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The Man Conducting Business At The Dallas Opera 11

Six years ago when Keith Cerny joined The Dallas Opera, the company faced dire financial straits and creative stagnation. Since then, Cerny has brought life back to the company. He did it by recruiting great singers and bringing a new music director to Dallas, broadening the company’s programming and finding new ways to expand the audience.

Cerny will be the focus this week on  KERA TV’s “CEO.” Interviewer Lee Cullum discusses Cerny’s love of music, the challenges in reviving The Dallas Opera and what’s next for the company. Below are program highlights.


Keys To The Turn Around

The board of The Dallas Opera believed that Cerny, with his expertise in business and music, was the right man for the job. In 2009, the company moved into the Winspear Opera House. But this meant that the cost structure for productions was going to change. Cerny says the new facility meant the company had to step up its game. The Dallas Opera had bring in better singers, better productions and more commissions.

But in order to do so they would need to get their finances in order.

The first step to financial stability was belt-tightening. Cerny says, “I felt the need to cut back the volume of opera we were doing, not the quality, from our traditional five productions a year to three, temporarily.” He says doing so helped “stimulate donations.”

Cutting back productions wasn’t the only part of the plan. He also commissioned new operas: “Everest,” “Great Scott” and “Moby Dick.” “Moby Dick” was key to the return of The Dallas Opera. The collaboration between the company and the projection/video designer Elaine J. McCarthy brought a new dynamic to the opera. It helped attract new attendees who spread the word the opera was back. Cerny says many people think of projections as just a visual technology. “But Elaine really operated at a higher lever than that. She’s thinking about the image design, the visual design and the sets.” The production made waves nationally and it helped to reassure folks that The Dallas Opera was pushing itself. (Read more about it here.)

Cerny still wanted find a way to bring more people to the opera. He wanted to get past opera’s image as stuffy, its aging audience nothing but tuxedoed men and women in costly gowns.  The solution: Get the opera out of the opera house.

The Dallas Opera began simulcasting in parks and stadiums — with free admission. Cerny says it’s working: 63,000 people have attended free simulcasts of shows such as “Showboat” at AT&T Stadium this spring. Cerny says,”Some people in the opera world don’t like to call opera ‘entertainment. But it has to be entertaining or people aren’t going to give up their time or their hard earned money for that.”

Obsessed With Music

Cerny has always been in love with music. As a boy growing up in California, Cerny sang in the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus and played the piano. Cerny’s infatuation with music pushed him even further into the craft after graduating with degrees in physics and music. During his post-grad work, Cerny studied conducting and voice — and had the opportunity to take part in the English National Opera’s Repetitor Training Course. He worked first-hand with opera singers as a pianist.

Cerny’s family is also very musical. His wife, whom he met in San Francisco, but hails from England, is a singer and musician. Cerny says, “she’s got perfect pitch,” “she’s studied piano and she sings in church choirs. She’s very musical.” They have four children together – all boys — and Cerny’s youngest boy, Nicholas, has sung in three operas.

Looking Ahead . . .

Cerny says he’d like to bring more original work and even musical adaptations to Dallas. “I am working right now on our programming plan which will take us to 2022. And we will definitely continue to consider musicals” — like “Showboat.” In fact, Cerny is considering “South Pacific.” But for experimentation to continue, the company will need to make room for it. Cerny’s hoping the season can expand from five productions to six: “And that will really open up a lot of new scheduling and programming opportunities.”