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Madison Opera: Still in the Game

"Oh yes, I'm still a gambler," says Madison Opera's general director Ann Stanke when I remind her of our last discussion about the health of the organization, "but even though the risks have gone up, the odds are better now." Just returned from a meeting of the board of directors, Stanke was in an upbeat mood. "We've just established our endowment fund, with seed gifts totalling $35,000 over and above our other grants and gifts. Given the high cost of opera, the amounts are not great, but they are very meaningful."

Funding is a consuming concern for the Opera's directorate. "It isn't easy to find a niche for our efforts," Stanke observes, "because every nonprofit in the area is out looking for ways to raise money, and they each have their own formula or fund-raising gambit." Last season the Opera staged a successful raffle, selling chances to win a luxury car at $50 a pop. "We netted $13-$14,000 from that, glad to say, and it was certainly worth it to establish a conspicuous presence in a high-traffic location like the Sentry market in Hilldale." At the same time, Stanke and the board want to maximize the effect of their fund-raising efforts and are resolved not to spend too much time on smaller projects. "We will certainly continue all our normal, end-of-fiscal-year appeals."

Two years ago and to a significant extent last year, the financial stability of the Madison Opera was by no means secure. The group's deficits have been guaranteed by a line of credit extended on the basis of personal pledges by board members. "Fortunately, we haven't had to dip into that," Stanke notes, "although just the other day I looked at our checkbook balance and thought 'Uh-oh' -- it turned out the most recent deposit had not yet been entered and things were actually in good shape."

Further contributing to stability for the Opera, a dedicated and effective staff is now in place. Development director Stephanie Elkins' recent business membership drive got a 5% return on its first mailing -- 1%-2% is the more usual response rate -- and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from Opera America totalling $39,000 have secured the performance of this year's children's opera, The Gobolinks. In addition, the Opera is considering an investment in income-producing real-estate, specifically a warehouse large enough to accomodate its own storage space needs as well as those of other performing arts groups in the area.

Yet another productive and stabilizing factor is a formal group of area development directors, working cooperatively to further their common goals. "Media coverage has not been as consistent as we would like," Stanke points out, "and one objective of the development directors' group is to get five minutes worth of TV for the arts as a regular commitment. When you think of the interest and space devoted to sports on a daily basis, we really need to work on establishing greater presence and visibility in the community."

Fiscal management isn't Stanke's only concern, of course. She has to shepherd actual performances, including this weekend's The Elixir of Love, a frothy, upbeat work by Donizetti, to be sung in English by a young but excellent cast. Good singing can never be far from her top worries, either. I observed that in other university towns with strong opera programs -- Indiana and Michigan, for instance -- there was a ready reserve of talent in the form of graduate student singers in artist programs. I noted that the great strength of instrumental programs at the UW is not matched by an equally strong vocal program that could potentially offer apprentices to the Madison Opera and reduce its reliance on outside -- and expensive -- talent for lead roles. Stanke was silent in response, but to me it seemed a significant silence.

Asked if she still likes the job, Stanke brightened up at once. "I absolutely love it," she says, "even on the days when it has been frustrating or our sometimes hand-to-mouth existence is uppermost in my mind. Besides," she says with an infectious laugh, "in me they have a person who isn't expensive, who cares deeply, and who doesn't mind working long hours."

I'm not a gambler, but if I were, I'd know better than to bet the farm on a hand of poker opposite Ann Stanke. She seems to know how to play the cards, where the Madison Opera is concerned, and she appears to have a winning hand.

Isthmus, November, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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