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11/12/08
New York City Opera In Crisis Mode
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A few months ago, I blogged about then-incoming New York City Opera general manager Gérard Mortier, quoting from an interview he had recently given to French public radio to try to divine what was in store for opera lovers in NYC. Frankly I was excited about the prospect of Mortier taking over NYCO and potentially launching a healthy rivalry with the Metropolitan Opera. I mean, the guy was talking about commissioning new operas and trying to get David Lynch to direct Tales of Hoffmann. This was going to be fun!

Gerard MortierKey words: “was going to be.” Because Mortier has thrown in the towel before even starting, and on November 8 the New York Times announced he wasn’t coming to New York after all. Just what poor, beleaguered NYCO needed to recover after its current brutally truncated season…The bottom-line reason for Mortier backing out is money. According to the Times, “he decided to resign when it became clear that the board would not give him the money needed to produce a meaningful slate of opera productions.” In other words, the reality of running an American institution in a recession came knocking on Mortier’s door, and he really wasn’t ready to suck it up and do what was required.

Being a general manager in this country means that you spend half of your time, if not more, courting corporations and rich people so that they will give you mucho dineros. When you accept the job, you accept that responsibility. It’s not fun but there you go: There is no public money for the arts in the U.S., so you have to beg, steal and borrow to mount your productions. In a follow-up article, the Times quoted some chilling figures: “The contributions from state sources in France to the Paris National Opera alone amounted to $160 million in 2008. In comparison, the entire 2008 budget for the National Endowment for the Arts was $145 million.”

Mortier also did not inspire confidence by spending relatively little time in New York and especially by applying to co-run the Bayreuth Festival (a job he ended up not getting). If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the current economic downturn, it’s that lack of confidence begets lack of confidence; it’s hard to raise money for NYCO when you act as if your heart isn’t in your new job and you’re kinda edging your bets by suggesting you could run two institutions at once. Not a good move. Appearances matter.

The latest news is that NYCO has tapped Michael Kaiser, CEO of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will come in to help “identify new leadership and to craft a plan for the 2009-2010 season.” Perhaps they should look at the very intriguing plan that composer Mark Adamo has come out with, which you can read on his personal blog.

Meanwhile, the vultures are circling. The vastly entertaining opera blogger La Cieca has been providing a running commentary on the NYCO situation, mentioning for instance that another house was rumored to pick up the Brokeback Mountain opera NYCO had commissioned from Charles Wuorinen.

The worst part is, there is zero Schadenfreude involved here: NYCO is scrappy and means well—its heart is in the right place—and no opera lovers in their right mind would wish this terrible situation on them.

  • JSU

    There is, in fact, much public money for the arts in the US. The tax deduction for charitable contributions is far from universal, and adds up to billions in government subsidy for arts organizations each year.

    Of course, this doesn’t make fundraising here any less complicated.

  • Lois C Schwartz

    Some of us have been around long enough to remember the original intent of NYCO. We were not thrilled with the appointment of Mr. Mortier, who seemed a pretentious, fatuous youknowwhat, with a limited and outdated knowledge of American opera. Brokeback Mountain my foot – did Haroun warrant another commission? Those of us in NYC have been deprived of an opportunity to hear some of the most treasured works of American Composers. How about a retrospective of 20th Century American Opera. Even if only concert performances. The NYCO Board should resign, they should be ashamed of themselves. It was never in the cards to compete with, but rather to complement The Met and give American singers a home. You can do an awful lot with $36 million! I’ll take it on in a heartbeat.

    #1 Ubiquitous Audiene Member Lois C Schwartz

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