Opera Hitting High Note

June 6, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — It was Sept. 10, 2001, when John Peter Jeffries first stepped into his office as the new executive director of Opera Grand Rapids, a day he hoped would mark the start of a financial comeback for the artistic company that was $300,000 in debt.

But his enthusiasm lasted only until the next day, Sept. 11, when donations to all but a few nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross began to dry up for close to a year. Then in April 2002, the Dow Jones Average started its freefall and ignited a spending cutback across the nation. Jeffries wasn’t very hopeful a year later either, calling that April a dark time, when directors came very close to canceling the third of the company’s three annual performances.

But the fat lady hasn’t sung for Opera Grand Rapids since then. In fact, she hasn’t even showed up for rehearsal, as the once near-bankrupt organization had a small surplus last season and is poised to retire its deficit this season.

“I am proud to announce that we will finish this year with a much larger surplus,” Jeffries told the Convention and Arena Authority board late last month.

Jeffries said he expects the surplus to top $30,000, a pretty solid figure for a group that nearly sung its swan song just 24 months ago. The uncanny comeback, he said, came from great leadership, an angel fund, and a tougher scrutiny of budget items.

Jeffries said his latest budget, which remains at the same $1 million, was handed back to him twice for revisions before board members approved it. He thanked the Van Andel and Frey foundations for the challenge grants both made to the angel fund, which has almost met its goal of $390,000. And he praised Win Irwin, president of Irwin Seating Co., and Bill Fehsenfeld, owner of Schuler Books & Music, for their outstanding leadership as directors.

“The bringing together of business and the arts is something that Grand Rapids does very well,” said Steve Wilson, Convention & Visitors Bureau president.

After the debt is wiped out this year, Jeffries said the next steps for Opera Grand Rapids are to build its cash reserve and find a permanent home.

“The outlook for Opera Grand Rapids is bright,” he said. “We are drawing more people from farther away.”

Ticket sales are up. Season-ticket holders have grown by 27 percent and are now spread across 22 counties. Individual-performance tickets are now selling in 42 counties, with some being bought in the metro-Detroit area.

Marketing efforts are up, as Jeffries found there are 150,000 households in the region that have characteristics matching those of the usual opera-goer. Fundraising efforts are up, too. But expenses are down, as only two of the five office personnel are full-time employees.

“We’re much more efficient,” said Jeffries.

Opera Grand Rapids, the oldest operatic company in the state, gets a third of its revenue from grants, a third from ticket sales, a quarter from contributions and galas, and the rest from local and state sources. Thirty percent of the budget goes toward administrative duties, while 70 percent is spent on productions.

“If there is a clash between scenery and music, music always wins,” said Jeffries, who had high praise for the talents of artistic director Robert Lyall.

The upcoming season begins with “Turandot,” a Puccini opera set in China, on Oct. 21 and 22 in DeVos Performance Hall. “West Side Story” in February and May’s “La Traviata” round out the season. Season tickets are available at 451-2741, Ext. 3. Prices range from $39 to $230.    

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