Opera GR Still Hitting The High Notes

June 12, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — After three decades, the fat lady still hasn’t sung. And she’s unlikely to do so anytime soon, because it’s not over yet — not by a long shot.

Instead, Opera Grand Rapids seems to be getting better with age. Now in year 34, West Michigan’s only nonprofit professional opera company, and the state’s oldest, is preparing to tell two more grand stories: “The Magic Flute” by Mozart in February and Puccini’s “Tosca” in May. Both will be played out on the DeVos Hall stage.

For almost as long as anyone can recall, Opera GR has staged a trio of productions each year, and this year is no different. The company’s season opened in October with “The Queen of Spades” by Tchaikovski. And the curtain on that Russian story went up just a month after John Peter Jeffries came aboard as the group’s executive director.

“Opera is not theater set to music, it’s music set to theater,” said Jeffries. “I love opera. Its very nature is a little step further from reality than ordinary theater because it’s accompanied by music all the time. I wish our lives had soundtracks as good as most operas.”

An East Lansing native and a University of Michigan grad, Jeffries came to Grand Rapids from Opera Idaho in Boise. The Opera Company of Boston, Florida Grand Opera in Miami and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto are also on his resume.

Jeffries recently told the Convention and Arena Authority — which owns the company’s performance place, DeVos Hall — that his annual budget totals $1.2 million. About a third of its revenue, $420,000, comes from ticket sales. Close to another third, $407,000, comes from local corporations and foundations, while $330,000 comes from individual contributions and fundraisers. The remainder, $119,000, is generated from program ad sales and other sources.

“About 70 percent of what we spend ends up on stage or in the theater. I’m rather proud of that percentage,” he said. “Only about 30 percent of our budget goes for administration and fundraising.”

Opera GR only has five staff members, and that includes Jeffries, but its productions can require a cast of hundreds. Depending on the story line, Jeffries said it takes anywhere from 130 to 225 people to put on a performance.

Opera America, the industry’s association, classifies companies into four levels. The top-tier companies, such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York, have annual budgets that can reach $160 million. Jeffries said the local company is in the middle of the third tier, but its performances are of such a high quality that its status is often lifted to that of a second-level troupe.

Jeffries credited Robert Lyall, the company’s artistic director, for creating that enhanced performance reputation. Lyall, who directs the New Orleans Opera Company and is retained by the local troupe, negotiates the contracts and signs the performers. Although the operas are produced here and feature much local talent, Lyall pulls in performers from all over the globe for the shows. “The Queen of Spades,” for example, had singers from St. Petersburg, Russia in the cast.

“I can tell you that Lyall has the knack. He has the skill for finding good artists and for putting together ensembles that sound great on stage,” said Jeffries. “Not everybody in his position has that, so we’re blessed that he is with us.”

Opera GR has performed twice in Van Andel Arena, singing “Carmen” and “Aida” in the 11,000-seat building. Jeffries said, however, that “Carmen” wasn’t financially successful for the company, but “Aida” was a fiscal smash.

“It was one of the best things the company ever did, and it was a huge financial success,” said Jeffries, who added that there weren’t any plans to return to the arena soon. “There are reasons for that, and we need to be cautious before we do it again. There also are only a handful of shows that are appropriate to present in that building.”

SMG General Manager Rich MacKeigan pointed out that the arts organizations are going through a difficult financial period due to the current economic conditions. MacKeigan, who oversees the daily operations at DeVos Hall, urged companies to support the building’s four tenants — the Opera, the Ballet, the Symphony and the Broadway Theater Guild.

“To have all four arts organizations healthy at DeVos Hall is good for business. It is a huge asset for us, to attract companies and employees here, when we have four active, strong and healthy arts organizations,” said MacKeigan.

As for the future, Jeffries felt the region’s population growth will have a positive effect for Opera GR. He believes the company’s reach will grow, too, and that its budget may possibly attain a second-level status within a few years.

“We actually have some subscribers who come from as far away as Chicago and Detroit to see what we do right here in Grand Rapids,” he said. “I’m not sure how far south we draw patrons from, but we do bring in folks from as far north as Traverse City.”

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