Dark season?

Yesterday a friend told me some surprising news — that Gerard Mortier, the incoming director of the New York City Opera wants to cancel the company’s 2008-9 season. That’s right. No City Opera performances at all. And my friend seems to have impeccable sources.

And today the same news surfaced on the ineffable (and drop-dead accurate) Parterre Box opera blog. Check it out! La Cieca, the onlie begetter of Parterre Box, has pretty much the same story I do. Mortier wants to shut down the New York City Opera for a year. One reason, the public one, would be that the New York State Theater, where the company performs (and notoriously a terrible house for opera), needs to be renovated. But the deeper reason, which probably won’t be public, is that Mortier hates the City Opera performances he’s seen, and doesn’t want anything like them happening while he’s in charge.

This all might be an act of artistic courage, or a piece of arrogant idiocy. If Mortier doesn’t like what City Opera does, he’s not alone, and it’s well known that he wants to do far more contemporary works, and to spread them around the city in venues outside Lincoln Center.

But then there are risks. Risk number one: Cancelling a season might lose more money than letting it go on. Any opera company has fixed costs — staff salaries, for instance. And, in City Opera’s case, very likely contracts with its orchestra, with stagehands, with its chorus, with singers who’ve already been signed for the season due to go dark, and likewise conductors, directors, and designers. I don’t know how these contracts read. Maybe they specify that the company’s free of them if it performs no operas. I do know that the Metropolitan Opera considered shutting down for a year in the 1970s, when its finances were bad, and rejected the idea after finding that it would lose more money than it would have by staying open.

Risk number two: ill will. La Cieca reports grumbling from singers’ managers, who — trying to firm up arrangements for 2008-9 — have gotten nothing but “stone cold silence from the [NYCO] administration.” This, if it’s really happening, can’t do the company any good. And if it’s possible to cancel contracts with the orchestra, et al, then the ill will is vastly multiplied.

Risk number three: Mortier could fall on his butt. His first season in charge will start with a big fat bang. Nothing but new productions of important modern works. Spread out through the city, even. If the productions triumph, so does Mortier. But if they fail — if they don’t please critics, bloggers, the smart opera crowd that posts on Opera-L and comments on Parterre Box, and if they don’t sell tickets — then Mortier stands completely exposed.

Compare Peter Gelb, who’s been setting off fireworks at the Met, but who also has a buffer between him and critical opinion: No one outside the company knows in full detail what, on the stage right now, is his idea, and what’s left over from the previous administration. That gives Peter some privacy. Nobody can sum up the quality of work, and with any certainty blame him if it’s thought not good enough. Which leaves him relatively free to learn to run the company, something nobody in a job like that can possibly grasp, or not fully grasp, without doing it for a while. Whereas Mortier will be learning the ropes at the same time his new productions get dropped on us. Very brave of him — or very foolish. (Yes, he’ll have been there for a year by then, but he won’t have produced any opera.)

But this plan, I hear, isn’t final yet. If my friend’s information is correct, the board will vote on it on December 11. I wonder what they’ll decide.

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