A great overview of Opera Ventures by the Financial Times

4th September, 2017

                                       Funding opera: direct to the stage

At a time when many opera houses are running into financial difficulties, a group of philanthropists is backing a charity that, with no offices and a tiny staff, staged its first opera — a new production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek — in August at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

With the funding behind Opera Ventures going directly into producing contemporary opera rather than overheads, its founder, John Berry, former artistic director of English National Opera (ENO), believes his new company can reinvent the way opera is produced and financed. The idea, he says, is “to put philanthropy directly on to the stage” rather than into an institution.

“When I was at ENO, we had £15m in fixed costs,” says Berry. “Our charity runs on less than £100,000 a year, yet it’s capable of producing projects that cost £800,000-£1m, which in this environment is becoming impossible for many organisations.”

Key to launching Opera Ventures and its first production is the support of a group of philanthropists, including Sarah Billinghurst Solomon, who spent more than 40 years in opera administration, 20 of those as assistant general manager for artistic affairs at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. “A lot of the future is not going to be the great big union-bound organisations,” says Billinghurst Solomon, who is chair of Opera Ventures’ artistic advisory board. “I hope they will remain, but nipping at their heels will be different ways of putting on opera.”

Joining her in backing the charity are donors such as Singapore-born philanthropist Linda Wong Davies and Peter Coates, chairman of Stoke City, the Premier League football club; he is the father of billionaire Denise Coates, who founded Bet365, one of the world’s largest online gambling sites.

For some, personal ties and admiration for Berry were what led them to support Opera Ventures. Coates, for example, is a family friend. “I’ve known him for a long time and he’s done remarkably well,” Coates says. “He’s got international status and this was something he wanted to do, so he persuaded me to donate some money.”

Lady Davies has worked with Berry through her KT Wong Foundation, which promotes cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. “This has got an incredible pedigree,” she says. “That’s why it’s really interesting for my foundation to be involved.”

If Berry has strong supporters, he has not been without critics, with some associating his tenure with ENO financial woes. However, opera and music festival directors defended him in a 2015 letter to the Financial Times citing his use of international co-productions to raise British opera’s profile abroad while saving production expenses.

This experience will serve Berry well. Opera Ventures’ model relies on sharing its resources, as seen in Greek, which was produced in collaboration with Scottish Opera. “If Opera Ventures pays essentially for making the production and Scottish Opera and Edinburgh Festival come in with their orchestra, venue and marketing department, you’re suddenly able to produce something out of the ordinary,” he says.

At the Met, Billinghurst Solomon often worked with Berry on co-productions. “We don’t always agree, but I admire him a lot,” she says. “I think he’s going to be able to do really interesting things now that he’s unencumbered by a very large organisation.”

Jonathan Mills, former director of the Edinburgh International Festival, sees potential in the business model. “You’re sharing the risk but also sharing the opportunity,” says Sir Jonathan, who is a member of Opera Ventures’ artistic advisory board.

Critically, Berry’s new way of producing opera may appeal to the next generation of donors.

“The philanthropists I work with regularly are tired of big gifts that they think will make a transformational impact but are not clear where that money goes,” says Michelle Wright, a fundraiser who is chief executive of Cause4, which advises charities, and is now also Opera Ventures’ chief executive.

Rather than making annual donations or large bequests to an opera house, Opera Ventures’ donors can support either the organisation itself or one-off projects. And its plans to collaborate with contemporary artists could open the door to a new community of supporters. “There’s a great deal more philanthropy in visual arts than in music or opera circles,” says Sir Jonathan.

Moreover, because it is small and flexible, Opera Ventures can accommodate the desire of philanthropists to engage directly with the causes they support, says Loretta Tomasi, former ENO chief executive and executive producer for Opera Ventures. “You can do that in other organisations but it’s not always as direct.”

So far, the Opera Ventures approach to funding appears to be working. “We’ve been able to engage philanthropists who are interested in supporting the model,” says Wright, “because they know 90 per cent of their gift goes directly into the art.”

 

You can read the original article here.

"The course was informative, enjoyable, covering plenty of ground in just one day without feeling rushed at all. It came at a crucial time in our planning and thinking as a development team and was a very welcome pause for thought. Michelle was a brilliant facilitator and it was a real benefit to hear about her experiences across the sector."

Jane Reynolds, Development Manager, Manchester International Festival