The Philanthropy Collaborative

Regional Case Studies

Virginia Opera Association
Norfolk, Virginia



The Virginia Opera Association opened in 1974 and enjoys a working budget of $5.8 million with 32 mainstage performances in three markets reaching nearly 50,000 attendees. It has been hosting performances in three venues throughout the state - Norfolk, Richmond, and Fairfax - for more than 20 years.

In Norfolk, the Opera performed in a 45 year old former USO hall, until the building was renovated in 1993 as part of the heart of downtown Norfolk's revitalization. The renovated opera house serves as an anchor for economic development throughout the area, and today the Opera Association is committed to the economic development of the communities where it performs.

"We hold restaurant promotions together with performances in all three of our markets, and we give our patrons as many opportunities as we can to help them make an evening of it, and that includes promoting local overnight stays," said CEO Russell Allen. "We're working now on a project that is a weekend of opera activities in Norfolk, so that people can both come to our performances as well as take advantage of everything else our community has to offer."

Tourism is a key source of revenue for Norfolk's businesses and local government. The latest data available from the Virginia Tourism Corporation indicates that state and local tax receipts due to tourist travel was more than $40 million in 2010, and the industry supported more than 6,600 jobs and provided more than $167 million in income in the city.

In addition to a robust schedule of top-notch performances, the Opera Association gives back to its community in a variety of ways, says Allen. "We're putting on high quality performances that have been incredibly well received," said Allen. "And we're also constantly reaching out to and working with the community."

The Opera Association has gone to great lengths to make opera, a medium with a bit of a stuffy reputation, accessible to young people. One of the ways they do this is through their educational programs, which reach more than 150,000 children a year. The Opera Association visits local schools and puts on up to 300 productions annually, as well as hosting a Student Night at the Opera. Docents have visited classes of young students to educate them about classic operas and the music of Beethoven. The opera also offers workbooks to teachers with different activities for each grade level. Other programs include Operation Opera, which offers hundreds of free presentations a year to communities around Virginia.

"The Harrison Opera House plays an integral role in Norfolk's arts community," said Mayor Paul D. Fraim. "As home to the Virginia Opera, the Commonwealth of Virginia's Official Opera Company, the Opera House enhances the City's reputation as the arts and cultural capital of Virginia. Through its education program 500,000 Virginia schoolchildren are exposed to the opera each year. The Harrison Opera House is a beloved, historic treasure of the City of Norfolk."

"Our outreach programs are incredibly popular," said Allen. "We did a production of Little Red Riding Hood that was very well received, and it's really an educational experience for the kids."

In 2006, the Opera Association held Family Day at the Opera, which featured $1 admission to Sleeping Beauty and seven hours of activities for young people of all ages. Family Day is now held annually in at least one of the opera's three venues. In Fall 2012, the Virginia Opera will host its fourth annual free Opera in the Park event. In addition, the Virginia Opera will continue its free concert series in 2012 featuring performances of arias and duets from popular operas and operettas.

None of this, says Allen, would be possible without foundation funding. "We've done well overall with earned revenue and ticket sales, but that's barely 50 percent of the cost of putting on our performances," Allen said. Foundation funding, he states, is "absolutely necessary to round out our budget. There are a number of different projects, like our student night at the opera, that are only possible because of foundation funding."

"Our foundation partners," Allen added, "are critical to our success."

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