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August 15, 2023

Opera Philadelphia president David Devan reflects on decision to step down

His departure comes as the organization is cutting budget and staff and struggles to find its footing post-pandemic

Arts & Culture Opera
david devan opera philadelphia Sofia Negron/Opera Philadelphia

David Devan, Opera Philadelphia's president, will leave his job in May. The organization is still struggling post-pandemic, and besides the leadership change it is cutting its budget by 20% and eliminating some staff. Devan is pictured above in 2017.

Opera Philadelphia's longtime general director and president David B. Devan will leave the organization next year, as the company rolls out changes to address post-pandemic financial strain.

Along with seeking a new leader to take over after Devan's contract ends next June, Opera Philadelphia will also cut its budget by 20% by postponing a production scheduled for this season and cutting some administrative staff positions.

The changes — which aim to address $800,000 deficits generated in each of the past two fiscal years — were announced Tuesday in a letter sent to Opera Philadelphia patrons from the company's board chair Stephen K. Klasko. In the letter, he discussed financial difficulties brought on by increasing production costs and decreased funding as the company attempts to reemerge from the pandemic.

"Performing arts patronage and philanthropy has declined across the entire sector, to a level that we failed to anticipate, and will likely take years to return to pre-pandemic levels," Klasko wrote. "In the short term, we must make changes to our business model to achieve long term financial sustainability and maintain our commitment to Philadelphia, creating an inclusive culture, and artistic excellence."

For his part, Devan, who has worked with Opera Philadelphia for 18 years — including 12 years as general director and president — is choosing to step aside to allow space for fresh ideas.

"I turned 60 in January," Devan said on Tuesday. "So when you turn 60, you start thinking about things. And in May, we were concluding this first season back from COVID. We were looking at some things that weren't working out the way that everybody thought they would, with audiences and philanthropy. I knew I needed to make some changes in the short term for us to be sustainable. But at that time, I really thought we would benefit from bringing in and inviting new leadership."

According to Devan, Opera Philadelphia has had to dip into its COVID-19 reserves to make things work. Devan said he felt Opera Philadelphia needed a "reset."

Changes that will come before Devan's departure include the cutting of about 16% of full-time staff and the discontinuing of the Opera Philadelphia's paid streaming platform. Also, the planned performance of Joseph Bologne's "The Anonymous Lover" at the Academy of Music will be pushed back from February 2024 to February 2025. This will save the company about $750,000, contributing to $2 million of total budget cuts.

"They were tough decisions, but they felt like the right decisions, and I think we made them in a thoughtful and elegant way," Devan said. "I think you're going to be seeing this across the board; people just having to face the financial realities and make adjustments, but do so in a way that maintains their mission, their spirit and their vision. And I think we've done that ... I think we're just facing the future head on. And I think that can be empowering if you do it in the right way."

The next Opera Philadelphia leader will be chosen by a search committee that includes board members, music director Corrado Rovaris and other leaders in the opera community. Devan has decided not to take part in the process.

"My intention is to allow reimagined leadership," Devan said. 

"So if I put too much of my fingerprints on it, it's not going to be that much reimagined, it's going to be more of me. And I don't think it needs more of me right now. That's why I'm stepping aside. ... I gave everything I had to this company because I love it so much, I love the city so much. And this is the way I can make a contribution. But one of the reasons I'm leaving is I don't have any new value to add. I could continue to add value that I put in, but I don't have that new (value)."

While he won't be involved in the selection, Devan recommends his successor be someone who is "rooted in opera" but has a wide range of experiences.

Devan's accomplishments with Opera Philadelphia include a Grammy nomination and 18 new operas the company has produced that have been performed across the world. He looks back with pride on making opera more accessible to the public.

"We took opera out of the opera house; we put it into the community," Devan said. "We put it in nightclubs, where people were ... and that just was some of the most thrilling work we've done, for me personally."

Once his tenure with Opera Philadelphia is through, Devan — who is originally from Toronto and ran an opera company in Victoria, British Columbia before moving to Philly — plans to stick around the city he now calls home and continue working in the arts scene.

"(After making the decision to leave Opera Philadelphia) my husband was like, 'We're gonna stay in Philly, right?' And that's when the conversation happened about 'Yeah, this is our adopted home,'" Devan said. "I'll stay in Philly and start my own independent consulting and producing practice. And I can also watch by the sidelines, hopefully, the evolution and continued success of Opera Philadelphia."

Before exiting his current role, Devan is looking forward to engineering Opera Philadelphia's fifth season-opening opera festival, O23, which runs Sept. 21 through Oct. 1. To commemorate Devan's leadership, Opera Philadelphia will celebrate him throughout the 2023-24 season by establishing a legacy fund and hosting a spring fundraising gala in his honor.

"I'm getting a lot of love for being visionary and for, you know, moving the puck down the ice, skating to where the puck is gonna be and all that stuff," Devan said. "But that was all inspired by others. It didn't come from me. It came from artists, it came from the community. And so as we go through my final season, I just want to make time for gratitude and joy for all those people that have inspired that work."

A full list of upcoming Opera Philadelphia programming can be viewed online.

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