Why is the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Flush With Cash?

Are you a struggling theatrical or musical production that's hemorrhaging money? We have a solution. Just follow the lead of your Broadway counterparts and have your rock star composer emerge from the shadows and take the lead role in the production.

That's the plan to rescue "The Last Ship." The producers of the flailing Broadway musical recently tapped ex-Police frontman Sting, the show's writer, to step in and play the lead role to prevent the entire, well, ship, from going down.

Time will tell if this gambit will pay off. Until then, this development underscores the fact that 99 percent of most productions lack the luxury of tapping a celebrity to bail out a "sinking" production. (We'll try to refrain from naval disaster metaphors from here on out.)

In fact, Sting's New York City exploits stand as a stark counterpoint to other organizations that find themselves flush with success thanks to good, old-fashioned hard work, fundraising, and community engagement.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL) comes to mind. With 2014 winding down, the theatre continues to thrive in a small Midwest market still plagued by ongoing economic uncertainty. The theater recently announced that it raised a record $5.3 million in its fiscal year, which ended on September 30th. The number of corporate donors rose 42 percent while new donor households jumped a staggering 203 percent.

So what explains this enviable success? Short answer: the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The foundation awarded the theatre a $1 million challenge grant, requiring the theatre to raise $1.5 million before the end of the fiscal year. And we know how that turned out.

But the Mellon grant is only half of the story. After all, the theatre isn't the first organization to receive a challenge grant, nor is it the first organization to meet the challenge. But the theatre did more than meet the challengeit demolished it. And why is that?

The answer lies in the theatre's not-so-secret weapon, its Engagement and Inclusion Task Force. This mildy CIA-sounding entity's goal is to "build an inclusive audience for opera that better reflects the rich diversity of the St. Louis community." Translation: Sadly, Puccini isn't for everybody. Programmers must tailor their productions to different demographics. Listen to your audience and respond accordingly. Loosen up, it's only opera.

This mission will sound familiar to those of us who've been following Mellon's funding priorities. It recently cut a $750,000 check to the Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative. Its goal? "Invigorating the operatic art form with an infusion of contemporary works." Sounds familiar to us.

But the OTSL also understands that programming alone won't get folks in the door. And so it has invested heavily in community outreach and networking. Its inclusion task force partnered with other local groups, including Jazz St. Louis and St. Louis Public Radio, to expand the audience.

Foundations often award money as if in an incubator. They give organizations room to experiment and patiently await the results. Well, the results from St. Louis are in: Inclusive programming, coupled with robust community engagement, translates into more people in the seats and more donors on the books.

And the best part? No 80s-era rock stars demanding chilled white wine backstage or throwing televisions out of hotel windows.