At Seattle Opera, the real drama is offstage | KUOW News and Information

At Seattle Opera, the real drama is offstage

Mar 29, 2017

Earlier this month, Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang met with scene shop manager Michael Moore and dropped a bombshell.

Lang said he planned to shut down the shop’s operations for at least two years, part of a wider reorganization at the 54-year-old nonprofit arts group.

The opera’s scene shop is one of the largest theatrical employers in the area. Cutting it would mean the loss of jobs for a crew of skilled artisans who belong to IATSE, a theatrical union that represents stage hands, wardrobe and set crews and other theater workers. They are dispatched by the union on a job-by-job basis.

Moore said he worries the loss of the opera jobs could force them to leave town. “Suspension of operations means the talent that’s here is going to have to go elsewhere to find other work,” he says.

But Moore, who has worked with the opera since 1979, was also puzzled: As far as he knew, the scene shop was not only breaking even, it was bringing in a small profit from outside jobs.

And former Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, who led the organization for more than 25 years, says he left the company $1.2 million in the black when he retired in 2014. Jenkins says a gala given in his honor that year also netted an additional million.

So what is going on with the opera’s budget? Opera officials have been less than forthcoming with hard data to back up their financial decisions.

Opera CFO Richard Johnson declined KUOW’s request for the most recent independent audits of the company’s finances, and they are not available online.

Lang says the decision to close down the shop wasn’t easy. He claims Seattle Opera has been spending $2 to $3 million a year more than it takes in for several years running. He and CFO Johnson believed the expanded donor base wasn’t enough to bridge the annual shortfall.

“The arts climate as a whole is going through enormous change,” Lang says. “We had to do a really deep dive into what has to go and what will stay.”

Lang says a close examination of the scene shop revealed it to be a financial drain on the opera.

“We had sent out a myth the scene shop was a money maker,” he says. “The scene shop was a loss we had sustained but had not realized the full extent of that loss.”

Lang maintains that closing the shop, at least temporarily, and moving stored sets and scenery into that building, will save Seattle Opera approximately $480,000 a year.

But scene shop manager Moore says his books show the shop overhead is far lower, $78,000 annually, excluding Moore’s salary and the cost of hiring the artisans who work on a per-show basis.

Plus, Moore says the scene shop’s outside contracts with other arts organizations help sustain the work it does for the opera.

Last year, for example, the shop earned $1.3 million in outside projects, working for local groups like the 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle Symphony and Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Even if the opera kept the shop open, there’s no guarantee these skilled artisans would find work. The story sounds a lot like the situation for coal miners or auto workers who have been displaced by robots or computers:

Lang says with the advances in digital technologies, designers increasingly are creating sets and scenery that don’t need to be built in huge shops. He points to what he calls a video-projected environment in the opera’s most recent offering, “Katya Kabanova,” as an example of the new wave of opera design.

“Five years ago, that wasn’t even a possibility,” he says.

Lang’s big focus at the moment is shepherding the opera’s new headquarters at Seattle Center. He expects the company to move into the new offices in late 2018. After that, Lang says he’ll take another look at the scene shop’s viability.

“That’s why we’re not selling the shop building,” Lang says. “We’ll see what impact the new (Seattle Center) building has on work flows.”

At the scene shop, Moore and his crew are finishing a couple of jobs. If nothing changes, they'll shut down operations in May.