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L.A. Opera's new CEO works to keep stage lights on, audiences coming

Christopher Koelsch has worked his way up the ladder, assuming his new post in September. As the company turns 25, he is focused on getting it out of debt, satisfying current audiences and creating opportunities for new patrons.

October 20, 2012|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • CEO of LA Opera Christopher Koelsch in Los Angeles.
CEO of LA Opera Christopher Koelsch in Los Angeles. (Christina House, For The…)

For the past 12 years, the public face of Los Angeles Opera has been Plácido Domingo, the famed tenor who serves as general director. But the person who manages the company on a daily basis — the person whose job is to oversee every aspect of daily operations, including ticket sales, season planning, the bottom line — is a much less recognizable and celebrated figure.

Christopher Koelsch assumed the role of L.A. Opera's president and chief executive officer in September. The appointment, announced earlier this year, marks a career high for the 41-year-old Koelsch, who joined the company in 1997 and has steadily worked his way up the ladder.

His appointment comes at a crucial time for L.A. Opera, which turned 25 years old last year and is the fourth-largest opera company in the country. The organization continues to work its way out of debt while also testing new waters, including a dynamic ticket pricing model that began this season.

PHOTOS: L.A. Opera through the years

"We're trying new things and sorting out what works from what doesn't work," Koelsch said in his spare but tastefully decorated office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Koelsch is a reserved and somewhat distant interview subject. He has a tendency to speak in generalities. In a profession filled with colorful impresario types, he cuts a conservative figure — calm, deliberate, not easily flustered.

"My responsibility from the first day I was hired was to remove obstacles toward artists creating the best work on stage," he said. "The number of obstacles has expanded. Now every aspect of my day-to-day life, I have to worry about union negotiations, IT infrastructure, donor relations...."

The list goes on and on. At the end of the day, he said, he is responsible for giving Domingo "the opera house he wants."

Domingo said by phone that the company has been weathering "a crisis moment — we are hopefully coming out of it. We all hope we are finished with that period." He said L.A. Opera will seek out more co-productions with other companies on new stagings to minimize costs.

Koelsch addressed the financial difficulties L.A. Opera has faced in recent years. The company has been gradually paying back debt that it accumulated in the buildup to its $31-million production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle four seasons ago. This December, its leadership expects to pay off the remaining $7 million of the emergency loan from Los Angeles County that it received in 2009.

Money to repay the loan has come from donor pledges and the final payments are being collected, according to Koelsch.

The financial burdens have forced the company to offer a reduced schedule of just six productions in each of its most recent three seasons, compared with a high of 10 productions in 2006-07. L.A. Opera had annual operating expenses of $38 million in fiscal 2011, according to financial documents. Five years ago, the company had annual expenses of close to $56 million.

"We got ahead of ourselves putting out product. We overbuilt for our audience," said Koelsch. "We're in a period of correction." Adding to the challenges, he said, donations have suffered at the lowest levels, though higher-level donations remain "robust." The most significant drop in donations was seen in households that typically contribute less than $250, he said.

L.A .Opera isn't alone in its financial woes. A few prominent American opera companies are grappling with money trouble, including Seattle Opera, which recently announced it is facing a $1-million deficit and will make cuts in future seasons. New York City Opera continues to deal with multiple financial problems since decamping from Lincoln Center last year, according to Koelsch.

As the L.A. company regroups, Koelsh said it hopes to build up to as many as eight productions per season.

Another hope, albeit a longer-term one, is to spread opera productions more evenly throughout the season. In the past, the company has tended to schedule openings close together, to take advantage of scheduling for the musicians and chorus. The result was that "we were competing with ourselves for ticket sales," said Koelsch. "We have our ear to the ground in terms of what the audience wants, and the audience wants a steady diet of opera throughout the year."

This season, L.A. Opera introduced dynamic ticket pricing, which allows the company to charge lower prices on less popular nights and to charge a premium for more popular performances. For example, a recent check showed that a Wednesday evening ticket for the recent run of "Don Giovanni" cost $220 for certain front orchestra seats. A similar ticket cost $276 for a Saturday evening performance. (Under dynamic pricing the selling prices can fluctuate daily.)

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