Opera Philadelphia to reduce staff, cut budget by 20%, and David Devan is stepping down

In a series of sweeping moves, Opera Philadelphia, one of the city’s beacons of ambition and artistic innovation, is trimming operations as it plots out potentially bigger changes in response to the post-pandemic slump.

Audiences and philanthropy have not materialized to the extent once expected, so the opera troupe has cut its current annual budget by about 20% (from its originally approved $13.3 million) and eliminated five positions, or about 16% of staff. One production previously announced for the coming season — Joseph Bologne’s The Anonymous Lover — will be postponed a year, and the company will discontinue its paid streaming platform, the Opera Philadelphia Channel.

In addition, the group’s next act will be guided by a new leader. David B. Devan, who will have spent more than 18 years helping to retool the company (13 of them as chief), plans to step down as general director and president when his current contract expires at the end of the 2023-24 season.

Devan says that he arrived at the decision in May after an expected bounce in post-lockdown attendance failed to happen and it became clear the company would need to undergo another huge change.

“Initially, I was thinking, ‘Well, I better stick around to try to help through that.’ And it dawned on me that reengineering is a five- to eight-year gig of thinking and trying to find solutions, and that it would really be better if someone else did that. I don’t have eight years of CEO left.”

Stephen K. Klasko, Opera Philadelphia board chairman and the former president and CEO of Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, praised Devan’s role as a cheerleader for Philadelphia and opera, the way he quickly steered the company into online presentations when COVID-19 hit, the relationships he has developed for the company with a diverse group of artists, and for being “the single-most optimistic person on the planet.”

Klasko said he did not try to talk Devan out of leaving.

“It was David’s decision. It was his third or fourth contract and he was ready to move on. I frankly don’t disagree with that. There is a point when anyone who is a leader needs to leave. I’ve always felt that for myself,” he said, referring to his own career path.

Future of Festival O

Devan, 60, came to the Philadelphia troupe as managing director in 2006 after serving as director of Pacific Opera Victoria in British Columbia. He rose to general director in 2011 and emerged as a kind of merry evangelist for a more than 400-year-old art form. He shortened the troupe’s name (from “Opera Company of Philadelphia”), commissioned and produced works that greatly expanded what could be considered opera, mounted performances in smaller and sometimes funkier spaces around the city, and created a new vehicle: the fall Festival O.

The festival’s initial funding supported a splashy initial O17 with 25 performances over 12 days. It drew listeners, won international awards, and generally impressed critics — a New York Times writer in 2018 called Opera Philadelphia “one of the most creative and ambitious in this country” — and in 2018 the company set out to raise $75 million to fund the company and festival over the next five years.

But donations fell short, with the company raising just $61.4 million over six years.

“There was a lot of research and data suggesting there would be philanthropy to support that [$15 million in annual donations],” says Devan, “and it turned out that wasn’t the case.”

On top of the lower-than-expected donations, COVID and the arts shutdown struck in 2020, damaging attendance. Last year’s O22 festival drew 6,970 ticket buyers, or about half of the number for O19, before the pandemic.

“And so you’ve seen that we have sort of reengineered the festival. We think it will still be important, but at a smaller scale,” says Devan of O23, which opens Sept. 21. “We’re now at a point where [the entire company] annual budget is sitting at $11 million” — down from a high of $18 million in 2017-18 — “and we think that is short-term sustainable.”

Still, Devan says he has no doubts that Introducing more new works and doing less of the traditional repertoire by Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, and Donizetti was the right move.

“One hundred percent yes,” he said. “I think it was absolutely vital that Opera Philadelphia develop a unique artistic voice for itself. It’s created an artistic point of view within the company that will stand it in good stead moving forward.”

The opera company is far from alone in struggling for audiences. Only 15% of performing arts groups in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties reported that attendance for the season that just ended was back to or exceeded that of 2019, according to a recent Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance/PA Humanities survey.

Potential merger or joint venture

Red ink has begun to appear on the company’s ledgers — two $800,000 deficits in the last two fiscal years. During that time, opera has become more expensive to produce, says Klasko.

“It’s tough out there,” says Klasko. “We by and large have a very loyal subscriber base. In the mass-market things [traditional opera], we fill up the seats.” But for more cutting-edge projects, “we have to depend on philanthropy.”

One major change being contemplated is a potential strategic partnership or merger with another institution. Devan says he believes that both are worth considering, though nothing specific is being explored right now.

“There could be mergers with companies in other locations. There could be mergers with folks that have a new-work practice. There could be mergers of things that might not even look like they necessarily belong, outside of opera.”

Investigating those possibilities will be the work of the next general director. A search committee of board members, music director Corrado Rovaris (who has just signed a contract extension through May 31, 2027), and other opera leaders will be looking for someone who “has a view toward the future of opera in Philadelphia post-COVID,” says Klasko, and who can “take advantage of the fact that so much of our philanthropy comes from outside of Philadelphia.”

Also on the wishlist for a new general director’s vision:

“How do we become an incredibly integral part of Philadelphia in a couple of ways — in the whole downtown scene, which needs some work, and the equity piece? How can opera affect people in underserved areas?”

Devan, who plans to stay in Philadelphia and develop an arts consultancy, says that at one point a few years ago he had planned to remain at Opera Philadelphia until it had achieved stability. He once dreamed of raising money for an endowment to gird the annual budget.

He’s proud that the Opera Philadelphia he leaves behind will be “in step with contemporary urban life,” he says, and has “the future of the form as part of its DNA.”

Moreover, the company now is “tethered to a community, both operatic and Philadelphia. That’s something that I think we created. And so that’s good.”

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