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Embattled Chairman of N.Y. City Opera Leaves Diminished Company

Charles R. Wall, the incoming chairman of New York City Opera. He replaces Susan Baker. Source: New York City Opera via Bloomberg
Charles R. Wall, the incoming chairman of New York City Opera. He replaces Susan Baker. Source: New York City Opera via Bloomberg

Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Susan Baker resigned as chairman of the New York City Opera after seven years during which the company at Lincoln Center struggled with increasing deficits.

For the 2008-2009 season, the company once associated with diva Beverly Sills, posted a $19.9 million deficit. The company also twice dipped deeply into its endowment to pay running costs.

According to a press release sent out late yesterday, she was replaced by Charles R. Wall, the former general counsel of Altria Group Inc. and vice chairman of Philip Morris International.

Baker presided over an ambitious attempt to move the company to a new theater in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when it seemed a performance complex would rise from the ashes in downtown New York. That came to nothing. Another attempt to lodge the company in a new skyscraper behind Lincoln Center produced a detailed design by Hugh Hardy before Baker pulled the plug.

Similarly doomed was the search for a successor to general director Paul Kellogg. After considering conductor Leon Botstein, the well-regarded president of Bard College, the board settled on Belgian provocateur Gerard Mortier, a manager adored by the left elite of Europe, even though he still had the top job at the Paris Opera for another two years.

The Glamour Choice

“They shot for the moon. They thought they could recruit Gerard Mortier and play a large glamour card,” said Botstein on the telephone from his office in Annandale-on-Hudson. “Susan Baker made several gambles that didn’t work out.”

“What we proposed was a kind of merger, taking the opera and connecting it to a university structure. I wanted to rethink the opera house fundamentally -- how it could reach new audiences and produce new work,” Botstein continued.

Mortier never arrived. Used to munificent public subsidies, he shuttled between Paris and New York -- first class according to tax returns -- before high-tailing it to the Madrid opera house after the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008. He said his vision would be compromised by a reduced budget -- and somehow picked up a severance of $335,000.

Contracts for shows that never happened further afflicted the company. Mortier had also convinced Baker to sit out an entire season while the State Theater was being renovated into the David H. Koch Theater. That and investment losses caused last season’s unprecedented $19.9 million deficit.

The current general manager, opera novice George Steel, has downsized the company, firing staff and ceding two performing weeks in the fall to the theater’s other tenant, the more prestigious and solvent New York City Ballet. Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” opens on Oct. 27, one of only two productions this fall season.

(Zinta Lundborg is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. )

To contact the writer on this story: Zinta Lundborg in New York zlundborg@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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