The Fat Lady's Finale?

Cleveland's biggest opera company fights to survive.

Most Americans prefer to get their classical music from beef commercials.
Most Americans prefer to get their classical music from beef commercials.
It's never been easy for opera to sell itself beyond the elderly and well-heeled. In the age of streetcars, it attracted A-list crowds. Today, most Americans prefer to get their classical music from beef commercials.

"There is nothing realistic about two people standing on opposite sides of the stage, screaming at each other in German," admits F. Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News.

But that hasn't stopped opera from trying. The '60s and '70s saw an explosion of small regional companies, as funding from the feds helped Middle America sprout its own tiny nests of high culture. Yet the faster opera grew, the harder it became to fill the seats. So in recent years, some directors have begun taking a page from Hollywood -- scrapping the Viking hat and fat-lady stereotype in favor of sex and skin.

The premiere of Miss Lonelyhearts in New York featured gunshots and masturbation. A Portland, Oregon staging of Handel's Giulio Cesare included simulated oral sex.

Three years ago, renowned soprano Deborah Voigt made headlines when she was rejected for a gig because she couldn't fit into a little black dress. She later underwent gastric-bypass surgery. A recent publicity shot for Lyric Opera of Chicago showed her naked, sporting a wild Diana Ross hairdo and covering her unmentionables with a scarf.

But back in Cleveland, not even brochures touting bikini-clad divas have been enough to save opera's sinking ship.

Cleveland Opera began in the mid-'70s in the attic of founder David Bamberger's Lakewood home. He and wife Carola progressed from staging shows at a Shaker Heights junior high to seasons at the State Theatre.

With a budget of around $4 million, they couldn't even afford understudies -- essential to a business whose stars sing for hours every night and are worthless if they catch bronchitis.

Still, the Bambergers kept chugging. They showcased mostly traditional crowd-pleasers such as West Side Story, but also branched out to new works, including an opera written by Stewart Copeland of the Police. By the company's 25th anniversary in 2000, the Bambergers managed to book the Three Tenors at Browns Stadium.

But three years later, at a time when many arts organizations were tightening their belts, the Cleveland Opera decided to go big. Board members wanted to stage more adventurous shows. So they eased the Bambergers into retirement and recruited new blood.

Robert Chumbley, a composer and conductor from North Carolina, was their white knight. Critics drooled over his artistic chops, unbothered by the fact that he had run a ballet and an arts council -- but never an opera company.

He vowed to lift the opera to the status of the Cleveland Orchestra and do "cutting-edge" shows aimed at people in their 20s and 30s. "To grow, not to maintain," he was quoted as saying in 2004.

But the honeymoon didn't last. Just 18 months into a five-year contract, Chumbley abruptly resigned.

It was a mysterious exit. The official line was that he was returning to North Carolina to compose. But there were also whispers that he'd been forced out by the board.

Whatever the reason, Chumbley left his colleagues to scramble. Three months later, they announced plans to merge with Cleveland's smaller, more avant-garde Lyric Opera to ensure their mutual survival.

It was a painful move. Jonathon Field, Lyric's artistic director, soon resigned. The Cleveland Opera League, a volunteer fund-raising group, soon grew frustrated as months passed without word from the newly formed Opera Cleveland. So they started a new group -- one that hedges its bets by supporting the area's entire opera scene, including students and smaller companies.

"A number of members used to be supporting Opera Cleveland, and we still are," president Mary Hamlin says. "It's just that the future is so uncertain."

Then in January, Opera Cleveland lost another artistic director. Leon Major, who came to town with Chumbley, cited differences with the board. He plans to leave after this season.

The company recently hired a new executive director, Jeff Sodowsky, who appears to be the business-savvy leader Cleveland has long craved. But even he doesn't sugarcoat the company's dire straits.

Its budget has fallen below $4 million. Its endowment -- the lifeblood of any large arts group -- is almost nonexistent.

Season ticket sales are going well, but officials admit they're not enough to sustain a company. More than 70 percent of the budget comes from donations, and given the opera's tenuous state, those have been hard to come by. "A lot of people, they don't necessarily put their money down on the table [until they] know what the company is about," Sodowsky says.

Still, most argue that Cleveland has a built-in audience for classical music, thanks to the orchestra. Opera Circle in Slavic Village has found a niche hiring local talent to perform artistically adventurous works, and student performances at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Oberlin College remain popular. "It makes a great deal of sense that that kind of artistic endeavor should flourish there," Driscoll says.

Moreover, smaller cities such as Dayton and Cincinnati, have sustained companies. To hear fans tell it, opera can surely flourish here -- if others can be convinced of its beauty. "Once you've seen it, you're hooked," says Judith Ryder, head of Opera Cleveland's educational programs.

But that's what fans of aging art forms have been saying for decades, while beauty remains fixed in the eyes of the beholder. Cleveland has already lost its ballet. And the exodus of deep corporate pockets paints a crueler portrait still. "The funds are just drying up," Hamlin says.

To succeed, opera officials must hope patrons can forgive past mistakes and place a blind bet on the future. Says Sodowsky: "Cleveland will get the opera company that it fights for and that it chooses to support."