea for a Song

Eugene Opera could lose Hult Center residency status.

BY MELISSA BEARNS

The Eugene Opera, a resident company of the Hult Center since the facility opened its doors in 1982, is in danger of losing its resident status. In a letter to Interim Cultural Services Director Laura Niles dated March 6, Eugene Opera Resident Director Philip Piele asked for a one-year waiver of the performance requirements for retaining resident status.

According to the letter, the Eugene Opera sold less than half the anticipated number of tickets for their winter performance of Hansel and Gretel and took a huge hit financially, rumored to be as high as $40,000. Since then, the company has laid off Artistic Director Robert Ashens, and at their most recent board meeting, the board voted to produce only one opera during the upcoming 2006-2007 season.

"This situation depresses me to no end," said Willamette Repertory Theatre Director Kirk Boyd, who represents the resident companies on the city's Cultural Services Advisory Committee (CSAC). "They got hit in the same way we got hit in January. My impression is that it was Hansel and Gretel that really crippled them. We had the same thing happen with Cyrano and we're still digging out [financially] from that."

The requirement for maintaining resident status at the Hult Center is commonly referred to as "three and six" — a company must hold at least six performances of three different productions.

In the preemptive letter, Piele wrote that the board members, donors and supporters of the Opera would like to take the upcoming season to work on eliminating the Eugene Opera's debt and return to the Hult Center in 2007-2008 with at least two operas. Niles brought the letter to CSAC's regular meeting April 19 looking for recommendations. According to Niles, the Hult Center has already bent the rules to allow the Opera to maintain its residency. At the strong urging of Boyd, the group closed the meeting without making any recommendations, asking Niles to provide more information on any waivers already granted to the Eugene Opera.

If the Hult Center management declines to give the Eugene Opera the waiver and kicks the company out of the Hult Center, the Hult will have lost two resident companies in two years. Last year Dance Theatre of Oregon (DTO) lost its residency status because it was unable to meet the "three and six" requirement and couldn't afford the user fees.

"The basic problem is that CSAC is completely disconnected from what's happening in reality," said DTO Managing Director Marc Siegel. "The Opera has put on hundreds of productions. What the Opera, and what DTO have given back to this community should be reflected in the Hult Center wanting to help us."

CSAC member Gretchen Pierce questioned whether it's time to revise the residency requirements completely. "When you see the Opera, even with only a few performances, bring more money into the Hult Center than some of these other companies, it makes me think about whether or not we should look at changing the requirements," she said. "All we're doing is tying up more dates at the Hult Center."

One of the main reasons companies want to hang onto their residency is because they get first dibs on dates at the Hult Center. "The scheduling is a big deal," said Riley Grannan, managing director for Eugene Ballet. "If the Opera is hoping to plan two productions in 2007-2008 and can't get the dates they want, they're already at a huge disadvantage."

Ever since Eugene City Council adopted the slogan "World's Greatest City of the Arts and Outdoors," that phrase has been bandied about by folks on both sides of the arts funding argument. At a recent meeting with representatives of the arts community, Mayor Kitty Piercy spoke of the need for humility when discussing that slogan. "When you say the world's greatest city, I think we all understand that is an aspiration versus a reality," she said.

But one of the key elements already in place for living up to that slogan is the existence of so many local performing arts companies. Other cities Eugene's size might have one such company, maybe a symphony or a ballet. Eugene has the Eugene Symphony, Eugene Opera, Eugene Ballet, Mozart Players, Eugene Concert Choir, Willamette Repertory Theatre, Oregon Bach Festival and The Shedd. That's not even counting all the local theater companies, musical groups and performing arts organizations that aren't affiliated with the Hult Center. Yet at a time when the city is sinking a quarter million dollars into figuring out how to live up to the slogan "The Greatest … ," we're looking at losing one of our oldest arts institutions.

"World's greatest … if that were the case, CSAC would have had some heart," Siegel said. "The world's greatest city of the arts and outdoors doesn't really support the arts."

Grannan has worked side by side with the Eugene Opera since its inception 29 years ago. He estimated that since the Hult Center opened, the Eugene Opera has brought in more than $9 million in ticket sales. "That's not even taking into account the thousands of people who have participated in the performances either as instrumentalists, set builders, costume makers and all of that," he said. "All of those things create community identity. We want and deserve local culture. We deserve to have the opportunity to create things for ourselves. It's through participation that people get a feeling of where their cultural roots are."