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US opera chief quits

Executive director Michael Havlicek has decided to walk away from Opera Grand Rapids at the end of the season, having succeeded in stabilising its finances. Havlicek, 61, has a fund-raising background. He says the company now needs an executive director with artistic skills. I guess there are one or two of our readers who might be interested in the vacancy. Read more here.



UPDATE: ….. and here’s another one:  Cathy Wolff, general and artistic director of Syracuse Opera, has quit after 17 years.

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  1. Grand Rapids ranks 430th in the world for opera performances per year. Syracuse is 437th. I will resisting making wise cracks about these resignations… (See Operabase for the stats.)

    In another interesting tidbit, the Detroit opera house fell into disuse during the 70s and by 1978 it had declined to exhibiting softcore porn films before it closed. The Detroit Opera reopened the house in 1996 and now does 5 productions a year. Detroit ranks 216th in the world for opera performances per year even though it has the 24th largest GDP of any city in the world at 203 billion per year. The Detroit metro area also has the 4th richest county with a population over one million in the USA.

  2. An example of a businessman, given a job, but realizing after he fixed the issue he was hired to change, he did not have the skill set to take the company further down the road. Here in NYC, we have 2 opera managers who continue to sink their respective companies and weak boards who allow it to happen.

    • Gee, that’s a rather “screw you” attitude toward a competent administrator who stopped an opera company in a small, poor city from going under. Why is there such hostility toward even administrators who succeed? And why such conviction that only a singer or violinist can “truly” successfully run an arts organization? It’s the mark of a great leader when he realizes he is no longer the best person to lead his organization and steps down. Are there many “artist” directors who step away when they realize they don’t have the business acumen to stay on budget or manage a professional staff?

  3. Mark Stryker says:

    Mr. Osborne’s history and statistics relating to opera and wealth in metro Detroit are not accurate. The current Detroit Opera House bears no relation to a series of former theaters called the Detroit Opera House. The current opera house, which is owned by Michigan Opera Theatre started life as the Capitol Theatre in 1922 and went through several name changes before falling into disuse in the 1970s. MOT bought the building in ’80s, renovated it and reopened it as the Detroit Opera House in 1996. It had never previously been an opera house. MOT, which was founded in 1971 by David DiChiera, is completing its 42nd season and it is the only major opera company in the city’s history — there may have been a company early in the 20th Century but I can’t recall at the moment. As for the statistics, the 4th wealthiest county in the country that Mr. Osborne refers to is Oakland County, just north of Detroit. However, his numbers are outdated. The recession knocked the medium household income out of the top 25 according to Forbes survey (and the No. 4 ranking was a self-indentified number.) This list ranks the county 61st.

    The relative wealth of metro Detroit can be sliced and diced in various ways and rankings can vary greatly depending on whar exactly is being measured and how and what specific geography is included. One list I saw puts metro Detroit at high as 16 (but that includes the relatively affluent city of Ann Arbor in the mix). Other rankings have the area far lower, and if you measure, say, by the number of “1 percenters” that live in the region, the rank falls to around 130. It is, of course, worth remembering that the city of Detroit itself is by many statistical measures the poorest in America and that one of the region’s challenges is that the wealth surrounds great poverty. And long before the great recession hit the rest of the country in 2008, Michigan was in a one-state recession dating back to about 2003 with falling household incomes, rising unemployment and the like..

    • Mr. Stryker is right, the current Detroit Opera House began life as a movie theater. He is incorrect in referring to the Michigan Opera Theater as a “major house” as its ranking at 216th for performances per year, and its small number of productions per year attest. By international standards it is a regional house even if it engages a few big name guest stars – though I’m sure some locals involved will heatedly deny this inspite of the telling, concrete numbers.

      Early opera houses in Detroit included the Old Detroit Opera House (1869–1963,) the Whitney Grand Opera House (Garrick Theatre), and the New Detroit Opera House (1886–1928.)

      One can debate the GDP ranking of Detroit and its rich neighboring counties, but that evades the fact that there is clearly enormous wealth in the area. By any measure Detroit’s GDP would be in the top 35 cities in the world, which does not justify standing at 216th in opera performances per year. Where is that 203 billion GDP per year going? It also evades the fact that the recession is only about 10 years old in Detroit but its paltry representation in the opera world goes back decades. The recession is just an excuse and rationalization.

      Detroit, of course, is not alone among American cities in its low ranking for opera performances per year. We only have 3 cities in the top 100. (See Operabase for the stats.) New York is at 6th, San Francisco at 76th, and Chicago at a paltry 87th. The so-called Houston Grand Opera doesn’t even make the top 100. The Natioanl Opera in Washington comes in at 144th which makes it something like our national joke, especially since Washington has the 11th highest GDP in the world.

      These are the glaring contradictions that I wish journalists of Mr. Stryker’s stature would regularly report until Americans begin to face the realities of their poor system of funding the arts.

      • I forgot to mention that county ranking Mr. Stryker lists is for all counties, and not for those with a population over one million which is what I listed. For obvious reasons, the population of rich, large counties in such rankings is important for measures of regional wealth.

        The list he mentions is also not a GDP ranking, but rather for average personal income which does not indicate as clearly the overall wealth of a county. This is all fairly irrelevant, however, because anyway you look at it there is a huge amount of wealth in the Detroit area, but for the last 50 years it has not gone to the arts at levels comparable to many other international cities. The main reason is that we are the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding on the municipal, state, and Federal levels.

        All the same, it is good to see a major American music journalist discuss the issues, even if briefly and only in blog commentary. Thank you.

  4. Mark Stryker says:

    I’m delighted that Mr. Osborne considers me a journalist of stature, but in light of his comments I feel compelled to point out that I do, in fact, write constantly about arts funding issues and the challenges facing metro Detroit cultural institutions, including the Detroit Symphony, Detroit Institute of Arts, MOT and many others. This is an enormously complicated subject that resists reductive analysis, and there are many specific cultural, social and economic factors that make Detroit an especially unique and challenging environment — the boom and bust nature of the auto industry; the fact that the all of Detroit’s cultural institutions are under-endowed (the early auto barons, the creators of planned obsolescence, didn’t believe in endowments); a blue collar mentality within the region that hasn’t always prioritized culture; the precipitous decline of Detroit, which actually predates the riots of 1967; a profound racial divide and a city-suburb divide more acute than anywhere in the country; the drastic reductions in state funding for the arts in Michigan dating back to the early 1990s. In dismissing the recession as a mere excuse, Mr. Osborne drastically underplays the enormity and subtleties of the issues in Detroit. On another front, as it relates to opera in Detroit, one major reason why no significant company existed until MOT was a kind of Faustian bargain that cultural leaders engaged in with the Metropolitan Opera, whose touring productions were a staple here for decades and which effectively dampened resources and enthusiasm for a homegrown company.

    I used the word “major” above in relation to Detroit history but I am willing to concede Mr. Osborne’s larger point. In a recent story I described MOT as “one of the most vibrant regional companies in America.” I think that’s fair. It’s worth noting too that by budget size MOT ranks in or near the top 10, although I realize that Mr. Osborne would surely suggest this merely confirms his argument, which is the paucity of opera and other markers of high culture in a country as wealthy as America. I would also add that opera is not all that MOT does – it produces a full dance/ballet season, a plethora of education programs and other artistic initiatives.

    Having said all that — and leaving aside the discussion of whether GDP is a truly a accurate marker for the availability of arts philanthropy dollars in a particular city — I would agree with Mr. Osborne’s general point that America’s piddling support for the arts is, generally speaking, a travesty. There is surely enough wealth in Detroit to support these institutions to a greater degree. The challenge for these institutions is how to tap into the wealth, but this is not getting any easier as the post-recession economy has created enormous need in the areas of education, health, poverty and other social services that are competing for philanthropic dollars. I would note one recent positive here is that the Detroit Institute of Arts was able to convince a majority of local voters in three counties to pass a small property tax dedicated to funding the museum that promises some $20 million annually. That leads into a critically related topic, which is what exactly are these institutions doing to make the case they deserve greater support – other than crying poverty and demanding more money because it’s obvious that great art deserves the money because it’s, well, great art. This takes us into the realm of mission, building relationships with audiences, weaving oneself into the fabric of civic and cultural life in far more sophisticated and subtle ways than in the past. I don’t have time today to get into all of this today but it’s vitally important.

    • Thanks to Mr. Stryker for his interesting and thoughtful posts. My wife is a musician and was recently in Detroit. She said she has never experienced a city so vibrantly oriented toward its recreation. Detroiters really love their city and they are turning it around. The spirit is palpable in the air.

      It is true that arts funding is complex and shaped by a plethora of factors. I think, however, that we all to often excessively problematize the issues to avoid addressing the main cause for our funding problems: We are the only developed country that tries to fund the arts through donations even though the system is clearly ineffective.

      To highlight the various social forces Mr. Stryker mentions, it is interesting to compare Detroit’s opera performances per year to European cities that also manufacture automobiles. Munich produces BMW’s and Audis and Turin produces Fiats. Like Detroit, both have large blue collar populations and also segments of society that are very wealthy. And both have metro populations relatively similar in size to Detroit’s. Munich has two 52 week season opera houses and ranks 8th in the world for performances per year. Turin is a chronically poor city but still ranks 97th – still far ahead of Detroit at 216th.

      Many factors create these differences, but none so central as our lack of public funding systems for the arts. The Europeans have not let free trade policies decimate their manufacturing sector like in the US. Europe’s social democracies provide a much more even distribution of wealth, and they have government structures experienced at public arts funding. Germany, for just one example, has 83 fulltime, year-round opera houses while the USA with four times the population only has about 6 real houses. And our ticket costs are in general about 4 times higher. Europeans also do not have such an extreme, racially informed class system. And their history is more directly tied to the canon of Western high culture.

      Unfortunately, these complex issues are all too often turned into circular arguments to rationalize and even avoid the fact that our funding system is ineffective. We say, for example, that we cannot fund the high arts because people aren’t interested in them, and yet we do very little to build an interest in the arts – usually because we don’t have the money. With opera such a rarity how can we build publics? Without arts education how do we build appreciation? With tickets so expensive how do common people attend events in the decent seats that really give a superior experience and create fans? With few exceptions, Europe’s public funding systems have solved all of these issues, so the argument that our main problem is a lack of an effective public funding system is not reductive, but based on emprical observation.

      We don’t want to face the fact that governments can work for the common good, and that building appreciation for the high arts can be part of that good. We even suggest that encouraging appreciation for the high arts is somehow intrusive or totalitarian which could not be a more ignorant standpoint. Intelligent cultural participation plays an essential role in strengthening democracy (even if there are some extreme and relatively rare historical cases of those cultural forces being overridden.)

      This is not to deny that it will be decades before we can match the public funding systems of Europe’s social democracies, but the struggle will not be won if we simply give up. We need our journalists who have wide readerships, like Mr. Stryker, to explain the realities of our funding situation to the American people, and especially about how poorly we compare to the rest of the world. We need journalists who are not afraid to research and write with documented detail about how much better Europe’s public funding systems work. And we need academics to write scholarly, comparative articles about arts funding systems to help journalists gather this information.

      To begin, our target audience for this information should be journalists, artists, art administrators, and arts educators. From there, the ideas will slowly spread to the American people and could begin to change our political and cultural landscape much to the benefit of the arts — and democracy.

      • I am, frankly, baffled by this bizarre statistic of “rank in number of opera performances per year.” What a bizarre way to try and define the cultural life of a city.

  5. Mark Stryker says:

    Coda: Here’s a recent article about Michigan Opera Theatre founder David DiChiera’s impending retirement. I think Norman linked to this a few months ago but it bears reposting in light of the current discussion:

  6. Mark Stryker says:

    … and thanks to William Osborne for caring enough to think and write thoughtfully about the issues …

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