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6/25/2009

News

No refunds
Opera fans get the shaft, while the former CEO gets a cruise

 

‘You will fold.”

The signs were already there. A former employee of the Orlando Opera Company recalls receiving a returned subscription card after the 51-year-old organization got rid of its cheap seats and doubled the cost for some season ticket holders in 2008. A disgruntled ticketholder wrote the aforementioned statement with a big “X” next to it, virtually predicting this year’s dive into bankruptcy court. The end was, quite literally, in the cards.

On April 16, the Orlando Opera’s board of trustees voted to suspend its operations and file for bankruptcy. On May 6, the opera company sent subscribers a letter explaining that because of the recession, ticket sales had plunged, donors had defaulted on pledges and the usual contributions weren’t coming in. They were given a choice: Either write off the money they’d just forked over for 2009-2010 season tickets as a charitable donation, or join a long list of creditors who might, one day, see a fraction of their money returned.

Just a few months earlier, the opera company was telling subscribers that if they didn’t pony up for season tickets immediately, they could lose their good seats. Those who did – and who don’t now feel like donating to an already lost cause – are in a bind that’s headed toward a federal court hearing July 10. Meanwhile, the opera board paid off contracts, gave its employees severance pay and, in a particularly stunning display of tone-deafness, now wants to send chief executive officer Jim Ireland – who oversaw the opera’s collapse – on a Caribbean cruise as a birthday surprise.

This series of events has some longtime supporters crying foul.

Beverly Baird Boothe has purchased season tickets to the opera for more than 20 years. She initially held off renewing for the 2009-2010 season – which would have started in November and was slated to include such mainstays as La Boheme, La Traviata and Carmen – because she too had taken a hit on the stock market. But then she received a call in early February telling her that she might lose her prime seating if she delayed any longer, so she wrote out a check on Feb. 4 for $396 to reserve two tickets.

Two months later, the opera closed. “It was shocking,” she says. Baird believes the opera’s rush is more than fishy. She too is in the lurch, one of hundreds of people who wrote the opera a check for shows they’ll never see. Baird says that when she spoke to one of the opera company’s last remaining employees about her financial investment, what she heard astounded her: Baird says she was told that, at best, she could reclaim maybe 10 cents on the dollar.

“It was like a chasm,” says Baird. “A complete disregard for the individual ticket buyer.”

By filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the opera effectively absolved itself of its responsibilities, and found a legal way to stiff the very people who had kept it afloat all these years. A total of 611 households purchased 1,146 subscriptions for the opera’s 2009-2010 season, at a total cost of $208,655. Only 161 of them allowed their subscriptions to become donations. That means that 450 households are in line for the return of a pittance of the $154,224 they are owed. They’re not first in line, either. Those who bought tickets with insured credit cards got their money back – and now those credit card companies are scurrying to retake their losses. The opera also owes the city $36,672. (The opera’s bankruptcy attorney, Brian McDowell, did not return our call.)

According to Orlando Opera’s chairwoman, Joy Sabol, such conspiracy talk is misguided. She says via e-mail that there was “considerable excitement” about the new season, but that excitement failed to materialize financially.

“As a routine practice, opera companies and arts groups use proceeds from advanced sales to fund upcoming productions,” she writes. As to repaying the $154,224, Sabol hopes that by selling the opera’s assets they’ll be able to make amends. She offered this information only on the condition that this story not include former opera CEO Jim Ireland, who, she says, “has been unfairly and wrongly characterized by you and your publication in previous stories.”

Ireland, who once told this paper “the way that an opera can save the most money is by closing its doors” [see “The fat lady sings,” June 19, 2008], apparently has his fans on the board. In an e-mail obtained by the Weekly from Sabol to fellow board members, Sabol compares the struggle of General Motors and its “‘hard’ manufacturing” with the decline of “‘soft’ areas like the arts.” She explains how she gave $100 Darden gift certificates, which she purchased personally with another board member, to the opera company’s last three employees on their last day. And then she does something relatively unconscionable. She asks for a handout from each of the 40 or so members of “at least $100” to fund a cruise for the controversial – and “wildly gifted” – former opera CEO. “The goal is to raise for Jim enough for a memorable cruise (approximately $2,200, but the more raised, the better the trip),” she writes.

Asked about the e-mail, Sabol writes, “I send e-mails to board members on many topics, including voluntary support on a wide range of matters.”

To ticketholders like Baird, that kind of logic is a slap across the face. “Maybe the rest of the 400 of us should get a cruise,” she says.

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