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Connecticut Opera Closes, Won't Refund Tickets


February 12, 2009

After 67 seasons, the fat lady has sung for Connecticut Opera. The opera has ceased business, has let staff go, has closed its office, and told its 2,000 subscribers they will get no money back on the two springtime productions that were recently canceled.

"We have ceased business and we are trying to work out the arrangements with our secured creditor about what will be done with our very few remaining assets," said John E. Kreitler, chairman of the opera board.

The opera has not filed for bankruptcy. "The cost of doing so would be wasted money," said Kreitler.

"It's worse than sad, it's a shame," he said. "It's just another casualty of the economic conditions."

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he will be investigating the situation and plans to make a formal demand for information from the opera on Friday. "We believe the opera has a strong obligation legally and morally to provide full accountability and transparency," he said.

Although the opera is nonprofit, Blumenthal said it has the same responsibilities as "any business that takes money and promises services."

Kreitler said ticket prices for the opera, which had an annual budget of about $2.1 million, range from $25 to $35 a ticket to about $100.

Mary and Bob Warzecha of South Windsor are typical, having spent $340 on tickets to see "Daughter of the Regiment" in March and "La Bohème" in May, the two shows that were canceled.

Mary Warzecha said she was infuriated after receiving a letter from the opera dated Feb. 6, informing the couple that "we are unable to provide refunds for your remaining tickets" and suggesting that they claim their unused tickets "to the full extent allowed by the law" as a charitable contribution to the opera.

"First, subscribers had the rug pulled out from under them with the unexpected cancellation of the spring performances," Mary Warzecha wrote in an e-mail. "Then, we are thrown off a cliff with a terse communication that the money we had paid for tickets had morphed into a 'charitable donation.'"

"It all seemed sort of callous," said Warzecha, "not a 'by your leave' or anything. It was 'this is the way it is and tough luck.'"

Warzecha said she has cautioned her brother to think twice about subscribing, as he usually does, to another local arts organization for next year's season. "We don't want him to be left holding the bag if this is the tip of the iceberg of a death spiral of performing arts locally."

Warzecha said she is considering buying music or theater tickets only on a performance-by-performance basis in the future.

Peter Polomski of Chaplin, another subscriber, characterized the opera's actions as "reprehensible" in an e-mail that went on to say: "I've received a letter today informing me, basically, 'You've been ripped-off, sorry!'"

He said he fears such action could have a "chilling effect on subscriptions" to performances.

There is better news, however, for those operagoers who bought single tickets through the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, rather than through the opera. David Fay, president and chief executive officer of the Bushnell, said the organization will provide refunds on the opera tickets it sold for the two canceled productions.

Fay said the Bushnell makes it a practice to always have funds available in case of cancellation. "We have a huge responsibility to keep the faith with our public."

With the collapse of the opera, Fay said, the Bushnell will be stuck with a bill of about $80,000 owed by the opera for services provided through the theater.

He said the opera has notified him "to take off the holds on next year's calendar."

However, he said the opera audience in the Hartford area is a strong one and he is already exploring options to bring other touring opera productions to the Bushnell.

"It may be too late for next season, but certainly the following season," Fay said. "I would expect there to be opera."

Ken Kahn, executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, said that performance groups and art institutions should keep money on hand to pay ticket refunds if necessary, but "this happens from time to time. It's very unfortunate. ... The opera has been very hard-pressed in the past few years."

He said the opera board has "put up a heroic struggle" over the past few years, to save the institution, "but the odds they faced were overwhelming."

"The Greater Hartford audience has gotten a lot of opera" since the early 1940s when the opera began, he said. "We need to take the long view. It's not the end of the world, but it looks like it may be the end of an independent Connecticut opera company. It's very sad, a sign of the times, and also a sign of changing cultural preferences and patterns of living in the 21st century."

Kahn said that arts lovers need not fear purchasing subscriptions to established Hartford arts organizations. While those organizations "are struggling, no question about it," he said those groups are "nowhere near the position that the opera found itself in. ... Subscribers in general can have confidence in the arts organization here and should go ahead and subscribe."

Kahn noted also that there is an effort to continue the opera's "Opera Express" — a traveling opera program — so that it can meet its booking commitments in schools this spring.

Brooks R. Joslin, president of the opera board, said that the board was doing everything it possibly could do to keep the opera going, but was faced with "a perfect storm" of economic problems: an extremely poor turnout for its production of "Don Giovanni" at Waterbury's Palace Theater in November as well as, with the sagging economy, reduced corporate and individual donations.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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