Bloody Monday

For 14 workers of the struggling opera, the fat lady sings

The staff of Houston Grand Opera began arriving at their Wortham Theater Center offices on May 20 for another week of trying to reverse a long financial slide for the organization.

They had carried over about $100,000 in deficits from the previous years, and the current year had only been adding to the monetary woes. There were some optimistic signs, however: Nearly $600,000 had been collected thus far in a special drive to get $1 million in new subscriptions for the next season.

Most of all, some employees said they had the assurances of top management that the situation was stabilizing, even after a Houston Press story had detailed the monetary shortcomings (see "Opera à la Enron?" February 14).

"A lot of us were concerned after the first Houston Press article came out, but we were told not to worry," says one HGO worker. "We were told that things weren't that bad and there would not be layoffs."

As the employee soon found out on what became the opera's Bloody Monday, "We were told wrong."

Administrative offices soon mirrored the stage side of HGO. There was more emotion and angst than in a Wagner epic as the organization severed 14 of the 97 employees at noon.

"It was incomprehensible. People were just walking around with stunned looks," says the employee, who didn't want his name used.

"There was a lot going on behind closed doors," the still-employed staffer says. "Then our boss finally said what had happened. I went out into the hall and saw people carrying big boxes and one woman carrying her little plant out, crying. I helped her carry her things out to her car."

The official line came in a company-wide e-mail sent the next day at 4:16 p.m. It said that Tropical Storm Allison, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Enron bankruptcy and the general economic downturn had combined to cause "an unprecedented situation…having a serious fiscal imbalance which had to be corrected."

The opera already had scaled back performances and canceled a world premiere, but that wasn't enough. The staff cuts were intended to enable HGO to hold its losses to $1.15 million by the July 31 end of its current fiscal year. With the other accumulated debts, it was looking at a red line of more than $1.24 million.

Certainly the cited catastrophes hurt HGO and the rest of the major performing arts organizations. But the others -- the ballet, symphony and Alley Theatre -- are not laying off employees or scaling back productions. In fact, Houston Ballet mounted one full-length world premiere and several shorter new works this season. So why is only the opera in trouble?

A former chair of the Opera Gala admitted she didn't even subscribe anymore because of the "avant-garde works" and the lack of appreciation paid to donors, "big donors." An HGO staffer who deals with customers concurs: "They tell me they don't like the cutting-edge works" -- often the ones like Robert Wilson productions, which have made the organization and general manager David Gockley internationally famous -- "and they complain about customer service."

But the cuts made last week included publicity events and donor benefits. They also included layoffs in the education and outreach program, an area often tied to grants.

Two years ago HGO had 100 employees; today it has 83. General manager Jim D. Ireland decamped suddenly in January. His role is being filled by finance director Judy Massey, although many staffers think the board of directors is calling the shots. "I think Gockley has steadily been losing to the board on decisions," says one.

Gockley was unavailable for comment. Marketing and communications director JoAnne LaBrecque-French, who lost her assistant in the layoffs, tried to outline the basic facts ahead for HGO.

The opera's $20 million operating budget could be reduced for the next fiscal year through further fine-tuning. There is a world premiere planned, an operatic version of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. But the real draw is the traditional La Traviata featuring superstar Renée Fleming.

No one expects the opera to fade away, but skepticism was voiced at slashing the payroll by 20 percent at the same time HGO will have to rely more and more on audience and donor support to remain a cultural mainstay in the region.

While Gockley huddled with his executive staffers on the day after the layoffs, city officials were blocks away, conferring about another source of arts funding. They were convening a previously scheduled budget hearing for the city's Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department.

Councilmembers grilled department head Dawn Ullrich about the $8.7 million in hotel occupancy taxes given to the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County (CACHH) for the arts organizations.

City government itself is in a budgetary bind. Mayor Lee Brown is proposing a $1.4 billion spending package that shaves $18 million from expenses but does not call for citywide layoffs.

At the hearing, District H Councilmember Gabriel Vasquez questioned why the city gives so much money to organizations that pay their top officials salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars, while smaller arts groups go begging. He specifically asked about directors' salaries, including the almost $400,000 that Gockley gets annually.

Vasquez later said that he wasn't aware of the opera layoffs at the time, but was surprised by them.

"My concern was that you have to balance those big salaries -- and the salaries shocked me, okay, they shocked me -- but you have to balance those with the other departments" in HGO, he said. "Everyone knows what the demographics are in Houston and how they are changing, and to cut in your education and outreach [to the Hispanic community] doesn't make sense."

One of those laid off, Anna Maria Peña, had worked in education and outreach for HGO for five years.

"To show up for work on Monday morning and be told, 'Sorry, you don't have a job anymore,' I was in shock," she said. "We thought we were in trouble, but we didn't think it would hit this hard."

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