City Opera’s Board Should be Pilloried: Commentary

Anyone taking responsibility for killing City Opera?

New York’s second opera company has filed for bankruptcy after years of mismanagement.

Have we heard from the board yet? I’d like a statement, please, from the folks who relegated the company to history’s trash can.

It could go like this:

Dear Patrons: We are sorry for our reckless behavior and expect to be punished. Please come to Lincoln Center Plaza, where we will be placed in stocks and pelted with the vegetables we’ll give you in exchange for your useless season tickets. The substantial sum we expect to raise from our public humiliation will be spread among the hundreds who have suffered as we preened at parties.

Respectfully: Susan Baker, Mark Newhouse and Mary Sharp Cronson on behalf of all our pals.

It’s shocking how little attention is paid to the boards that control our cultural institutions.

NYCO had big problems all along. The State Theater, too big for the People’s Opera, was built for the New York City Ballet, which owns the lucrative Christmas season with George Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.”

Beverly Sills

Even that amazing fundraiser Beverly Sills, in her heyday as general director, ate herself fat wooing patrons to cover the perennial shortfall.

But to end as a two-bit touring company expiring in the wake of a pathetic Kickstarter campaign really stretches my suspenders of disbelief.

That’s what happened after George Steel, the over-parted general director, extracted the company from Lincoln Center before securing another stage. City Opera began rolling through the boroughs like clown Canio and his tragic retinue.

The company did lease 16,000 square feet of nice new downtown offices, where floodwaters damaged historic archives.

What remains are a few indelible memories: A radiant Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing her heart out in the gorgeous Stephen Wadsworth production of Handel’s “Xerxes.”

The company already was limping when Paul Kellogg retired. Prudent trustees would have had a replacement in the wings; after all, he’d given plenty of notice.

Profligate Spender

For a while, the board toyed with Leon Botstein, the respected, dynamic and well-connected president of Bard College, whose adventurous summer festival takes place in a splendid Frank Gehry theater. A union with Bard, two hours up the Hudson, would have been great for the school’s music students and a boost to City Opera’s budget.

Instead, in 2007 the board speared a European music grandee, Gerard Mortier, who had presided over edgy, very expensive opera productions in Brussels and Salzburg and was at the Paris Opera.

The choice was pretentious and absurd. Mortier was known as a profligate spender of government subsidies. He flew first class to New York to tell his agog board what to do -- like shut down the company for the 2008-09 season.

Yes, the theater was being renovated. But the smarter City Ballet kept going through the dust. Predictable result: NYCB thrived while NYCO lost fans, income, credibility.

No Brains

Thanks. And then Mortier stayed in Europe when the collapsing financial markets shrank the company’s budget in the fall of 2008, leaving it in the hands of Chairman Baker and the cowardly music director, George Manahan, who lost the power of speech.

Then the company moved its investments to cash.

Did everyone just leave their brains at the stage door? Baker, who had worked at Goldman Sachs, wasn’t the only one on the board with some connection to finance before they started meddling with the arts.

To keep going, the company raided its endowment several times.

Now was the time to hire a smarty and quite a number stepped into view, including Joseph Volpe, the retired general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

Here was a man with clout, not to mention humor, expertise and the cojones to take on both the unions and Lincoln Center’s hardball management.

Help Me!

But Cronson was still around. Having failed to land Mortier, who liked to stay at the deluxe Carlyle Hotel owned by her brother, she now turned to a friend in need: George Steel, who was having a truly bad time as the new general manager of the Dallas Opera.

Steel had done well with quirky programming at Columbia University’s small Miller Theater.

In a bigger venue he was totally at sea, having never planned an opera season let alone developed a grasp of the repertoire. He confused composers and seemed to find, say, casting “Cosi Fan Tutte” a challenge. It has six roles.

In a world where productions are increasingly collaborative ventures, he had few friends. After walking out on Dallas, he was something of a pariah (except to the New York Times which continually puffed him up).

It’s kind of amazing. Did no one on the board think to place a few calls to Dallas, where the cheering accompanying his departure could have drowned out the anvil chorus (by Verdi, not Puccini).

On Jan. 14, 2009, he became the artistic and general director of City Opera.

The end was near. The endowment continued shrinking, along with the company as Steel eviscerated it, leaving a panicked part-time outfit.

At the beginning of this year, City Opera held an online auction of old sets, costumes, props -- selling its history.

And why ever not? It had no future.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)

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