July 26, 2008

Challenges Await Pittsburgh Opera’s New General Director

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 26--After seven seasons as artistic director of Pittsburgh Opera, Christopher Hahn says he "was clearly looking for bigger challenges."

He got them on June 26 when he was named general director of the company. That means he has taken on administration duties in addition to his artistic duties.

"I think of myself as an impresario in the old-fashioned sense," says Hahn, 56. "It means an ability to spearhead artistic endeavors with a keen eye always to the bottom line."

He likes the idea of having "the two sides of the company in my head.

Hahn has been planning Pittsburgh Opera programs and casting on a three-year cycle, but now he will be able extend it out five years.

"To purloin the plum voices five years ahead is realistic," he says. "Three years is still skating."

Hahn has taken two administrative steps since his appointment to be sure he has the time needed for his new responsibilities in fundraising and community activity.

William J. Powers has been promoted from director of artistic operation to director of administration operations, which will add overall administrative responsibility to his handling of artistic operations. Hahn also has hired Shawn M. Fertitta as Pittsburgh Opera Center administrator and facility manager, a new position required because of the demands intrinsic in owning a building, rather than leasing.

And while it's clearly daunting to be starting with openings for crucial marketing and development directors, Hahn says "it's a massive blessing to be able to make those choices for my own team."

The new building

"The big challenge for us, a very exciting one, is the new building and what it will prove to be for the company and the community," Hahn says.

Construction of two large rehearsals spaces is expected to be finished by Sept. 15. Rehearsals for Pittsburgh Opera's first production of the 2008-09 season, "Samson and Delilah," are scheduled to start Sept. 30. One studio is as wide as the stage at the Benedum Center, where the opera will continue to present its main-stage productions.

"Lots of people don't understand why having our own rehearsal space is so vital for the quality of what we do on stage," Hahn says. At the Benedum Center, the opera has only four days on stage for rehearsals. "That is an extremely tight schedule" for an opera company of Pittsburgh Opera's stature.

The official opening of the opera's new home will be spread over three days, starting Oct. 2 with an evening event for high-level donors and board members. The next day, the opera will throw a neighborhood party in what might be called the upper Strip District. The official ribbon-cutting ceremony and first performance -- by young opera center singers -- will be Oct. 4.

Hahn hopes the opera's new home will be of service to many local performing-arts organizations, such as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, because "sizable rehearsal space is at a premium in Pittsburgh." He also plans to have food-warming equipment installed for social occasions and for the building to be green environmentally.

Sales and finances

Hahn is in the enviable position of taking charge on the heels of a financially successful season, a legacy of his predecessor Mark Weinstein, who left at the end of January to become executive director of Washington National Opera in the nation's capital.

"We expect to close in the black again (for 2007-08), with the extent of the surplus yet to be determined." Hahn says. The budget was projected at $7.6 million.

The opera sold 31,657 tickets -- 72 percent of the house -- for 2007-08. That figure includes 5,376 subscribers who bought 18,960 tickets -- 44 percent of the house.

For the 2008-09 season, the opera has sold 4,050 subscriptions as of July 18, compared with 4,063 on July 18, 2007. But subscriptions sales thus far have generated $36,000 more in revenue because of subscribers moving up to longer subscriptions and-or better seats. The 2008-09 season has an anticipated budget of $8 million.

The value of the opera's endowment was $13,341,807 as of June 30.

"Aida" was Pittsburgh Opera's most successful production financially in 2007-08, with 102 percent attendance for the final show.

Hahn says he expects no major changes in his approach to programming, but mentions the importance of "opera's greatest masterpieces" no less than "broadening repertoire to operas not frequently done in this market."


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