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Operating Opera

New executive director Mark Junkert on Opera Idaho

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After a year and a half of holding down two part-time jobs in two different states (New York and Minnesota), Mark Junkert and his partner, Cathy Carlson, decided it was time for a change. He saw the opening for Opera Idaho in a trade publication. He liked what he saw, and the Opera Idaho search committee did too. In May, he loaded up a U-Haul in Brooklyn, made a stop in Minneapolis for Carlson and their Minnesota belongings and headed West.

"Boise is a wonderful city," Junkert said. "I was impressed with its vitality, the lively scene downtown and the cultural life. Other cities this size have even larger opera companies, so I believe the potential is here. And the people who are connected to Opera Idaho are really passionate about it."

Junkert follows the four-year tenure of Julie Kilgrow, who achieved audience growth and financial stability sufficient to reduce the opera's deficit by nearly $30,000.

"Deficits in the 10 percent range are not unusual in opera companies, but we don't want to add to it," Junkert said.

Junkert's experience should help Opera Idaho maintain that successful trend. One of his part-time jobs was managing the small Skylark Opera in St. Paul, Minn. The other was managing the Martina Arroyo Foundation, dedicated to training young opera singers.

For five years, Junkert managed New York City's venerable Collegiate Chorale, which presents opera music as well as choral work. Junkert was also executive director of the National Lutheran Choir. He was with Augsburg Fortress, the nonprofit publishing business of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for seven years, rising to the position of director of marketing for the music/worship division, overseeing a $65 million annual budget.

Junkert, a bass-baritone, pursued a love of singing long before he began working on the management side of vocal music. He had a brief professional career after graduating from the University of Denver with a bachelor's of music in vocal performance, followed by graduate studies in voice and in opera at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But the business side of any art form can be a considerable challenge. Opera has been called "the ultimate art" because it's a synthesis of so many other disciplines: singing, acting, art and music, as well as set design and building, props, hair, makeup, wardrobe, lighting, conducting and directing, not to mention the work of a great composer and librettist (script writer) to begin with.

Such an amalgam can be expensive. A single production can cost upward of $80,000. Most opera companies Boise's size earn only 64 percent of their income from ticket sales. Opera Idaho has been able to earn just 55 percent, which means that about $282,300 has to come from fundraising and donations every year. Sometimes major donors are unable to provide the same sizeable contributions year after year. One of Opera Idaho's major sponsors in the past, Tamarack Resort, is one such example.

"We need to broaden our base of donors; it's risky to depend on just a few sources for most of your gifts," Junkert said.

One way to take the pressure off donations is to increase ticket sales and reduce expenses; in other words, create more performances of less pricey operas. But the question is where?

"The Morrison Center is a wonderful place, but it's hard for us to fill, and it's expensive, and half the audience is far away from the stage, especially the younger and newer audience that doesn't buy the expensive seats," Junkert stated. "They are used to seeing opera on the big screen, close-up shots of the stars, especially now that the Metropolitan Opera of New York is broadcasting live in high definition into movie theaters."

What Boise could really use, continued Junkert, is a mid-size performance hall. Unlike ballet, opera is not performed to recorded music, so any space must have enough seating capacity to pay for an orchestra as well as everything else. At reasonable ticket prices, that means something in the 800-seat range. The Egyptian Theatre comes close, but its performance area is extremely small. Opera Idaho has made it work in the past and will do so again in March 2009 with its production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's comic opera Cosi fan tutte. Performances at the Egyptian Theatre require building a stage extension and finding an orchestration arranged for a small ensemble. For example, the Mozart opera will use just 10 players.

Fortunately, the essence of opera is not the spectacle of large and elaborate sets and costumes, choruses and casts, but is rather great singing and acting and a great story. Many operas from the Baroque era and several American operas were written with just the essentials in mind. Junkert hopes to present operas by George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell, as well as those of Aaron Copland and Ned Rorem, who recently adapted Thornton Wilder's play Our Town for opera.

"But I realize any additions to our season of smaller or less familiar operas will have to be balanced by something from the core repertoire of favorites," Junkert said.

He has other production ideas as well. If it sounds like Junkert is thinking like an artistic director—who plans and casts the seasons— while simultaneously serving as the company's executive director—who raises money, coordinates productions and sells tickets—that's just what he is. While the opera hopes to hire a part-time artistic director, funding the position may not be possible before planning the 2009-2010 season, which has to start next month in order to engage the best singers. But Junkert feels comfortable in that role.

"I saw a lot of regional opera company productions in my travels," Junkert explained. He visited almost every state during his years with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

So it's with one eye on the future, and one on the present, that the 2008-2009 season will be produced. It includes Lucia di Lammermoor, a tragic opera at the Morrison Center (Nov. 1), Cosi fan tutte a comic opera at the Egyptian Theatre (March 7-8), "Opera Idaho Sings Christmas," at the Egyptian (Dec. 6) and three fund-raising events.

"This season's productions are very complementary," Junkert explained. "Cosi fan tutte is very much a team effort; the two couples share the action equally. Whereas in Lucia, the focus is pretty much on the spectacular singing of Lucia, which requires a soprano who can scale the heights of the vocal range.

"Opera is the most complete of all the art forms because it involves so many of them," Junkert said. "And because of this, opera is the most intense."

For more information on Opera Idaho's 2008-2009 season, visit operaidaho.org or call 208-345-3531.