Fresno Grand Opera calls it quits as financial and legal pressures mount

Sarah Shafer, left, Jonas Hacker, Danielle Bond and Eric Downs in Fresno Grand Opera’s ‘Our Town.’
Sarah Shafer, left, Jonas Hacker, Danielle Bond and Eric Downs in Fresno Grand Opera’s ‘Our Town.’ Special to The Bee

Fresno Grand Opera canceled its remaining season Tuesday and announced it is filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, capping a turbulent few weeks of cash-flow issues and the departure of key artistic personnel.

“This is a decision that was not made lightly, considering our community of dedicated patrons and years of quality performances that were passionately presented,” said acting board president Gerald Palladino in a statement.

The company, founded in 1998, presented dozens of performances over the years and brought a star-studded lineup of top opera names to the central San Joaquin Valley. It was considered one of Fresno’s major arts institutions, and its demise is a big loss to the local cultural scene.

Events moved quickly this week:

▪ On Monday, the board was struggling with a cash-flow crisis. The company still owes 22 union-represented musicians $17,000 for the Jan. 27 and 28 performances of “Our Town.” The union is filing charges with the state labor commissioner.

▪ Also on Monday, the board severed its contract with Ryan Murray, Fresno Grand Opera’s music director and “Our Town” conductor. “Obviously I was very frustrated to learn that the musicians have not been compensated for their work on ‘Our Town,’ ” Murray said. “I have also not been compensated for the production.” He did not know if any of the principal singers had been paid.

▪ On the legal front, word came Tuesday of a defamation lawsuit filed by former general director Ronald D. Eichman and associate director Thi Nguyen, who left the company in 2014, against Fresno Grand Opera’s most recent general director, Matthew Buckman, and the company’s current board. The lawsuit stems from a series of allegations made by Buckman and the current board against Eichman and Nguyen’s prior leadership of the company. Those allegations, which included financial irregularities, conflicts of interest and improper corporate governance, were made public when Fresno Grand Opera self-reported itself in June to the state attorney general.

▪ “Of Mice and Men,” planned May 6 as a joint production between Fresno Grand Opera and Modesto’s Townsend Opera, was canceled Tuesday by both the Fresno and Modesto companies. “However, we are moving full speed ahead at Townsend with season planning for next year,” said Murray, who remains artistic director in Modesto.

One event on Fresno Grand Opera’s season lineup will go on as planned, Palladino said: a “Broadway on Van Ness” concert Sunday at First Congregational Church featuring the Fresno Grand Opera chorus.

The church is taking over financial responsibility for the Sunday concert, which is a fundraiser, Palladino said.

A second event previously reported as still taking place, a cabaret performance March 23 at the Painted Table featuring singer Carrie Hennessey, is now canceled.

In recent weeks, Buckman resigned as general director of both Fresno Grand Opera and Townsend Opera. The two companies share productions and an artistic staff but maintain separate boards of directors. A revised organizational structure was announced with separate managing directors in Fresno and Modesto, but the designated Fresno managing director, former Fresno Grand Opera board member Matthew Altamura, never signed a contract.

Fresno Grand Opera was founded in 1998 by Edna Garabedian. It’s been through several incarnations of leadership and programming philosophies, from handsomely mounted traditional local productions to high-profile concerts featuring such stars as Andrea Bocelli, Renée Fleming and Kristin Chenoweth, and a big-budget foray into musical theater with a “Les Misérables” featuring Broadway performers. Recently, under Buckman’s leadership, it had moved into presenting more contemporary works on a smaller scale. Still, Buckman faced an uphill battle.

When the company released financial documents to the attorney general, its report depicted an organization that has consistently been in debt between $200,000 and $365,000 since the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year. As of June it had a current budget deficit of $250,000 out of an annual budget of $500,000. Buckman said at the time he had not been paid for 15 months.

Richard Jennings, the board president, was embarking on an out-of-country trip as events unfolded Tuesday. He noted that money woes can be a vicious circle. “We all know that when you don’t have cash, you lose volunteers, and people become demoralized because you can’t raise enough cash,” he said.

When the public perceives that an organization is failing, it’s hard to battle back, said Don R. Simmons, a Fresno State professor and expert in in philanthropy and community benefit organization governance.

“I don’t mourn the loss of an organization that has a pattern of bad board management,” Simmons said. “I wish more organizations would see the writing on the wall sooner and close down, because it’s bad for the whole sector.”

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