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Condition Critical

Brian Dickie may be the last best hope for Chicago Opera Theater. The 26-year-old company has struggled for much of the last decade. As the troupe's new general director, Dickie is only the latest figure in a long-running saga. Yet the company's very survival will depend on his effectiveness.

Back in 1993 the theater was so deep in debt its board had to call off the season. It was saved from folding by its merger with Chamber Opera Chicago, a smaller group with financial backers prepared to prop up the ailing organization. With the union of these two companies--both dedicated to presenting productions in English--Chamber Opera's leaders stepped to the forefront: Carl Ratner became the new artistic director, and Lawrence Rapchak was named music director. The pair knew how to work on a shoestring and did a lot to improve the quality of shows. But the company never settled on a game plan to pull out of its slump. "Long-term planning is a luxury that has eluded us so far," concedes board president Dorothy Osborn Walton.

Four years ago the company left the Athenaeum Theatre for DePaul's Merle Reskin Theatre; the South Loop location was supposed to prepare audiences for the troupe's eventual move downtown into the long-delayed Chicago Music and Dance Theatre. But last season the group returned to the Athenaeum because DePaul had consigned it to performing during the summer months, not the best time to sell opera tickets.

Chicago Opera Theater had long scheduled its offerings for the spring to avoid competing with the Lyric Opera's fall and winter season. But last year the company mounted a fall production--Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel--to give it a year-round presence, according to Ratner. This October it will present four performances of Rossini's The Barber of Seville. And next July it plans to mount Philip Glass's Akhnaten, a coproduction with Boston Lyric Opera that will coincide with the Art Institute's exhibit of ancient Egyptian art, "Pharaohs of the Sun." The company is hoping the opera, directed by Mary Zimmerman, will be a box office hit, with 6,000 tickets available for six performances.

With its history of constant change, the company has had some difficulty developing and retaining a loyal audience. One of its biggest draws--English-language productions--has been undermined with the widespread use of supertitles by mainstream opera companies, including the Lyric. Last year at the Athenaeum, it averaged well under 500 patrons per performance. Attendance must grow substantially to have any chance of filling the 1,500-seat Music and Dance Theatre, which is scheduled to open in the new Millennium Park in late 2001.

Understandably, Dickie says his first priority will be moving tickets: "We are going to have to do a considerably better job on earned revenue from ticket sales, which now accounts for only about 30 percent of our annual budget" of $1.8 million. That puts Chicago Opera Theater well below the national average for opera companies, which typically earn about half of their annual operating expenses from ticket sales. Lyric Opera marketing director Susan Mathieson says ticket sales have accounted for between 62 and 70 percent of her company's budget over the past ten years. "We are in the top one or two companies in the country when it comes to how much of our operating costs are covered by ticket sales," she says.

Under a new reorganization, the buck will stop with Dickie. Though they will be involved in productions this season, Ratner and Rapchak are giving up their official titles and Dickie will be responsible for both business and artistic affairs. By consolidating responsibilities into one position, the company has saved enough to hire its first marketing director in more than a year. "Having a marketing person on staff should help us in developing an audience for our work at the Music and Dance Theatre," says Dickie. Production costs are sure to rise significantly in the new facility, which may require companies to hire union stagehands, but Walton says, "We just don't have the numbers yet on what our expenses there will be." As for Dickie, he says he'll be "planning for the worst-case scenario."

When Chicago Opera Theater went looking for a new leader earlier this year, no one on the board of directors expected to land someone with Dickie's background. He not only had experience managing opera companies but had considerable contacts in the opera world. "Brian is at a level of experience well beyond what we had been expecting to hire," says Walton. From 1981 through '88, Dickie was the general administrator of England's prestigious Glyndebourne Festival Opera. He then moved to Toronto in 1989 to become general director of the Canadian Opera, which at that time was planning to move into a new multimillion-dollar facility with the National Ballet of Canada. But shortly after Dickie's arrival, the government pulled the plug on that project, sending the Canadian Opera into a tailspin. A painful period of downsizing and restructuring followed, and Dickie wasn't one to hide his disappointment, complains William Littler, classical music critic for the Toronto Star. "Dickie's attitude was so negative it was hard for him to act as a team leader," Littler says.

Dickie departed in 1993. "I think the company's board of directors and Brian mutually agreed that would be the best thing for him to do," says Cathryn Gregor, Canadian Opera's administrative director. Some of the changes he initiated, however, are still in effect under general director Richard Bradshaw, who was hired by Dickie as the company's music director. "Brian made a conscious effort to hire Canadian directors to work with the company, including Robert Lepage," says Gregor, who notes that Dickie also was exceptional at developing young singers.

Chicago Opera Theater will give Dickie a chance to work with young singers once again, but he won't be able to rely on the administrative infrastructure he was used to at larger operations like Glyndebourne and the Canadian Opera. Whether this will hinder his attempts to resuscitate Chicago Opera Theater remains to be seen. Looking into the future, Dickie hopes to expand the company's season to four operas from the present three: "That would just take us back to where we were 15 years ago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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