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Austin Lyric Opera

Sold for $5.45 million

By Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 13, 2012

Under new ownership
Under new ownership
Photo by John Anderson

For Austin Lyric Opera, most of 2011 was as gloomy as a Wagnerian bass, but two days before it ended, the company managed to close the year on a high note by selling the Mary Ann Heller Opera Center, its home of almost 12 years. The $5.45 million sale to Megalomedia Inc., the local film and production company behind such cable reality shows as Shipping Wars, Smokejumpers, and Quints by Surprise, allowed ALO to wipe out the last of its $2 million debt and start 2012 with a sizable chunk of change in the bank. Of course, it will need to use some of that cash to lease new office and rehearsal space somewhere around the city – space that has yet to be identified – but since Megalomedia isn't taking possession of the Barton Springs Road site until later this year, ALO will lease the space back from the company through April. Thus, it can complete the 25th anniversary season without scrambling to find rehearsal space for its remaining productions, Lucia di Lammermoor and Turandot.

The sale is a measure of how far Austin's arts scene has come in the last dozen years. When the Heller Opera Center opened in May 2000, it was not only ALO's first home; it was also among the first buildings in the cultural makeover of the city to be completed, and the first south of Lady Bird Lake (see "Articulations," May 5, 2000). That was a heady time, coming just a couple of months after the Austin Museum of Art had unveiled its plans for a new Downtown home designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman. Most of the large cultural organizations around Austin had ambitious expansion plans that they were working to realize. Since then, eight cultural construction projects have been completed or are nearing completion, but AMOA's isn't among them, and now ALO has joined the museum in selling off its central city property to stabilize its finances after the hardships wrought by a pair of economic downturns. For both, 2012 marks the dawn of a new era: one combining new spaces, new staff leadership, and millions in new money.

Indeed, aside from the productions this month and in April, much of the opera's energies in the first half of the new year will be spent finishing its searches for a new home and a new general director to be teamed with conductor Richard Buckley, who has recently returned to his old post as ALO artistic director. There's also the business of cutting loose the Armstrong Community Music School, which has been a major part of ALO since it moved into the Heller Opera Center. ALO is spinning the school off as an independent organization, a move that will likely shave about $1 million off the company's $3.9 million budget. Plans to merge the school with another entity have been discussed, and there's word that a partnership could be announced in the coming month, but there's no clear picture of how or even if the school would survive without an organizational partner. As for the new millions? Kevin Smith, the man who successfully managed the Minnesota Opera for a quarter century and has been serving as ALO's interim general director since last summer, indicates that it won't be going toward anything fancy. "The majority of the proceeds from the building sale will be invested to generate revenue for future operations," he says.

ALO's next production, Lucia di Lammermoor, opens Saturday, Jan. 28, for three performances in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.austinlyricopera.org.

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