Adieu, Opera Boston

Happy new year to one and all — but not perhaps to opera fans in town, who’re probably still reeling from this week’s official, and sudden, announcement that Opera Boston has taken its final bow.

For those of you who may not have been fully aware of it, Opera Boston was the company determined to make opera cool. It often revived unsung, forgotten works or performed newer, boundary-shattering ones. It’s not for nothing that Gil Rose, head of the thriving Boston Modern Orchestra Project, was doing double duty as Opera Boston’s artistic director.

Of course, opera these days is a hard sell unless you’re doing trusty standbys like La Boheme or Tosca. Opera Boston did always feature an opus by favored titans like Beethoven, Rossini, Verdi, and Mozart. But over the years they also dared to stretch our ears, eyes, and minds by staging such avant-garde works like the world premiere of Madame White Snake, which won a Pulitzer for composer Zhou Long and whose libretto was written by a local, Brookline’s Cerise Jacobs. Then there was minimalist John Adams’s monumental Nixon in China. And Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös’s take on Tony Kushner’s landmark play Angels in America. And Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose, which made the unlikely discovery that Shostakovich had a sense of humor. And then there was Kurt Weill’s epic The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaganny — of course, The Threepenny Opera would have been the obvious choice of Weill, but the point of Opera Boston was not to be obvious.

And perhaps that daring is what led to the budget shortfall, along with an economy that (thankfully) allows big museum wings to get built, but squeezes out smaller organizations with high overhead. In the fiscal year ending July 2011, the deficit was its largest ever, topping out at $225,000. That may seem like not much money compared some vast fundraising stats we can throw around for our largest arts organizations, but it’s a heap for something like Opera Boston — especially when the board was facing $500,000 in payroll and contractual commitments, plus $250,000 they owed the bank. The board estimated that to finish the season would have required $1,000,000 that it just didn’t have. The reasons for this dearth of cash? Poor ticket sales, faltering donors, and rising costs in a tough economy.

Understandably, there’s been some flack over this decision already. The Boston Globe, for instance, called out Opera Boston for throwing in the towel too soon. And while Opera Boston says its debts amounted to a third of its total budget, I can point out that Commonwealth Shakespeare Company managed to run largely with no budget or support for several years, all the while making sure that the show must go on — then again, Commonwealth Shakespeare has always a leader in the superhumanly perseverant Steve Maler. And, to be fair, who knows what other factors the board was looking at and didn’t disclose. Clearly there was no Bill Hanney, savior of the once-bankrupt North Shore Music Theatre, waiting in the wings.

Every organization has different structures, different demands, and different expectations. Regardless of how one views the shuttering of Opera Boston, the fact is that this city has just lost an important cultural force. We have plenty of arts in this city, and it’s a draw for people worldwide who come here to experience the established canon of American paintings or European symphonies executed by some of the best in the world. But Opera Boston took that notion and pushed the city’s tastes to the vanguard. And just as its stature was spilling out beyond the Bay State (exhibit A: Madame White Snake), it’s vanished even without a final aria. The last line of Opera Boston’s letter says that “we are open to a rebirth…in years to come, if the funding climate changes.” That may be a big if, but let’s keep hoping.