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Management to Orchestra: Drop Dead (and it probably will)

Monodramas0030Two in one day.

First came the email from George Steel stating that the New York City Opera was descending into Chapter 11 – and will probably liquidate its assets. The company had sent out an emergency appeal in recent weeks for a $7 million bridge fund. At last report, it wasn’t even close: $2 million.

Then, Osmo Vänskä resigned from the Minnesota Orchestra after a year’s lockout, the occasion being the cancellation of upcoming Carnegie Hall concerts. After a history of excellent conductors (from Eugene Ormandy to Dmitri Mitropoulos to Neville Marriner), Vänskä may have been the best of them all – not just a musician of great experience and depth but also one who knew how to create excitement on a visceral level. Furthermore, the public knows the difference. Audiences weren’t fooled by Eiji Oue (one of Vänskä’s predecessors), an extremely personable public figure who wasn’t ready for the job.

There’s bad blood on both sides. But whoever did or said what, the bottom line is that management exists to support the orchestra, to enable it to do what it does best. And this management, whatever it says, is instead destroying the orchestra. To paraphrase a famous 1970s New York tabloid headline: Management to Minnesota Orchestra: Drop Dead. If this management team isn’t able to do its job, it simply needs to get out and make way for one that can.

What the two incidents have in common: Quality and artistic vision aren’t necessarily enough in 21st-century America. Proof of that is on any Minnesota Orchestra recording or CD broadcast under Osmo Vänskä. It’s one of America’s great orchestras, and I’m about the 80th critic to say so.

At the City Opera, Steel’s Monodramas, a triple bill of one-act works by John Zorn, Morton Feldman and Arnold Schoenberg presented in the spring of 2011, was among the best things I’ve ever seen, designed with the meticulousness of an art installation with musical performances exuding comprehension and clarity. The production also pointed to directions that the company could go where the larger and grander Metropolitan Opera wasn’t about to follow.

However, finding the audience for Monodramas needed more time than the company had. The business model insists that the performances be concentrated together. By the time Monodramas caught on, it was ending – in contrast to, say, the well-financed Bern Stadttheater, which is able to spread its performances of new works over many weeks.

Steel had some bad luck. He gambled on pop-slanted properties such as Stephen Schwartz’s Seance on a Wet Afternoon and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, neither of which got many votes from critics but had more to offer than works with more respected pedigrees that audiences go to see in order to stay sophisticated.

There were some out-and-out duds, such as Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, but that’s operatic Darwinism for you. There were some miscalculations: Though the dozens of naked guys in last season’s Powder Her Face generated plenty of talk, it looked like a desperate publicity stunt. Yes, there were artistic reasons for the nudity, but there are other ways to make that theatrical point. 

But compare City Opera’s incarnation of Anna Nicole with the Royal Opera DVD and one sees Steel’s sure hand as a producer. The New York version was swifter and lighter, had dashes of Broadway panache and, most important, showed us a version of Anna Nicole Smith who exuded girlish charm rather than lugubrious sluttiness. Need I say the opera was considerably improved?

Steel, in my view, was the right guy stuck in the wrong economic climate – in a company that had lost too much ground by the time he arrived.

The one positive thing that one can say about this week’s bad news is that these incidents aren’t necessarily harbingers of the future. No other management would want to get away with what’s gone on in Minneapolis. Opera companies in other cities – Philadelphia, for example – are going great guns with contemporary repertoire and artistic quality that’s rising to meet the competition from the Metropolitan Opera HD simulcasts.

Luckily the performing arts in America are so decentralized that each city has its own set of challenges and advantages. But one thing you hear time after time, especially in opera, is that so much time is spent raising money that it’s hard to concentrate on artistic matters – from Tito Capobianco during his tenure in Pittsburgh to Beverly Sills’s salvage job at the New York City Opera (which was on the verge of closing when she arrived as its chief executive).

The question is not how the performing arts can be sustainable, but how we can best sustain them. It’s been done for a long time.Why should it stop because some under-achieving suits aren’t smart enough to make it work?




  1. Philadelphia ranks 175th in the world for opera performances per year. Is it fair and accurate to say that’s “going great guns?” We would at least need to qualify this as going well by low American standards where Philadelphia ranks 7th in the country. We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances. (See Operabase for the stats.)

    Most European houses have a main stage and a smaller stage for experimental productions and small formats. Smaller forms are best produced as part of a larger house’s program, which provide the financial structures, facilities, publicity and personnel needed. America does not have a single house with a smaller stage in addition to a main stage.

    It’s nice to read a comment on the NYCO that actually considered Steele’s remarkable vision, but his idea of centering a house aspiring to national stature completely around smaller alternative productions without the support and contextualization of a large house was was almost certainly doomed to failure.

    Again, thank you for the rare informed and intelligent comment on the NYCO and Steele’s ideas.

    • Perhaps I should add that Philadelphia has the 10th largest metro GDP in the world, which adds perspective to its rank at 175th for opera performances per year.

  2. I agree with your last paragraph, but I don’t agree with the assumption that quality products and time for audiences to discover them will solve the problems. Audiences for traditional art forms have been declining steadily for decades. The real underlying problem for opera companies and orchestras – and theatres, dance companies and museums – is an inability to find enough paying customers. Press coverage for failing arts institutions usually glosses over root causes to focus more on sensational labor disputes and management shortcomings, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a quote buried two thirds of the way down every article that goes like this: “We couldn’t sell enough tickets.”

    I appreciate your optimism but until we focus on reversing chronic, systemic audience attrition, these stories will be a common feature of the arts media landscape.

    • The average price of a ticket at the Met is $150. Good luck marketing that. The prices for tickets in our established opera houses is about 4 to 5 times higher than in Europe. Most Europeans have a local house, but most Americans would have to travel hundreds of miles to see a production. Good luck with marketing that too.

      The issue isn’t marketing. It’s our private funding system — something used in no other developed country.

      • Family Circle tickets at the MET start at $30 for seats with the best sound quality. Rush tickets are $20 and $25. Student discount tickets are available.

        Many other US opera companies offer discount tickets.

  3. Price isn’t this issue, William. There are plenty of people who have no trouble paying for tickets. The problem is that arts organizations don’t know how to convince those people that the value of the product is equal to or greater than the cost of buying the ticket – and getting to the venue.

    Mr. Stearns’ under-achieving suits simply aren’t good marketers. Sophisticated marketing isn’t a priority in the cultural sector so arts professionals tend not to be very good at it. Whereas in the commercial sector, marketers focus on audience desires and expectations in order to connect with them in the most persuasive manner, in the arts we tell the world how wonderful and important we are and then sit back and hope there are enough people who care to meet our revenue goals.

    Leaders of ailing arts organizations say, “We can’t sell enough tickets,” but the truth is they don’t sell enough tickets.

    • Germany has 83 full time, year-round opera houses. The USA only has about 6 fully functional opera houses and our longest season is only 7 months. And that’s for four times the population. The Ruhrgebiet in Germany has 11 houses within a 37 mile radius — more functional houses than the entire United States has. Must be an awful lot of good managers in Germany…

      Frankly, I can’t imagine regular Americans paying $150 for opera attendance on a regular basis (which is necessary to maintain a house,) even if they had access to a house — which they don’t. Anyway, let’s focus on selling tickets for houses that do not even exist because of our funding system…

      In reality, the problem is a complex Gestalt of factors including ticket prices, marketing, and above all education, access, affordability, and an adequate public funding systems like every other developed country in the world has long had.

      • One other thought. How do you introduce young people to opera and build their interest with $150 tickets? Opera is the most visceral of all art forms. Those cheap seats at the back are not nearly the experience the good seats offer and usually poorly suited to building interest, especially in a 3800 seat “stadium” like the Met which is similar to our two other houses in the top 100 for performances per year (Chicago and San Francisco.) Without proper education and accessibility you aren’t going to market much. You might as well be a veterinarian for one-winged birds. Why do we persist in these delusions when the evidence from international comparisons is crushing? We choose to not even look at them.

        • I’ve been away all day and thus not part of the discussion. Opera Philadelphia opens its dress rehearsals to high school students, free, who have been prepared and coached in advance by their teachers.

          The opera situation in Philadelphia is hard to compare to any other city. For many years, the Metropolitan Opera tour stopped here. Also, the fact that New York is an easy day trip from Philadelphia meant that the Met no doubt had a somewhat stunting effect on home-grown companies. The close proximity to New York was a benefit in some instances: When Birgit Nilsson was making her names as a Wagnerian in New York, she was coming to Philadelphia to sing Verdi.

          Also, the presence of educational institutions here means that Opera Philadelphia is just the tip of the iceberg. As everyone knows, singers from the Curtis Institute, Academy of Vocal Arts, Temple University and a few others now populate the great opera houses of the world. We had early exposure to the likes of Juan Diego Florez, Matthew Rose, Eric Owens, James Morris, Joyce DiDonato and many others. Also, Opera Philadelphia gave starring roles to Anna Netrebko, Stefanie Blythe and Denyce Graves when they were still emerging artists.

  4. Grant Youngblood says

    Thank you for the interesting post & perspective… I largely agree with you, though I would quibble with a couple of points. Firstly, I think that the multiplying choices and the general homogenization of arts and theatrical experience in America has a lot to do with shrinking audiences… and the fact that younger audiences are coming in with a “default” expectation that EVERY theatrical experience will look like a big-screen movie, with huge close-ups, special effects and a neat tidy, easy-to-follow/swallow storyline… and that “good” acting must obviously look like what you’d see on your television during a live broadcast of your favorite drama.

    Also could the decline of audiences for classical music, dance & opera in this country have something to do with the lack of arts/music education in schools? Or the COMPLETE absence of arts reporting in most of our media? I’ve often wondered how attendance might pick up if the local news broadcasts included, say, two minutes of arts events coverage a couple times a week.

    Alas, I have to completely disagree with you about the 2011 MONODRAMAS production at NYCO…. I was there for opening night, to see one of my colleagues. The event was a complete waste of time and an assault upon the eyes & ears. When the most “tuneful” and “operatic” portion of the evening is Schoenberg you can’t blame the audience for staying away in droves, despite a fairly spectacular performance by the soprano. AND the critics’ enthusiasm for the crowds of opening night “hipsters”. Does Mr. Steele really believe that audiences in New York have NO interest in hearing something lyric in their lyric theater? Opera singers need music to SING… not merely stylish and expensive abstract backdrops for an audience to look at while they holler away at the extremes of their voices. Soprano Cyndia Seiden has a marvelously expressive & beautiful voice, and was clearly giving the show her all… but there was just no “there” there… My companion & I left the theater somewhat shell-shocked, finding our way to a bar, and wondering how it is that things have gotten so bad for singers and the art form in America that a soprano (or perhaps even her AGENT, who is supposed to be looking out for her interests) when presented with such an “offer” by a New York opera company wouldn’t be expected to respond with something like, “Screw that *&%#!! How about reviving that beautiful production of Strauss’ “Daphne” that NYCO mounted for Elizabeth Futral in 2004? You know… a real opera?”

    Just my humble opinion.

    • Just for the record: I was not there on opening night, but went to a later performance, for which I bought my own ticket.

    • “My companion & I left the theater somewhat shell-shocked, finding our way to a bar, and wondering how it is that things have gotten so bad for singers and the art form in America that a soprano (or perhaps even her AGENT, who is supposed to be looking out for her interests) when presented with such an “offer” by a New York opera company wouldn’t be expected to respond with something like, “Screw that *&%#!!”

      Grant, you seem to discount the idea that Cyndia Sieden might actually have been interested in singing Morton Feldman.

      (Personally, that’s not a suggestion I’d make without having asked Sieden about it directly. But maybe she’s discussed it with you; I don’t know.)

      Certainly Anu Komsi has made an entire successful career singing difficult contemporary music very well. (Loved her in George Benjamin’s Under the Little Hill.) I recommend looking on iTunes or YouTube for her performance with her twin sister Piia of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wing, which has vocal lines you might like quite a bit.

      As I recall, there was something of a crowd at the opening night of MONODRAMAS, and closing night was packed enough with (younger) last-minute single-ticket buyers that they had to start late in order to get them all seated. It was the performances in-between that sold so poorly.

      Strauss’s Daphne might have made a nice production, but I’m not sure it would have sold that much better than MONODRAMAS did. It would have been much more expensive, and, as we now know (and many of us knew at the time), that was money City Opera did not have.

      MONODRAMAS was plainly Steel’s attempt to take a severe limitation (City Opera couldn’t afford to hire more than three singers) and make the best of it. So he found three short pieces that provided interesting, juicy opportunities for sopranos. One of them was arguably the founding work of modern operatic monodrama; one was the only opera by a departed New York composer with a place in modern music history and a devoted cult audience; one was by a living New York composer with a sizable following and a MacArthur “genius” grant.

      One may or may not have liked the result (and I wasn’t as crazy about it as David was), but it was absolutely worth trying under the (very constrained) circumstances. Indeed, that program would almost certainly have sold out the Miller Theater several times over and been considered a wild success; unfortunately, the Miller Theater is less than a quarter the State Theater’s size.

      “Does Mr. Steele [sic] really believe that audiences in New York have NO interest in hearing something lyric in their lyric theater?”

      Well, considering that during Steel’s tenure, New York City Opera staged works by Verdi, Mozart, Telemann, Bernstein, Rossini, Offenbach, Donizetti, Chabrier, Puccini, Handel, Stephen Schwartz and Rufus Wainwright to go with all that ugly Hugo Weisgall, Thomas Adès, Morton Feldman and Arnold Schoenberg —
      — I’d say that, no, Mr. Steel does not believe that audiences in New York have NO interest in hearing something lyric in their lyric theater.

      “I’ve often wondered how attendance might pick up if the local news broadcasts included, say, two minutes of arts events coverage a couple times a week.”

      A good point. When local stations are convinced that arts coverage on the local news a couple of times a week will sell advertising and not have viewers changing the channel, they’ll probably do it. I think arts coverage probably could do that, but convincing station owners of that won’t be easy.

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