More trouble at Austin Lyric Opera as it fires seven staff members and eliminates its Young Artist Program.
By Robert Faires, Fri., May 30, 2003
What has already been a painful and troubling season at Austin Lyric Opera grew even more so last week with the abrupt firing of seven staff members and elimination of the company's Young Artist Program. Laid off were marketing, sales, and administrative staffers, as well as Cheryl Parrish, the acclaimed soprano who was directing the program that gave aspiring opera singers a place to work, be trained, and be paid between school and a professional career. In the company's press release on the matter, the action was described as "restructuring" in response to the "downturn in the regional economy." Interim Managing Director Tamara Hale is quoted as saying, "The opera has decided to adjust its organization to a more efficient, leaner model," a remark that sounds rather cool and impersonal, if not downright callous, for an arts organization throwing dedicated employees and young artists out on the street in hard times.
Bloodletting at the Opera
Hale, by the way, is the former Austin Chamber of Commerce vice-president of resource development who stepped off the ALO board and into the management hole left by the resignation of Managing Director Michael Murphy after just less than a year in the job. Murphy's departure, of course, came less than six months after the ALO board fired general director and co-founder of the company Joseph McClain in one of the most vindictive and disrespectful actions taken by a local arts-organization board. (And eight months later, the board has yet to moderate the harshness of its action with any acknowledgment of McClain's role in ALO's creation and years of service to the organization.) So, you have an organization whose trustees fired its co-founder and artistic leader, gutted its staff, couldn't hang on to its first managing director for 12 months, and sacrificed one of its more appealing programs for emerging artists. What sort of signal does that send to the artistic- and managing-director candidates that the ALO board hopes to attract?
The thing is, these moves appear driven by short-term interests with little appreciation for the long-term damage they may cause the organization. Staff members are more than cogs in an administrative machine; they are ambassadors for the arts, people who help attract the audience and the patrons that keep an entity like the opera healthy. Every firing diminishes the company's ability to connect with the community. And a Young Artist Program is far from an administrative luxury, especially the way it worked at ALO. It not only gave participants training and a paycheck, it gave them valuable experience through supporting roles in season productions and leading roles in operas that were taken to schools. And that laid the foundation for not only opera's stars of the future but opera's audience for the future, too. As a parent of a 10-year-old who saw her first opera this year performed in her school by ALO Young Artists, I can now personally testify to its impact. Cutting it to create a "more efficient" organization is like needing to lose 10 pounds and chopping off one's leg. It won't grow back.