City Opera's Slow and Painful Demise
The New York City Opera has announced that it will fold; as of today it is filing for bankruptcy protection. Will it be able to pay its debts from its last production, Anna Nicole?
The 70-year-old onetime font of new American talent, the company where the likes of Samuel Ramey, Placido Domingo, and Beverly Sills launched their careers, has been in a major freefall in the last decade. The first signs of it surfaced in 2004, when Susan Baker, the new chairman of the board, began what was clearly a very “hands-on” regime in an attempt to reduce its $3.5 million deficit.
That move kicked off a series of actions and reactions that, in retrospect, only led the New York City Opera further and further down the hole. Baker, a onetime investment banker at Goldman Sachs, raided the endowment to pay off the company’s debts. When she arrived it stood at $57 million. By the time she hired George Steel as general manager, in 2009, the endowment had been reduced to $16 million and the debt had grown to $15 million.
Baker may have held leadership positions at Goldman Sachs, but her ability to hire the right person for the right job was poor, to say the least. She first hired Gerard Mortier as general and artistic director in 2007; he was to take over the following season, when his contract at the helm of the Paris Opera ended.
Baker met the aging enfant terrible at a dinner party; he was looking for his next job, she was looking for a general director. Rumor has it that she was completely taken with him and so made the hire. Never mind that he had only run State-supported institutions before and that he had a penchant for expensive, cutting-edge regie productions.
In the end, Mortier quit before he arrived at City Opera, once he discovered that the company didn’t have the funds to realize his grand artistic schemes. But before he left, he had advised Baker to sit out the 2008-09 season while the State Theater underwent renovations (she said at the time that the company could perform in “churches and auditoriums” instead). That was a huge misstep, one that cost the company both subscribers and donors.
In the meantime, Mortier had racked up tens of thousands of first class frequent-flyer miles commuting between New York and Paris at a cost of $15,000 round trip (at the time), as the designated artistic director. He was earning a salary of $65,000 plus expenses while still based in Paris. And though he never showed up to take the job, he was paid $400,000 in severance.
Baker’s next questionable hire was George Steel as general and artist director. Steel had never run an opera company (three months at the helm of the Dallas Opera, which, by all accounts was happy to see him go); his major claim to artistic-management fame was turning the Miller Theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side into a hotbed of contemporary music. His admittedly highly inventive programming was largely supported by the theater’s landlord, Columbia University, not through his own fundraising prowess.
Steel cut the City Opera season from 12 productions to three, moved the company out of Lincoln Center, sold the sets and costumes for its bread-and-butter standard repertoire, and made other changes that have made him the target of much criticism. Clearly, he inherited a very bad situation; but just as clearly he didn’t manage it well, apparently spending resources the company didn’t have on new productions, limited as they were in number, and operations. His next mistake was waiting until the 11th hour to cry for help. He suddenly announced last week, with no warning, that the company would go out of business absent a quick $7 million.
And so it has.
Pictured: Beverly Sills in her prime
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