Arts as a business: Opera Idaho

photo of opera idaho singers
As Opera Idaho has grown, it has been able to attract a higher caliber of singers. Photo courtesy of Opera Idaho

This is the fourth in a four-part series on the economic impact of local arts groups.

If you ask Mark Junkert, general director of Opera Idaho, opera is the most complicated art form of all.

“The Boise Philharmonic has an orchestra. We do, too,” Junkert explained. “We have actors like the Idaho Shakespeare Festival who sing and act. We occasionally even have dance. It’s just evolved that way.”

For that reason, unlike some other arts organizations, Junkert acts as both the artistic director and the executive director. In 2008, he became the first to combine the roles.

“There are ways that happens in other worlds, but it happens more often in opera,” he said.

The organization, entering its 47th season, started as Boise Opera Workshop, then Boise Opera, then Boise Civic Opera. Living up to its name, it performs week-long residences and full operas in Pocatello, as well as educational programs and concerts in cities including Ketchum, McCall, Emmett and Weiser.

photo of mark junkert
Mark Junkert

“It’s important for us to live up to the ‘Idaho’ part,” Junkert said, especially since the organization is the only one of its kind in the state. Coeur d’Alene Opera became Inland Northwest Opera in Spokane, while Idaho Falls Opera performs only every couple of years, he said.

Operas require a lot of people. The orchestra, which typically consists of 24 to 50 musicians, is generally the same from opera to opera, while Junkert draws from a pool of about 100 singers for the chorus. Leads are typically half local singers, with half brought in from outside, he said.

As Opera Idaho has grown, it has attracted a higher caliber of singers who are also more expensive.

“We’re medium-sized now,” Junkert said, noting that the opera’s budget is now over $1 million. (In comparison, the Metropolitan Opera’s budget is $300 million.)

Opera Idaho has often used singers at the beginning of their careers, which made them more willing to return as their careers progressed.

“The hope is that if they start early here, we can afford to keep having them come back,” he said.

Operas are typically performed only for one weekend and cost between $80,000 and $150,000, depending on the number of performers and the location. Some are performed in the Egyptian Theater, with others performed in the larger Morrison Center.

About half of that is production costs.

“Some have a lot of set components to them,” Junkert said. “Anything at the Morrison will have a bigger set than at the Egyptian.”

Typically the organization builds its own sets, rather than renting them, particularly because of the Egyptian’s unusual configuration, he said.

Even with the Morrison, it’s sometimes cheaper to build than rent, due to shipping costs for two semitrucks a set requires.

“Boise’s not exactly near anything,” Junkert said. “Unless it’s going to come from Utah, Oregon or California, the cost starts mounting.”

Shipping costs from New York can top $10,000, he said.

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While some costumes are rented, others are built or bought. Photo courtesy of Opera Idaho

Opera Idaho typically rents costumes if they’re a specialty item, such as kimonos for Madama Butterfly.

“If it’s something contemporary, it’s probably just as easy to go buy it at J.C. Penney or Sears,” Junkert said.

Opera Idaho has five full-time and five ongoing part-time staff members. Staff in general takes up about a quarter of the budget. They also handle relatively new programs such as the children’s chorus and a “rising stars” program for high school juniors and seniors, Junkert said.

About 30% of the organization’s $1.2 million budget is earned income, while the remainder is contributions, either individual or corporate, Junkert said.

“That’s great growth,” he remarked. “It was $430,000 when I came.”

He also differentiates between sponsorships – which require compensation, such as ads, tickets and marketing – while contributions don’t, he said.

Like other arts organizations, Opera Idaho is working to attract young people, such as its Operatinis.

“The whole idea is to get people who might not want to sit through an opera in another language to sit 45 minutes,” Junkert said.

Opera Idaho seeks to build its own theater

For all its beauty and audience appeal, the Egyptian Theater, as is, presents major challenges to ideally stage opera. File photo.
For all its beauty and audience appeal, the Egyptian Theater, as is, presents major challenges to ideally stage opera. File photo.

Opera Idaho is tiptoeing into building its own theater, ideally suited for opera.

The 40-year-old opera, which performs statewide, has staged operas at the Egyptian Theater in downtown Boise since 2010 and at the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts. Neither is ideal.

Now Opera Idaho has brought in San Francisco theater design firm Auerbach Pollock Friedlander to write a planning study for a 900- to 1,200-seat theater, likely in downtown Boise, said Mark Junkert, general director of Opera Idaho since 2008.

The study will also consider renovating the Egyptian, where the stage is only 18 feet deep and there is no orchestra pit, backstage area or dressing rooms. The Egyptian seats 695 for opera.

“We have to dress the chorus at the Grove Hotel,” Junkert said.

The $34,000 study is due in June to determine the feasibility and cost of building a theater with a large enough stage, orchestra pit for 50 musicians, backstage area and dressing rooms. Junkert said he has no idea how much Opera Idaho would be willing to spend on a theater.

The study is funded by Opera Idaho, Esther Simplot, and the Hardy Foundation, which owns The Egyptian Theatre.

Auerbach Pollock Friedlander also worked on the $12 million Sun Valley Performing Art Center under construction in downtown Ketchum.

At this point, there is no sense when construction could start or if the project will proceed, though Junkert said he would like to stand on the stage of a new theater before his five-year contract expires in 2022.

After the planning study is complete, Opera Idaho will consider who would own a potential theater, which other performing groups might be tenants, and how to pay for construction.

Opera Idaho has a $900,000 operating budget with a $100,000 operating reserve, which allowed the company to move forward with considering building a theater, something that opera leaders have been talking about for more than 10 years, Junkert said.


Esther Simplot creates a $3 million endowment for the arts

Esther Simplot with performers from Ballet Idaho, Boise Philharmonic and Opera Idaho. Photo courtesy of Idaho Community Foundation.
Esther Simplot with performers from Ballet Idaho, Boise Philharmonic and Opera Idaho. Photo courtesy of Idaho Community Foundation.

Local arts patron Esther Simplot has established a $3 million endowed fund that will provide about $45,000 a year each to the Boise Philharmonic, Ballet Idaho and Opera Idaho.

The Pauline Becker and Dorothy Simplot Memorial Endowment Fund was placed at the Idaho Community Foundation to permanently fund the three organizations.

“Giving to my art organizations is my way of thanking them for all the hard work they have done,” Simplot said in a prepared statement. “It’s a way of letting them know that I do appreciate the giant strides they have made and that everyone – from the performers to the administrative people – has contributed to this success.”

A prior $1.1 million endowment in 1992 from Esther and J.R. Simplot established the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, home of the opera, philharmonic and ballet.

“Opera Idaho wouldn’t exist without her continuous and generous support,” said Mark Junkert, general director of Opera Idaho. “This gift will sustain us into the future.”

“Mrs. Simplot’s passionate and steadfast belief in the arts has inspired Boise to reach new heights,” said Peter Anastos, artistic director of Ballet Idaho. “Ballet Idaho is very grateful for this endowment, which will insure us a reliable source of support always.”