Looney Tunes Echo Backstage as Opera Companies Drop Dead
Mad scenes help make opera so enjoyable. Think of Lucia di Lammermoor, her nightgown soaked in blood, singing cuckoo duets with a flute.
But it helps if the people running opera houses and music halls are generally sound of mind.
These last few weeks, it’s hard to ignore evidence that not being nuts (or clueless or greedy) is no longer a requirement for top jobs in many aspects of the classical entertainment business.
Here is a brief overview.
Metropolitan Opera: Tightly coiled general manager Peter Gelb seems locked in a fight to the death with Alan Gordon, the raving head of the American Guild of Musical Artists, one of the three major unions whose contracts are up in July. (AGMA represents dancers, soloists, chorus and production staff, but not stagehands and orchestra.)
For example, Gelb wants to stop paying choristers when they are not singing. I am going to surprise you by saying that support for this radical idea is not universal.
The negotiations promise to be horribly entertaining if they ever start on the designated day of May 5 -- not a good day so far for Gordon, because it interferes with a dance rehearsal.
Maybe no day will be. In his latest, rather amusingly overwrought letter to Gelb (Gordon copies his correspondence to the media), he threatens to fight his way up to the Supreme Court if Gelb refuses to allow the press to attend the labor meetings. Thanks. May 5 is not good for me actually.
New York City Opera: Hold on to your suspenders of disbelief (and that checkbook). Last time we paid attention, the company had drowned in a sea of debt after years and years of mismanagement. Now a sentimental little group with too much money wants to bring it back despite the absence of a suitable theater -- or for that matter an audience.
By now New Yorkers with a pulse are going to Gotham Chamber Opera, Poisson Rouge or LoftOpera, where young director Laine Rettmer just had a hit with “La Boheme.”
The NYCO means nothing to people who grew up without Beverly Sills (1929-2007; a Brooklyn-born soprano known for Lucia). Give it up, folks. You’re all showing your age.
San Diego Opera: Meanwhile, the selfish gene is blooming in this sunny town on the Pacific. Theater thrives here, but the opera company may not survive Ian Campbell, 68, the overpaid general director ($501,021) who’s been running the company for some 30 years. He’s explained his pay by noting he also wears the hat of artistic director.
For all that work, San Diego gets just four operas, produced with the assistance of his ex-wife, also on the payroll for $282,345, an arrangement that should have raised governance issues long ago.
When things got slow at the box office, what do you think Campbell did, folks?
Float back to his homeland of Australia in a boat? Leave the place to an energetic newcomer, perhaps an American?
He convinced the board to close the company, just like that. From one month to the next. Surprised everybody, especially the 400 (50 of them full-time) employees!
Enraged opera-goers booed Campbell when he took a bow after the last performance of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte.” Local culture reporter Angela Carone of KPBS Public Radio and TV ripped into the pay packages for the Campbells.
Before she resigned, Board President Karen Cohn wrote an apologetic and addled letter to staffers outlining various roads not taken. Some newly energized board members are getting involved.
Rich people sometimes live in a cocoon.
Perhaps the company will survive. It’s debt-free -- in part because it spent down an endowment left by Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald’s founder and former chief executive officer Ray Kroc. But that’s a good platform on which to build.
Indianapolis Opera: Who wants to hear an opera called “Albert Herring”? Indianapolis Opera found out and had to cancel its spring production. This piece has been boring since Benjamin Britten finished it in 1947. Why did you folks not know this?
Sooner is Better
Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis: Oh boy. Where’s Aeschylus? The flabbergasting drama pitted a power-crazed board against the pesky musicians who spent 16 months locked out of their renovated concert hall.
Finally, after givebacks including a salary cut of 15 percent, a new contract was signed in January. The orchestra is playing and Michael Henson, the contentious CEO and president who presided over this mess, has promised to leave in August. (What? Today is too busy?)
Time to party, wouldn’t you say?
Nope. The September gala that raises about $1 million has been called off by the event’s co-chairs, who then resigned, saying the atmosphere needed improvement.
Get yourself some new chairs who can throw a party, people.
Calling Paul Ryan
National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington: Where was everyone when departing KC president Michael Kaiser renewed his pallid friend Christoph Eschenbach’s contract for another two years? Putting on party hats?
Eschenbach, 74, has been paid an astounding $1.93 million. In the U.S., only Chicago’s Riccardo Muti and San Francisco’s Michael Tilson Thomas make more, but they are in a different league entirely. Eschenbach is neither an international star nor a locally venerated cultural leader.
That’s quite a housewarming present for Deborah Rutter, who arrives in September now that Kaiser was nudged out the door.
Let’s see. According to the 2014-15 calendar, Eschenbach is down for 31 performances, which comes to about $62,246.02 per appearance, and yes, I realize he probably rehearses which can be strenuous. An unusual example of a public-private partnership, the Kennedy Center receives federal funding. Paul Ryan, be my guest.
Ha Ha Ha
Stockholm: I have to go to Sweden for the Are You Folks Insane prize. Every three years, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation awards $1 million to artists who have made a difference.
Might these be music teachers who inspire kids in, say, Africa? Ha. The last recipients were Placido Domingo and Muti, two of the richest classical musicians on the planet.
Now the prize goes to the Vienna Philharmonic, a bastion of maleness that only recently and reluctantly hired a few women. Look at the photo on the Birgit Nilsson website and laugh. I have a feeling that the Wagnerian soprano, known for her humor, would chortle as well.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. All opinions are her own.)