Washington Opera Positions Itself For Higher Profile

Plans are afoot for a major expansion of both facilities and repertoire

The Washington Opera, now in its 40th year, has dreamed of becoming one of the top companies in the United States.

Last month, it took a big step in that direction by signing on superstar tenor Placido Domingo as its artistic director (see interview below). Now, the opera is trying to buy its own hall. The move, combined with the leadership of Mr. Domingo, could catapult the company onto the world stage.

Like other operas throughout the world, this one is grappling with the need to develop a bigger following and keep expenses and ticket prices down.

Having its own home could advance that agenda. The company has set its sights on the grand old Woodward & Lothrop building, a landmark in downtown Washington. The nine-story building served as the flagship location for Washington's top department-store chain, fondly called Woodies, before it went out of business late last year.

District of Columbia officials are anxious for the opera to relocate there. They are hoping that it will reestablish a vibrant night life in a once crime-ridden area. They point to city councils in Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Seattle that have demonstrated that bringing arts activities back heightens the demand for parking, concessions, restaurants, and shops.

When the opera company began, it used George Washington University's concert hall; more recently it has been renting space from the Kennedy Center, the nation's bustling performing-arts arena. Scheduling has been tight, as the opera must share the center's halls with assorted music and theater groups.

But there is no shortage of interest in the music. The company plays to a near sell-out crowd (largely through subscriptions).

If it fails to make a successful bid at the Woodies auction, set for the third week in March, the opera will not give up its search for its own space, according to Patricia Mossel, the company's executive director.

In the meantime, Ms. Mossel and her colleagues have already had the blueprints drawn up. In her windowless office in the attic of the Kennedy Center, she eagerly shares them. In the plans, the rococo shell of the building would be preserved, but its innards would be gutted in order to accommodate a stage big enough to perform full-scale productions, rehearsal space, makeup rooms, suites of offices (''with windows'' Mossel beams), a top-floor restaurant, and more.

The opera will be competing with some deep-pocketed commercial developers for the Woodies site. The sale price is widely expected to top $100 million.

But some Washington performing-arts professionals question the opera's ability to raise enough to pay for the building, its renovation, and operating costs. ''It's a daunting challenge to raise that amount,'' says a Kennedy Center official, who adds that the center already heavily subsidizes the company's rent for the four months a year it pays.

''Bricks and mortar will not be hard to finance,'' says a veteran music administrator. ''It's the day-to-day operation that will be tough, and they won't be able to raise the price of admission.''

Mobil Oil, the official sponsor of the Washington Opera's 1996-97 season, will likely be tapped for support of the opera's plans. As one Washington Opera trustee said: ''It's getting harder to raise money. And there just aren't very many big companies in Washington with a big stake in this community's arts.''

Mossel, who was the chief fund-raiser for the San Franciso Opera, concedes the challenge. Washington ''is the toughest in the country to raise money.'' Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, for example, are chock full of big business, foundations, and wealthy individuals that provide a ready source of financing.

Mossel has raised the profile of the company locally and dramatically boosted subscriptions. When she first arrived 12 years ago, the Washington Opera earned 38 percent of its income from ticket sales and raised the remaining 62 percent from donations. Today, those numbers are reversed: The company earns 66 percent of its income from sales and raises the balance from donors. Mossel boasts that among opera companies, it's the ''highest earned/contributed ratio in the country.''

''We've been going to sources outside the city,'' she says. ''But the one thing we're not asking for is public funding.''

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