President Denise Battles announced in an email sent to the campus community on Friday Nov. 11 that the college has decided to cease funding operations for the Finger Lakes Opera—effective that day—peaking frustrations from participants and professors alike. The decision came in response to financial challenges Battles had initially addressed in her 2016 opening convocation address, which include, but are not limited to, the college’s frozen tuition and a modest decrease in state funding relative to the prior year.
“SUNY Geneseo agreed to provide some initial support during FLO’s startup phase, and we have done so,” she wrote in the email. “However, producing high-quality professional opera is a very costly endeavor, and a feasible pathway toward financial sustainability has not materialized.”
The idea behind FLO originated in 2011 when plans for a summer festival between FLO Artistic Director and professor of music Gerard Floriano and President Emeritus Christopher Dahl were made to elevate the college’s status within the community, according to Floriano. The project expanded under a five-year financial plan developed by Floriano and Dahl, and the organization put on its first official performance during the summer of 2013: a small scale concert with the FLO orchestra and professional opera singers presenting “Opera’s Greatest Hits.”
The performance was a success, according to Floriano, and FLO subsequently conducted three summer seasons, each including a professional opera and—in 2015-16—an additional musical review. The audience for this past summer’s performance of “La Traviata” was nearly sold-out, comprising of individuals who traveled specifically to Geneseo from 24 states for the event.
Faced with financial limitations, Battles observed the organization’s budget and determined that—despite its popularity—it would be in the college’s interest to stop subsidizing the opera.
“While we expected to provide some support in the initial stages, we’ve been unable to avoid funding gaps—and looking behind that—we didn’t see them closing,” she said. “We saw the likelihood that they would be expanding. That was the worry from our perspective.”
These funding gaps are the difference between FLO’s revenue and the funds required to cover expenses associated with FLO—which exceeded the former—according to Battles. In addition, the college’s infrastructure remodel will “result in significant disruption to central campus, including the primary venue for FLO, Wadsworth Auditorium,” according to Battles’ email.
“What we projected is we would have a certain amount of deficient for the first couple of years,” Floriano said, referring to his and Dahl’s initial five-year plan. “We met and exceeded our financial projections for this budget year.”
Battles’ decision to halt all funding from the college will most likely have the greatest impact on the student participants, according to Floriano. FLO has provided students with an opportunity to work firsthand with a professional opera company, including internships in performance, stagecraft, stage crew, ticket sales, marketing and social media. In addition, students can apply to be an assistant director or assistant stage manager.
“This is professional experience that people and students in the performing arts gleaned with great results with a professional company—which they couldn’t do anywhere else on campus, or anywhere else near here, actually,” Floriano said.
Vocal performance and communication double major sophomore Nicole Rizzo will be conducting a directed study next semester alongside Floriano to discover more about the process behind FLO.
“As someone who is a voice student and who frequently looks at other young artist programs throughout the country, usually when you are starting off—especially as an undergraduate—they are ‘pay-to-sing,’ which means you have to pay them thousands of dollars just to get this experience in order to kick start your career,” Rizzo said. “Whereas not only is Finger Lakes Opera not a ‘pay-to-sing,’ there are also paid internships available and you can get college credit.”
FLO can operate as an independent organization, but without the additional funding from the college, these student internships could be in jeopardy.
“The group that I feel most worried about are the students; we were just starting to get this whole thing cranking, and students from other campuses were starting to come to Geneseo knowing about it,” Floriano said.
Students from college campuses across western New York—such as Nazareth College and the Eastman School of Music—have approached FLO interested in its internship opportunities. Rizzo was one of many students who provided a testimonial to Battles emphasizing FLO’s importance.
“The pulling of this funding—if FLO can’t continue—I’ve already started looking at other programs to transfer into,” she said.
“It’ll hurt the college and it’ll hurt the Geneseo students. But actually, I have to say that I’m extremely grateful to the college and I’m extremely grateful to Chris Dahl, Carol Long and everyone at Geneseo—staff, volunteers and our generous donors—who supported this organization and allowed it to become a really viable, respected and quite well-known professional arts organization in the region,” Floriano said. “Because of that … we have found a venue for next summer, we are planning to do a full slate of performances … which will be forthcoming. Without the past support of the college, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve such high artistic successes.”