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High Notes, Low Notes

The fiscally troubled Arizona Opera brings Mozart to town

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On many an early morning--while others are stuck in rush-hour traffic--Joel Revzen begins his day on happier notes. He stays at home, locks himself in a room and studies the scores of the greatest operas.

Lately, he's been delving into Mozart's Così fan tutte, which he'll conduct beginning Friday in the first of three Arizona Opera performances at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall. Revzen, who has been running Arizona Opera since the fall of 2003, will make his conducting debut with the company.

"What a blessed life--to immerse yourself in this music the first thing in the morning," Revzen said before a recent rehearsal. "I'm a very lucky guy."

Well, yes, preparing a masterwork is great fun. So is determining the artistic direction of an opera company, something Revzen has also been doing since 1991, at Berkshire Opera Company in western Massachusetts. But when Revzen considers the other challenges facing Arizona Opera, challenges for which he is ultimately responsible, he doesn't sound so lucky.

Financial headaches lead the list of concerns. These were brought on before and after the arrival of Revzen, who succeeded David Speers. Arizona Opera's 990 tax forms, which are open to public inspection, show that on June 30, 2003 (when that fiscal year came to an end) the company had posted a loss of slightly more than $1 million--more than 10 times the previous fiscal year's shortfall.

At the same time, company officials had opted to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, mortgaging two Arizona Opera buildings in the process. By June 30, 2003, Arizona Opera, with an annual budget of $4.5 million, had racked up $3.9 million in total liabilities (including $2.1 million in short-term liabilities and $1.7 million in long-term debt), company officials say.

The following season, though, total liabilities were down to $2.9 million ($1.4 in long-term debt and $1.5 in short-term liabilities). Several bequests and a small reported budget surplus at the end of last season account for the reduction.

You might think, then, that Arizona Opera was beginning to find a way out of financial trouble. In fact, its budget woes were only beginning to worsen. A solution of sorts was eventually found, but it has meant raising even more money than that needed to erase debts Arizona Opera faced at the beginning of the season.

Arizona Opera presents each of its five productions per season in Phoenix and Tucson. For several years, the company's Phoenix home had been Symphony Hall. But because that building is undergoing renovations, Arizona Opera has had to present productions in three alternate sites.

In Revzen's eyes, this has created a slew of problems--the additional expense, say, of accommodating Arizona Opera's usual number of patrons by adding more shows to a production's run in theaters smaller than Symphony Hall. Or it's meant a drop in revenue caused by change-averse patrons buying fewer single tickets or opting out of subscriptions.

John Massaro, who recently resigned as Arizona Opera's chorus master and made his criticisms of Revzen public by sharing his resignation letter with the press, doesn't buy this. He says Revzen's choice of repertoire is keeping audiences away. Revzen disagrees, saying the smaller pits in some theaters have necessitated replacing popular, large-orchestra works by Puccini, Verdi and Strauss with less popular, smaller-scale fare, such as Menotti's The Consul, which will be presented in Tucson April 15-17.

In any event, Arizona Opera projected a shortfall a $750,000 at the beginning of this season. In August, it got $250,000 from the Phoenix City Council to cover some of it. By November, though, Arizona Opera was back before the council again, this time asking for an additional $250,000. The situation had become dire: Shortly before his death, Kevin Keogh, Phoenix's assistant city manager, performed an independent audit and prepared a memo in which he said the company's ticket revenues were down 25 percent from the prior season. He also wrote that Arizona Opera has "completely drawn down their line of credit, and will be out of cash at the end of November 2004, and without financial assistance would not be able to continue operating."

The grant from the city was approved--but only on the condition that Arizona Opera raise matching contributions on a 2-to-1 ratio. Revzen seems confident he can come up with $500,000 in matching grants; the goal, he said, will be to end this season with a balanced budget and continue attacking the debt.

"Our board is doing the majority of it," he said. "We've gone back to our board, which now numbers 36 people, and asked for additional contributions this year. A number of them have already come forward." In addition, he said, each board member who begins a three-year term must now give $10,000, up from $5,000, the previous requirement.

Revzen, now 59, earned bachelor's and master's degrees in choral conducting from the Julliard School while studying orchestral conducting on the side. He did not win a Grammy Award, as Arizona Opera's Web site has erroneously implied (and Massaro has charged Revzen with asserting), but participated as an accompanist and conductor on a Grammy Award-winning recording called The Art of Augér. He was first named artistic director of Arizona Opera, then its general director, which means he has the final say in all artistic and business matters.

As his tenure in Arizona continues, he'll attempt to look past immediate money worries to achieve two main goals. The first will be funding a three-year program for up to eight apprentice singers, who would participate in educational outreach programs, perform minor roles and act as understudies for major ones. Arizona Opera's "third and missing component," in addition to its mainstage productions and educational outreach programs that reach thousands of school children a year, is "training the artists of the future," he said.

Revzen's second goal will be to sell his programming philosophy. A good idea of what that philosophy is can be gleaned from next season's operas, which have just been announced. They include Bizet's Carmen (in Tucson Oct. 14-16), Weill's The Threepenny Opera (Nov. 11-13), Handel's Semele (Jan. 20-22, 2006), Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers (February 17- 19) and Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (March 31, April 1 and 2).

"I'm trying to stick, with three out of the five operas, to core repertoire--which means Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, Wagner--and then try to expand the envelope a little bit," he said. In this case, expanding the envelope means presenting a Baroque opera (Semele) for the first time in Arizona Opera's history, and it means presenting Threepenny, a 20th-century work making its Arizona Opera premiere.

In his other life, Revzen is a "cover" conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, acting as a kind of understudy for first-string baton wavers. He's already using his connection there to bring in the best talent: The Semele production will engage two critically acclaimed singers, Maureen O'Flynn, who will sing the title role, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Revzen stressed that any star talent he engages will not break the bank.

"We offer all of our major roles the exact same fee," he said. "We offer all of our minor roles the exact same fee."

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