RedEye

Lyric Opera signs off on busiest season ever

Lyric Opera's unprecedented effort this past season to make itself more generally relevant and to provide what general director Anthony Freud calls “a broader, deeper cultural service to more people around the city” appears to have paid off.

What's more, the company ended its 2012-13 season in the black, just as it has done for 25 of the past 26 years.

That was the good news embedded in the financial report due to be presented to donors and board members at the company's annual meeting Monday night.

A host of new Lyric activities, including performances given as part of the Lyric Unlimited and American Musical Theater initiatives, helped boost overall attendance by 15 percent, officials said.

Also, Lyric surpassed its $22.9million fundraising goal with the help of a budgeted withdrawal of $4.8 million in reserves from a Campaign for Excellence fund created to cover operating shortfalls. Ticket revenue of $26.6 million represented a $1.6 million increase over the previous season.

But the gain that's really cheering company officials is the more than 27,000 new customers — people attending Lyric events for the first time — who turned out for the nine-opera season and the various other presentations that made 2012-13 the busiest and most diverse Lyric season ever.

“It would be nice if they all bought subscriptions to our regular season, but frankly the nearly 28,000 new people are, on one level, an end in itself,” Freud said before the meeting. “The fact that we are reaching so many new people, that we are doing so much more activity, I do believe is more than simply a means to a different end. It broadens and deepens our civic footprint in a very important way.”

With most if not all U.S. performing arts organizations still reeling from the Great Recession of 2008, Lyric's endowment of more than $160 million, bolstered by the Campaign for Excellence the company's prescient board put into place in 2005-06, gives the institution a safety net all would envy.

“Our track record in generating income and controlling expenditures gives me real confidence that Lyric is an organization that can withstand economic turbulence and volatility,” said Freud.

President Kenneth G. Pigott announced the board has unanimously approved a new strategic planning process and resulting plan. He said implementation “is in full swing,” although no details were released. The board also has undertaken a Breaking New Ground campaign to recapitalize Lyric's balance sheet for the long term.

Because of this season's increased activity level, Lyric was able to sell 264,000 tickets for the season — 34,225 more than in 2011-12 — which represented 80 percent of seating capacity for all company-sponsored events. The nine-opera series sold 83 percent of capacity in the 3,600-seat Civic Opera House, a drop from 88 percent of capacity in 2011-12, which comprised eight operas.

Lyric Unlimited activities such as “Second City Guide to the Opera” cabaret performances, Rodgers and Hammerstein's “Oklahoma!” and the mariachi opera “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” have, in Freud's view, dramatically changed the way Lyric is perceived.

“Even I am happily surprised at the speed with which the impact of Lyric Unlimited, and the array of activities we have been producing, has taken hold,” he said. “The conversations I have had with people who have no history of a relationship with Lyric is different from what it was a year and a half ago, in terms of the awareness people now have of the company.”

All the Lyric Unlimited shows turned out to be moneymakers for Lyric, none more so than “Oklahoma!” Attendance for the 17 performances, which launched Lyric's five-year cycle of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, sold 65 percent of capacity — 36,100 spectators, more than 18,000 of whom were seeing a Lyric performance for the first time. This represented the largest number of individual tickets Lyric has ever sold for a single production, said Freud.

Operating expenses for fiscal 2013 were $64.7 million; that figure will increase to $67.7million next year, with a fundraising goal of $23.6 million. Fully audited financial statements are due to be released in October.

Also Monday, the Carol Fox Award was given to Richard P. and Susan Kiphart. He served as Lyric president and CEO from 2006 to 2011 and now serves as board chairman. The Kipharts initiated the idea of bringing in soprano Renee Fleming as creative consultant, and they underwrite the Renee Fleming Initiative.

jvonrhein@tribune.com | Twitter @jvonrhein

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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