This fall the hallways of Opus 118, Harlem’s most famous music school, remain quieter than usual. Located on the 7th floor of an office building at 125th Street and Park Avenue, the school’s three studios and performance room no longer fill with 250 students during its after-school program.
Instead of teaching its usual total of 700 students, Opus 118 enrolled only about 75 in its after-school program, with reduced scholarships compared to past years, and 200 in the in-school program when it opened earlier this month.
The school needs $1 million—its annual budget— to resume operating at full capacity, says administrative principal Karen Geer.
“I don’t think right now we have the funds to continue past winter,” says co-founder and creative director Roberta Guaspari.
Dependent on donations, Opus has seen its budget shrink over the past two years. The recession has taken a toll: board chairman Nathaniel Sutton say that donors have scaled back contributions and one foundation, formerly a significant supporter, has dissolved.
But internal conflict has also played a role, including the departure of influential board members who’d served for over 10 years, says a person active in the school’s founding.
The board members who resigned included major donors and people linked to them, like Dorothea von Haeften, the wife of prominent violinist Arnold Steinhardt. The couple’s friendships with investor Walter Scheuer and internationally-known violinist Isaac Stern, helped raise Opus’s initial funding and drew media attention.
The new board of trustees, according to this source, has been less effective at fundraising. Shortfalls led to the school’s abrupt closure last April; it usually runs through May.
“I handed the school over to the executive director Alexander Small with enough money in the bank,” Van Haeften says. She charges that the new board hasn’t maintained a relationship with the school’s donors. “When I left, the new board members didn’t get in touch with the donors; not enough personal effort was made,” says Van Haeften. “We had many donors among board members and they weren’t contacted, as they should’ve been.”
Guaspari remembers the days when budget shortfalls could be resolved with one donation. “Dorothea and I would go over to Wally’s,” she said, referring to Scheuer. “And he would just give us $300,000.”
Sutton says the small staff and loss of a development director more than six months ago has prevented fundraising from being “where we want it to be.” He adds that Opus cannot now afford to hire a development professional but that remains a high priority.
Opus’ financial and media supporters include Congressman Charles Rangel, actress Meryl Streep, who put Opus 118 on the map by playing Guaspari in the film “Music of the Heart,” and well-known violinists Mark O’Connor and Diane Monroe. The school has also received grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs, National Endowment of the Arts, New York State Council for the Arts, JP Morgan Chase, New York Community Trust, says Sutton via e-mail.
But the most effective fundraising strategy, Geer says, has been to invite charities, such as members of the Cruise Industry Charitable Foundation, to school concerts.
She is optimistic. “We are hoping for a steady cash flow,” Geer says. “Certain grants are going to be coming in over the course of the year, so every month we’ll be able to reinstate more kids and programs.” Not only does the school intend to return to full after-school enrollment in January, but to reinstate specialized private programs, like choir and guitar lessons.
But the school’s co-founders, Guaspari and Ellen Weiss, remain troubled by the financial situation. “I hope we can get someone who can get us back on our feet again,” Guaspari says. Weiss called the school’s situation “perilous.”
Over the summer, Opus alumnae and parents formed an alumnae and parent board to help the board fundraise.
“We are more hopeful because parents and alumnae have become actively involved,” Weiss says. “Alumnae have a fierce loyalty to Roberta, so when she reached out to them when the board asked her to, they started connecting with each other and working with the current head of the board Nat Sutton.”
But parent board member Stacey Willoughby cautioned, “There isn’t a solid fundraising program in place; the issues remain. Funding can become an issue once again soon,” she says. “We need a specially designated person who’ll make a fundraising plan.”
For Guaspari, who continues to head the school’s curriculum, financial problems aren’t new. In 1991, when public schools slashed Guaspari’s violin program, she managed to raise money, with support from parents and students, with a Carnegie Hall concert. Guaspari used the concert’s $1 million profit to make her music program more independent, forming the current separate center in 2002, says Geer.
Opus 118 currently hosts in-school music programs at three public elementary schools: Central Park East 1, Central Park East 2 and River East. The in-school classes started on schedule in mid-September and are taught by Guaspari, who is paid by the schools.
But there were significant differences this year. In addition to the in-school program, Opus 118’s after-school music program offers three performance groups according to children’s skill levels: preparatory, junior ensemble and advanced performance group.
To enter the performance group, students must first take small-group private lessons from Opus teachers, which require a fee. Until this year fees for the students in the lower two performance groups were cut in half, and waived entirely for advanced students. Students in other groups who needed financial support also received full scholarships.
But this year, Guaspari says, Opus can’t take beginners who can’t pay for private lessons, and only about 10 after-school students are fully subsidized by the school. Sutton says that students who need financial aid will get scheduled depending on how many slots are open at the time.
The advanced performance group was the only after-school group to resume full classes this September, rehearsing twice a week. The other two groups started rehearsing a month later, with rehearsals cut from twice to once a week.
Weiss says Opus always gave scholarships to whoever needed them. “Opus is not about being selective, it’s about giving everyone a chance. Sadly, now they have to ask parents to pay for the after-school programs.”
Four violin teachers left Opus for other jobs after the school closed in April, and one new teacher got hired, says Guaspari. Nelson Ojeda, an Opus piano teacher for three years, says the school closed so abruptly he had to continue private lessons for Opus kids outside of school, so they could finish the semester.
“It’s a sign that we need stable funding,” says Ojeda, who also works at the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts. “We can’t go into the semester without knowing whether we’ll be able to continue.”
The advanced group, the school’s key fundraisers, Geer says, perform 10 public concerts each year. Over the years its young musicians have played at Carnegie Hall and at the Children’s Inaugural Ball in Washington DC.
When the school closed in April, the performance group concerts continued as part of fundraising, says Loi Kail, whose son plays in the group. The children will play in honor of the jazz lounge Louis 649 on Oct 28, with proceeds from the $160 tickets going to Opus.