TCO announces new season, expanded use of Opera Center

By Barb Van Atta

Tri-Cities Opera’s transformational efforts, begun this season by General Director Susan S. Ashbaker, will continue and expand in the 2016-2017 season.

For the 2015-2016 season, productions have been evenly divided between The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton, and the Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Next season, only one of the four productions will be at the 1,500-seat, Broome County-owned performing arts center. Three will be in TCO’s newly revamped “black box theater” at the Opera Center, which holds approximately 200 people.

At a press conference this morning (March 22) at the Opera Center, Ashbaker made the public announcement of TCO’s 67th season:

TCO 2016-17• 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 – Staged and costumed concert performance (no scenery) of Verdi’s La Traviata at The Forum.
• 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 11-20 – Full (with scenery) production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the Opera Center’s Savoca Hibbitt Theater.
• 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 17-26, 2017 – Double bill at the Opera Center of a full production of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, and a performance by 2016-17 soprano Resident Artist Stacey Geyer of Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs).
• 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 3 p.m. Sundays, April 21-30 – Full production at the Opera Center of Hydrogen Jukebox, Philip Glass’ 1990 setting of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.

In an interview with BAMirror, Ashbaker said TCO is “not really moving away from The Forum,” the company’s mainstage home since 1975, but “the stark reality” is that ticket prices don’t cover the costs of production, and TCO “loses a lot less money” utilizing a building that it owns, rather than rents. TCO values its relationship with The Forum but values its relationship with the community more, she said, emphasizing her obligation to the “sustainability” of an opera company in Broome County.

“We want to be around for 67 more years,” said Ashbaker, who stressed her dual goals of financial responsibility and artistic excellence.

Would she like to be doing more in the bigger theater? Sure. “Give me a bucket-load of cash, and I would do two shows at The Forum and three here (the Opera Center),” she said.

At the press conference, Ashbaker pointed out that ticket sales pay for only 21 percent of a production at The Forum, leaving an average gap of $114,000. Even at the Opera Center, the box office covers only 40 percent, or a gap of about $30,000 for each show. Thus, despite generosity of many foundations, businesses and individuals in the community, TCO is still trying to avoid “crippling debt.” This season’s shortfall is projected to be $265,000.

Financial considerations are behind the choice to eliminate scenery from the Traviata production even though the company owns sets for the four-act opera, Ashbaker explained during her conversation with BAMirror. TCO will save an estimated $60,000 in productions costs, some of which can instead will be directed to the creation and construction of three new sets – for the Opera Center productions — by TCO scenic designer/artist AmArA.

Performances this season have been Friday night and Sunday afternoon at The Forum, and a mixture of evening and matinee performances Thursday through Sunday of one weekend at the Opera Center. Next season, Traviata will have only a Sunday matinee, because Sunday traditionally has been the bigger day for season subscribers, explained TCO Community Engagement Manager John Rozzoni. The Opera Center productions now will be spread over two weekends, and additional daytime, weekday performances for schools may be scheduled of the family-friendly Hansel and Gretel.

Ashbaker said audiences this year have responded very favorably to the Opera Center productions, both for the newness of the repertoire (company premieres of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti) and the more intimate staging. (Iolanta was presented on the Opera Center’s existing stage; Tahiti and Menoti’s The Telephone positioned the orchestra on the stage and were presented on a built-out platform that was “in the horseshoe,” if not in the round.)

Ashbaker, who began at TCO in August 2014, referred to the board of directors’ years of trying to be “responsible stewards of the money given us” and expressed hope that the community would support the current effort, both in location and repertoire, to sustain TCO’s legacy.

She spoke enthusiastically about her choices for the lesser-known works. “I wanted a bubbly show for February,” she said of the Ravel’s 50-minute comedy. Anticipating concern about the melodic aspects of the Schoenberg cabaret songs, she pointed out that they are “tonal and beautiful and naughty in a 1901 way.”

An opera by minimalist Philip Glass is, Ashbaker acknowledged, a “new thing for this community.” Hydrogen Jukebox has a non-linear construction, featuring poems and reflections on themes from the 1950s to the 1980s — war, sex, drugs, the environment — that remain relevant today and create a “portrait of America.”

Ticket information about next year’s season, as well as the upcoming production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is available at

Production who’s who

The 2016-17 season will see the return of several guest conductors and stage directors. Vlad Iftinca (2015’s Barber of Seville), will be on the podium for Traviata and Hansel. The Verdi, sung in Italian with English supertitles, will star former Resident Artist Meroë Adeeb, guest artist Johnathan Reisen and longtime TCO favorite Timothy LeFebvre,and will be directed by David Lefkowich (2014’s Rigoletto). Hansel, directed by Dave Toulson (2015’s Speed Dating Tonight!) will feature a new English translation and a reduced orchestration.

Pianist William Hobbs (2015’s L’Italiana in Algeri) and James Kenon Mitchell (2015’s Iolanta) will be the production team for the double bill. The Ravel will be sung in French and the cabaret songs in German; both will have supertitles. Alan O. Johnson, who will conduct Hydrogen Jukebox’s five-piece chamber orchestra, has collaborated with Glass on several occasions including preparing the premiere cast of Jukebox for the 1990 premiere at Charleston, S.C.’s Spoleto Festival USA.

All three Opera Center productions will feature the 2016-2017 Resident Artists in leading roles: Geyer, Jordan Schreiner, Jake Stamatis, Mary Beth Nelson and Scott Purcell (last fall’s guest artist as Figaro in Barber of Seville).


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4 Responses to "TCO announces new season, expanded use of Opera Center"

  1. Aaron

    It has been hard to watch the death of my hometown opera company. While I understand the need to get the budget balanced, the executive director has alienated her community almost entirely in an effort to get down to the basics. This shows that she was never the right choice for this opera company, even though she’s extremely qualified for this position on paper. The community coming together to produce beautiful music was most of what made TCO so special. People you saw at church or in the grocery store when you weren’t at rehearsal. I remember singing in the chorus onstage with professional sounding leads, people who got their start at TCO and went on to bigger places (Leech, Gardner, Melo), collaborating to be greater than the sum of our parts. But with the programming for this season, there isn’t a whole lot of room for chorus … that is unless you want to put in the time to prepare for one performance of Traviata.

    Savoca Hibbitt Hall is a nice space, but the intimate performance atmosphere, while simultaneously allowing a different type of repertoire to be presented, is uncomfortable. To think I will have to attend three operas sitting in a metal folding chair makes me wonder if I will renew my subscription. Hopefully there is grant writing in the works for new seats.

    I understand the reality I spoke to is from a different era. The world is so much different today, especially in the arts. We can never return to the Tri Cities Opera we once knew and loved, we can only hope that Susan’s “sage financial advice” will pay off. What does she stand to lose in the process? …

  2. Stephen M. Dell'Aversano

    A concert version of La Traviata need not be done in costume, since it will add nothing at all to the event. And what exactly is there to direct? And while I applaud the new repertoire, there were suggestions made by the audience year after year of productions THEY wanted to see that have not been considered but were entirely doable (Baby Doe, Manon Lescaut, Susannah, and the list goes on) –and not one of them has been attempted. The deficit is the largest it has been in nearly 20 years, and the Dickinsons and Wilsons are no longer here to write two massive checks to cover the losses — and the financial reserves were on life support when I resigned from the board a few years ago.

    I believe we are witnessing the early death throes of TCO. The audience continues to shrink (and will even more so now with limited seating at the smaller venue with cheap folding metal seats and two small bathrooms to deal with nearly 200 people), and the subscriptions will as well with no true mainstage productions. And support from what remains of the Board continues to shrink as well. Even its numbers are down from its high of nearly 30 members to something around 10 at this point in time. No board that small can effectively raise funds or oversee an arts organization of that nature. One only has to look at the destruction from within at New York City Opera to see a similar corollary of Board disengagement and cluelessness. What a pity since that could also have gone in a completely different direction with strong Board leadership willing to build on its strengths and connections to the community instead of essentially eating its own to satisfy the petty whims and uncontrolled egos of a misdirected few.

    TCO’s current situation is the result of years of neglect and those involved burying their heads in the sand as to what real and sometimes difficult choices needed to be made at a time when they still could have righted the financial and artistic ship. I fear that time has now clearly passed — and nothing could be more heartbreaking for this community. If it does close its doors, I am not sure we will be as lucky as some communities who have managed to resurrect new companies from the ashes of the old. There simply may not be enough left to resurrect.

  3. Michael Bogdasarian

    As Board Chair for two years, I cannot help but respond to the comments above. Some of the elements outlined certainly are true, but comparisons to the “old” TCO have a hollowness which reflects a misperception of the realities confronting TCO when I became a member and what transpired to the present. Without laying blame on any individual, or even the collective of the board and staff, the basic truth is that TCO recycled grand opera at a substantial cost to the organization without recognizing, until recently under Susan’s leadership, our audience and the community’s support had changed markedly. Across the nation, the season subscription percentage had dwindled markedly. Innovation was required, and a deliberate attempt had to be made to bring opera back to the intimate nature it once held. The Opera Center on Clinton Street was literally falling apart due to the company’s inability to raise enough money to repair infrastructure. What has been accomplished in two short years, therefore, is nothing short of miraculous. We are purchasing new seats through a grant. We have received grants to repair the roof and facade, rebuild the stage, place a new HVAC system, and have already used grants to recreate the performance hall with repainting to improve the flexibility of the space and place a more reliable and innovative lighting system. To be financially responsible to our community, we have placed more activity in this renovated area and have introduced new operas to engage a different audience, while still respecting, within our financial capacity, the grand opera tradition. We have rebuilt our connections to various organizations, which were in disarray. Enthusiasm for TCO has increased. The old model of opera is gone, and looking backwards and disparaging the required changes is a false perspective. For those who love opera as an art form and wish to continue to have its presence a valuable and vital part of our community, it is more useful to step up, donate money and/or time (as our small board has done in spades!), and put aside the wishing for the past and help rebuild the future. Otherwise, as noted, this company could go away forever.

  4. Stephen M. Dell'Aversano

    Again, Dr. Bogdasarian misses the larger point. As wonderful a picture as he tries to paint, the reality is something far different than that he presents. No one is saying they look backwards, but to move ahead without FULLY engaging the public they are trying to capture and cultivate is a mistake as well, and they have still failed to do so. Chamber opera is a creature unto itself — and a valid and vital art form. If that is where TCO wants to go, then clearly state that goal and move on. But to pass off some sort of concertized hybrid as a connection to grand opera – -when this community knows all too well what that really is — is disingenuous at best. Transformation is indeed needed, but as with ANY arts organization in this highly competitive and USER-driven age, if TCO doesn’t learn to really LISTEN to the local audience they will continue to lose them. The “new” (actually renovated) space here is not the issue; what and how is. “Enthusiasm” does not pay bills: people in seats and donations do and to get those, TCO has to give the public what they really want. If what they want turns out to be modern chamber opera, then they will succeed. If it is not, regardless of how much they wish to move in that direction for mostly financial (and not artistic) reasons, then they will not. Ultimately the local audiences will decide with their hard-earned dollars.

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