The challenge of how to make money from opera has taxed impresarios from the early 17th century until our time. One man is solving it in his own way.
Nicholas Heath, a former member of the Royal Opera chorus in London, has founded Regents Opera out of his own pocket -- from his savings and the income from performances -- to tour chamber-size productions of popular works.
His superbly sung production of “The Magic Flute,” set in the unlikely surroundings of a colonial-era Indian hospital, is making a profit for the company, Heath says. The production starts a week’s run at the Theatre Royal in Windsor on Aug. 20.
I caught up with Heath, 52, after a trio of performances of the Mozart opera at St. Sepulchre-Without-Newgate in central London a few weeks ago. He’s an ebullient figure with an infectious laugh, as an impresario should be, and tells me how he’s making opera pay.
“Only use good singers,” says Heath. “They’re the key.” And keep a tight rein on expenditure.
“I have to,” he says. “It’s my neck on the line. I’ve read about chief executives of large companies going around their offices and turning light bulbs off, and I say good for them. Whatever size company you’re running, the responsibility should be as if it’s your own money coming out of your own bank account. Any chief executive who forgets that is not doing a good enough job.”
Heath also stresses the benefits of diversifying. In 1993, while still a tenor with the Royal Opera, he founded his first company, Opera a la Carte, to put on small productions and deliver corporate entertainment projects.
The Opera a la Carte stagings grew to such a size -- I saw a thrilling film-noir-style “Tosca” two years ago -- that he decided to split the organization.
Now Regents Opera, which has bass-baritone John Tomlinson as a patron, will concentrate on larger events, while the older company will go back to its roots as a smaller, flexible outfit for bespoke work.
The history of the “Magic Flute” production stems from the earlier incarnation of Opera a la Carte. In 2002, the wife of pianist Murray Perahia came to see one of Heath’s events. She was so impressed that she asked if he could put on a special version of the Mozart piece for her husband.
“It was a thank-you gift for the surgeon who had operated on Murray’s hand so successfully,” Heath says. “Because I knew a lot of doctors would be coming to the performance, I thought it would be a good idea to set the story in a hospital, and place the elements of freemasonry within a medical hierarchy. Murray enjoyed it, and he has been back to see other performances. Now, I’ve re-thought it and enlarged it for Regents Opera.”
Heath, who is of Indian heritage, thought that the era of the Raj would be a good setting for the power struggles in the opera. One of his boldest strokes is to present Papagena, who usually appears in the guise of an old crone, as an Indian leper. (She’s tastefully swathed in bandages and veils.) Later, true to the story, she reveals herself as an attractive young woman.
Another coup de theatre is the appearance of the officious Three Ladies: Here they’re an amusing trio of bossy boots nurses, choreographed with comic precision.
In London, the opera was accompanied by an excellent 12-piece ensemble, conducted by music director Susanna Stranders. In Windsor, the forces will be a wind quartet and piano.
Heath says he makes his money both from hiring out the production to venues for a fixed fee and from performances he has funded himself. He usually charges 6,200 pounds ($9,675) per performance plus valued added tax (VAT).
In its first year of 23 performances, the venture is bringing in profit of about 5 percent on his investment after startup costs and contingencies. Heath plans to enlarge the number of performances next year, and increase the profit margin to nearer 10 percent.
He also plans to continue his program of student workshops and master classes. “The company is a bridge between college and the larger opera houses, and I think it’s vital to support young singers,” he says.
Does Heath think there are links between his business side as general director of the company, and his artistic side as the director who creates shows?
“There’s a huge amount of overlap,” he says. “Both are all about teamwork, and inspiring people to work toward a common goal. As artistic director, you have to make sure that every performer understands their character’s journey, and you must give them a vision of the whole piece. You have to have the same sense of vision in business too, and know where you’re heading and where you aim to be.”
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)