There was a time when Hanna Munitz wrote the programs, dickered over contracts abroad, went to the flea market with the costume designer or props mistress, did all the public relations, plus whatever else needed doing. That was some 20 years ago. These days she is completing her bar-mitzva year as the very successful general manager of the Israel Opera (formerly the New Israeli Opera), and she still keeps a careful eye on everything. Her empire extends yearly. Now, the Israel Opera season features eight productions, including Boito's Mefistofele and Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, both making their local debuts. The season opener on Tuesday in Tel Aviv is the Lithuanian Opera's production of Strauss's Salome. "We've come a long way," muses Munitz. "It's not so much that we've changed, but that we've grown and developed. Both we and our audiences are more sophisticated, experienced and therefore more demanding. It follows that our production standards are much higher, Israeli singers and directors are beginning to come into their own, both locally and internationally, and we've developed a cadre of good young conductors, like Dani Ettinger and Omer Welber." The Israel Opera is regarded abroad as a quality house, says Munitz, and top singers like to work here, often taking only a quarter of the fee they can command elsewhere, "because obviously, with our budget, we can't afford to pay them," says Munitz ruefully. Up front, it should be said that the Israel Opera is deficit free. At NIS 27 million, the Israel Opera's public funding (from the Tel Aviv municipality and the government), is only 40 percent of its total budget. The remaining 60% comes from earned income - ticket sales and donations. Some of that income proudly derives from the Israel Opera's hugely effective educational outreach that ranges from backstage tours before opening night to opera in the park to community productions, traveling opera, interactive classroom encounters and specially adapted opera for the kindergarten set. The Israel Opera also maintains an Opera Studio for the training of young singers whose pupils provide the leads in the outreach programs. More than 70,000 people came to La Traviata in Hayarkon Park this summer, and community productions like The Barber of Hatikva, a local take on that famous barber of Seville, or the upcoming Elixir of Love in Tiberias attract thousands more. The little 'uns sit rapt before such offerings as The Magic Flute or Hansel and Gretel performed on the steps in the foyer of the opera house. All the Israel Opera outreach programs originated with Munitz; she outlined their future shape when she applied for the job following the resignation of Uri Ofer, the New Israeli Opera's inaugural general manager. She is extraordinarily satisfied with how they've turned out. Indeed, a good manager must "have a vision of where you take the enterprise, and when you have the vision and you believe in it, you have to be able to take the people with you." FOR MUNITZ, opera is far from an elitist art form, and at any given performance young people in jeans, soldiers in uniform, people bussed in from country towns, giggling high schoolers and the designer-dressed smart set rub shoulders - some 300,000 people annually. Subscriptions for the coming season top 17,000, some 2,000 more than last year. Future plans include, (hopefully) infrastructural improvements to the house, such as electronically controlled flys - those bars that raise and lower scenery - and elevators below the stage for the same purpose. The municipality has already spent NIS 1.4 million on improving the acoustics. Operatically, plans include yet more education, more outreach and an exciting new venture. In 2010, Verdi's Nabucco will be performed at Masada, the inaugural production of an EU-sponsored annual Mediterranean Basin Festival. The production will then travel to Mediterranean basin countries, including even Lebanon and Syria. When it started, the Israel Opera relied almost completely on foreign artists. Today, 20 odd years later, there is already a small cadre of local singers, conductors and directors, but not enough to staff a season. Creating an opera tradition takes a long time and ours is young, Munitz points out. Just, a few seasons back, the internationally renowned David Alden directed an original Israeli opera, Gil Shohat's Alpha and Omega. But when Yosef Bardanashvili's Journey to the End of the Millennium, based on the novel by A.B.Yehoshua, premiered in 2006, it was directed by the Cameri's Omri Nitzan. The rest of the production was local too, from lead roles to designers. In keeping with the Israel Opera's growing international stature, Millennium was invited to Rome as part of Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations and will return to the Israel Opera stage next month. Millennium, if Munitz has her way, is just a precursor, part of her ongoing vision "of the Israel Opera as an institution essential to our culture both locally and internationally."