actor on stage throwing paper into the air
A Pittsburgh opera company is reinventing itself in the wake of poor attendance and financial turmoil

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 17, 2023) – Another in a string of Pittsburgh arts organizations is reinventing itself in the face of grim financial realities.

The Steel City is home to two opera companies. The larger of the two, Pittsburgh Opera, puts on several productions a year in the fall, winter and spring that draw thousands of listeners.

The second, Pittsburgh Festival Opera, is a “summer festival company” that typically puts on a few small-scale productions during the summer months and provides a training program for aspiring opera singers.

Last year, attendance at Festival Opera was “sad and just horrible,” said Marianne Cornetti, the company’s artistic director.

“I had budgeted for twice the amount of people to show up, and it just didn’t happen,” she said. “We got into a really tough situation.”

Pittsburgh Festival Opera will not have a summer season.

Instead, Cornetti is working with her board and funders to reimagine the company as a scaled-down operation that presents a recital series, an educational summer program and perhaps a small production or two during the traditional fall-spring classical music season.

Festival Opera is not the only classical music organization in recent weeks to announce a major transformation due to low attendance and financial trouble. The other is the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which is also transitioning to a reduced year-round model. While Pittsburgh’s largest performing arts organizations seem to have stabilized, its smaller companies continue to struggle.

Cornetti estimated that Festival Opera is at least a couple years away from putting on a complete opera once more.

In the meantime, the company will remain active, but with a much smaller footprint as it transforms. There will be an outdoor operatic concert on Aug. 16, the traditional annual Mildred Miller International Voice Competition in September, a fall recital series and a Christmas fundraiser. Details are at

The next steps are murkier.

“We’ve had to make adjustments, but we’re OK,” Cornetti said. “We’re really OK.”

Rich hobby?

This will not be the first major shift in direction in the company’s history.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera, formerly known as Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, was established in 1978 and staged performances throughout the year. It rebranded as a summer company in 2012. Since then, it has operated with a highly variable budget, generally in the vicinity of around $800,000.

Like all arts organizations, Pittsburgh Festival Opera relies heavily on contributions from individuals and foundations to remain in the black. Ticket sales account for a tiny part of its budget.

Historically, influential board members have donated large sums in exchange for the company putting on specific operas that the donor wanted to hear live. The quality was not consistent or high.

Cornetti, a globally renowned and respected singer, noted that, even without the pandemic, this is not a sustainable strategy in the long run.

“To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of the summer, because people are on vacation,” Cornetti said, adding that when she took the reins of the company in November 2019, it was her long-term ambition to return the company to year-round programming.

“First of all, financially, it’s a hell of a lot easier that way,” she continued. “You’re making money throughout the year instead of focusing on three weeks in a summer, and hoping that that’s going to sustain you for the whole year.”

Her goals for the company’s future are to present world-class, high-caliber singing, to maintain the vocal competition, and to provide training to the next generation of singers.

Singing for survival

The largest roadblock is a lack of human capital, i.e. staff.

Festival Opera once operated with a small full-time staff of about seven people and staffed up seasonally during the summer months. Currently, only Cornetti and a part-time education officer are working.

Hiring new employees is the company’s next priority, Cornetti said.

Once a team is in place, putting on productions again will be a matter of fundraising. Cornetti is hesitant to name a dollar figure for how much it would take to begin putting on operas again, but hedged that it would cost $500,000 at a minimum.

“I could get away with half a million, maybe,” she said. “I don’t know what the exact number is, yet.

“But I can I can tell you this, I can only do what I have raised.”

The renowned opera singer believes that opera companies should focus primarily on voice and music rather than spending heavily on elaborate sets. She is tapping her own network of singers for appearances on her recital series to showcase some of the world’s top voices.

Cornetti sees a return to prioritizing the emotional power of music as necessary for her company’s — and perhaps the opera field’s — very survival.

“I’m keeping my world alive in my city,” she said. “Because I think my city deserves to hear the best that I can possibly provide.”

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