by Barry Edelson
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When Institutions Die

The Sad Demise of New York City Opera


"… one lapse of judgment can quickly create a situation
in which only foolish choices are possible."
— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


For a brief period in the 1980s I worked for the conductor Christopher Keene at a small regional orchestra on Long Island. At the time, his primary work was at the New York City Opera, where he served for several years as music director. A few years later he would succeed Beverly Sills as general director, a position he held until his early death from complications of AIDS in 1995. It was clear that he and Sills had a relationship based on mutual admiration. She had sung in performances he led from the podium, she championed his ascension as music director, and he was her heir apparent when she moved across the plaza at Lincoln Center in 1989 to join the board of directors at her old nemesis, the Metropolitan Opera.

Christopher didn't speak a great deal about City Opera, most likely because it was such an outsized presence in his career that it didn't bear mentioning. It was an institution with deep roots, a large and loyal audience base and a sound financial outlook. Christopher was a very intelligent man, an avid reader and sharp observer of human nature. Sills was not merely an enormous talent but an enormously charming and indomitable figure who towered over New York's musical world. No organization could have had better leaders in place to ensure a glowing future. It was one of the big musical organizations in New York to which young performers aspired, and there seemed to be little prospect that its pride of place in the city's cultural firmament was remotely in jeopardy.

City Opera's move to Lincoln Center in the 1960s was considered by many to be its greatest mistake and misfortune. Its original home had been at New York City Center on West 55th Street, a giant palace of a theater in the Moorish style, built originally by the Shriners in the 1920s and later acquired by the city and turned into a center for the performing arts under the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The opera company enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and popular success during its 20 years at City Center, developing a reputation for original and highly professional productions of both world premieres and traditional repertory. It also became an important showcase for American composers, singers and conductors who were mostly overlooked by the Met, whose long-serving, autocratic director Rudolf Bing believed that American audiences only wanted to see European stars singing European standards of the repertory. Sills, famously shunned by Bing for decades, was City Opera's greatest star, and offered definitive proof that he was wrong.

Even before the move to Lincoln Center, it was feared that City Opera's close proximity to the Metropolitan Opera would leave the company permanently in the shadow of its larger and more widely renowned neighbor. In addition, the New York State Theater to which it was relegated was designed primarily as a home for the New York City Ballet, which had shared quarters with the opera at City Center. It was also feared that the State Theater, a lovely venue for dance, would never be as good a fit as City Center, either acoustically or logistically, for the opera. Even though these fears were largely justified, City Opera continued to thrive in its new home by forging ahead and building upon its many successes. It achieved stardom for quite a few of its young singers and attracted notice for its innovative productions, particularly of new operas. When I met Christopher in 1986, City Opera was very much still in its prime, and whenever he did speak about his work there it was with the confidence of someone who had no reason to suspect that the opera's foundations were anything but rock solid.

And now, we are struck by the news that City Opera has declared bankruptcy and will unwind all of its operations. Its recent troubles seemed to begin in 2008, when a new director, Gerard Mortier, resigned abruptly only a few months after he had been appointed. The State Theater was undergoing renovations during the 2008-09 season, and City Opera's board had inexplicably taken Mortier's advice to suspend its performances entirely during this period. They ought to have known better. Anyone engaged in fundraising knows that it is a nearly impossible task to attract donors to an inactive organization. Just ask any politician who has suspended a campaign for office. With Mortier's sudden departure, the company was both leaderless and temporarily homeless, with no ticket income and no visibility on the city's cultural landscape. It was a wound that would ultimately prove fatal. While the company did return and present several more full seasons of performances, it was apparently bleeding money all the while. It ran through its endowment to meet ordinary operating expenses, a sign of desperation that is invariably one of the last steps before total collapse. The decision in 2011 by its current and, as it turns out, last director, George Steel, to leave the State Theater altogether in order to save money, provided the coup de grâce. City Opera limped through a few more productions at other venues around the city — some of them, alas, garnering critical acclaim — before falling with a final thud like a large piece of forgotten scenery.

How did it happen?

The late escape from its confines at Lincoln Center was arguably the proximate cause of the company's collapse, but that was only the last in a series of poor management decisions that put the company in a perilous state in the first place. Was the death of City Opera attributable simply to the decision in 2007 to hire a director who was clearly not committed to the company? Or to accept a dubious conclusion that a season without a performance was a wise course of action? The financial collapse in late 2008 undoubtedly took its toll, as well, as the arts suffered in general from the hardships of many of its stalwart contributors. But a healthy and well-run organization would probably have had the resources to survive such a crisis. No other major institution at Lincoln Center has been forced out of its home or into bankruptcy during this period: not the Met or City Ballet, not the Philharmonic or Lincoln Center Theater. What was unique about City Opera's circumstances that left it foundering and ultimately unable to continue operating? Should we go all the way back to the decision to leave City Center 50 years ago? It was arguably a bad move, but clearly not a fatal one: too much has transpired, including many successful seasons for City Opera even at its sub-standard venue, to bother with so remote a supposition.

Few have the skill to strike
a balance between vision and
daily management.

At one level, it is difficult to ascribe this loss to anything but bad management. Those in charge of organizations of all kinds invariably defend themselves by declaring that they made the best decisions they could with the information and resources available to them at the time. By and large, this is generally true, but little consolation to those who suffer the consequences of organizational failure. Taken in isolation, individual actions are easy to second-guess. Perhaps what we have seen at City Opera is management's gross failure to see the big picture, to be so overwhelmed by the problems of the moment as to be unable to envision how any particular action might affect its future prospects. Perhaps different leadership would have come up with different solutions, and the Opera might have survived. Perhaps not.

For the hundreds of singers, orchestra musicians, designers, technicians, costumers, stage hands and administrative staff who have lost their livelihood and artistic home, the death of New York City Opera must seem like a surreal amalgam of misfortune and incompetence. For them and the audience, there is now a hole in the life of the city that will not easily be filled. City Opera was no ordinary company, and its demise is no ordinary loss. If there are larger lessons to be learned from this debacle, one should be that no institution, however inviolable it may seem, is immune from ultimate failure. Even governments with vast powers eventually fall prey to forces beyond their control. Another lesson is that it is, more often than not, impossible to know which factors that are taken into consideration when making fundamental decisions are mere passing difficulties and which are symptoms of institutional decay. It's easy to pick off one mistake or another in retrospect, as the news media habitually do: the company should never have hired this or that director, or moved to or from this or that venue, or chosen this or that repertory. Some leaders are adept at looking beyond the details to the big picture and finding a way forward, while others are so fixated on the big picture, so convinced of the truth of their own press releases, that they overlook critical details that may be destroying the foundation. The ability to find a balance between grand vision and daily maintenance is a skill not possessed by many. The bigger the institution, the more difficult the task. Somewhere along the way, the people responsible for City Opera's future lost their balance, and evidently didn't realize it until it was far too late. The forces of dissolution are constantly nibbling away at every human institution, and are far more powerful than all of our creative energies combined.


October 6, 2013


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