Eugene Opera at 40: Back from the bottom

The plucky company, now on an upswing, performs a Berlioz rarity to open its 40th season this weekend

When Mark Beudert arrived as its artistic director in 2006, Eugene Opera was in trouble. The company was losing so much money that it could afford to stage only a single production in 2006-7, down from its average of three per year.

The company had hit rough patches since its 1977 founding by longtime Eugene classical music teacher and conductor Philip Bayles, who directed it for the first decade, and Ginevra Ralph. Performing first in high school gyms, and becoming a resident company of the Hult Center when it opened in 1982, the opera steadily grew in quality and resources (props, lighting, costumes), occasionally scoring some soon-to-be Big Names like Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham.

But opera is expensive, and after falling $340,000 in debt during the first George Bush recession in the early 1990s, it recovered along with the economy. But in the mid-2000s, several regional companies like San Diego Opera and even venerable New York City Opera soon succumbed (to be revived soon) to a confluence of economic and cultural changes and the second Bush recession of 2007.

Héro (Emily Way, left), Béatrice (center) and Ursula (Laura Thoreson, right) in Act 2 of Berlioz's 'Much Ado About Nothing' ('Béatrice et Bénédict'). Photo: Eugene Opera.

Héro (Emily Way, left), Béatrice (center) and Ursula (Laura Thoreson, right) in Act 2 of Berlioz’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (‘Béatrice et Bénédict’). Photo: Eugene Opera.

Since hitting bottom then, the company’s fortunes have revived. As its 40th anniversary season opens this weekend with a rare production of a Shakespearean opera by Hector Berlioz, its music director says Eugene Opera is now in the midst of “an unprecedented expansion,” built on a foundation of programming variety, lean operation, emphasis on vocal quality, and connecting with its community. 

EO’s early struggles proved a blessing in disguise. “The companies that went under had a lot of fat and had to trim really quickly,” recalls Beudert. “We had already downsized.” Since it wasn’t dependent on the big donations and grants (which dwindled during the downturn) that first fueled and then failed many opera companies, EO had to rely mostly on ticket sales and volunteer help to tide it over while it gradually built up a donor base. Beudert, a one-time University of Oregon faculty member who’s currently phasing out of his long-time teaching job at Notre Dame University, and the executive director were the only staffers until 2012.

As Beudert tells it, that leanness forced the company to focus on the essentials. “Opera is about singers,” he explains. “You get really good singers and put them in the most comfortable place possible,” instead of staging the splashy sets and expensive productions that sank or burdened even the biggest companies like New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

“We’re a singer’s company,” Beudert told emerging vocalists looking to make a name in opera. “If you have the urge to be a star, this is the place to be.” That emphasis brought Kelly Kay Hogan, who in 2008 became the first Eugene Opera singer who was currently singing at the Met, Cecilia Lopez and other rising stars.

Cutback to Comeback

The company’s travails forced it to reach out to audiences for support, since it depended so much more on ticket sales than many companies. Though immersed in opera and classical music since his early days in New York, Beudert also spent a couple years performing on Broadway, including in Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance with Linda Ronstadt. “An old Broadway guy told me there’s a direct connection between the audience’s pleasure and whether the cast eats,” Beudert explains. “That’s why there’s so much energy on Broadway.”

Unlike other companies, EO didn’t let crisis create conservatism. Noticing that many companies’ endless recycling of the so-called “top ten” warhorses like La Boheme and Carmen, was wearing thin (Sacramento Opera, he notes, went under during a season in which it staged nothing but standards), Beudert declared that “becoming bold is mandatory,” and offered contemporary operas like John Adams’s Nixon in China and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

To connect the community to those and other productions, the company initiated an outreach strategy that includes exhibitions, talks and other ancillary events at the Eugene Public Library and University of Oregon, creating buzz and providing historical context — the social conditions like poverty, revolution, nationalism, imperialism — that spawned these works of art, and connecting them to today’s issues. It also runs an opera academy for aspiring aria artistes.

“We are a service organization to this community through art” Beudert says. “We are involving everybody in an experience that is happening right here.”

Eugene Opera's Mark Beudert.

Eugene Opera’s Mark Beudert.

Eugene audiences responded. At the company’s 2014 La Traviata, Beudert sensed a corner had been turned. “We got great comments and the applause of people who genuinely had a great time and didn’t need anyone to tell them they had a great time,” he remembers. “That rocked!” The Obama economic recovery no doubt helped. The company hasn’t responded to requests for attendance, sales or revenue numbers.

The result: while Portland Opera is switching to a summer-only season, Beudert plans to continue EO’s current four-production season (October, New Year’s Eve, March and May), featuring a classic, a fun or offbeat production like West Side Story, a rarity (like this month’s Berlioz opera), and an edgier offering like Dead Man Walking.

This weekend: Berlioz’s “Beatrice and Benedict”

This weekend’s opening production is this year’s rarity. The brilliant banter between Beatrice and Benedict in Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, one of theater’s most entertaining duets, seems ideal for a musical setting. Sure enough, French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, who created the trailblazing Fantastic Symphony and other colorful orchestral works, wrote one (including the libretto, which adds some characters and subplots and jettisons others) in 1862. Yet in an opera world too often content to recycle the usual suspects, the opera is seldom performed, except for its overture.

Eugene Opera remedies that Oct. 28 and Oct. 30 when it brings the Pacific Northwest premiere of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict (a/k/a Beatrice and Benedict) to the Hult Center’s small Soreng Theater. This unamplified chamber opera-scale production features singers Melina Pyron and Brendan Tuohy in the leads, plus Laura Beckel Thoreson, Emily Way and Sandy Naishtat, along with two of Eugene’s top actors, Bill Hulings and Steve Wehmeier. It might be your only chance to see this relative rarity performed live in Oregon.

Eugene Opera performs Hector Berlioz’s Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice and Benedict) at 7:30 pm October 28 and 2:30 pm October 30 at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater. Tickets $34-$54 available at 541-682-5000 or online. A shorter version of this story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly.

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