Friday, September 27, 2013

A Little More on NYCO

A report in the Times indicates that NYCO had to scramble to come up with their $1.3 million share of the cost of producing Anna Nicole at BAM.

Here's something I wrote about NYCO two years ago:
NYCO and the Philadelphia Orchestra are poster children for weak or incompetent administration. At NYCO, the board made at least two terrible mistakes: the appointment of Gerard Mortier, evidently without due diligence about what kind of budget he would want, and the renovation of the NY State Theater at Mortier's request, which left the company with their usual bills to pay, no place to perform, and no income. Mortier skedaddled without ever coming to NY or staging a production, leaving the board scrambling to find a new director. They wound up with George Steel, who had about as much experience running an opera company as do: several months at Dallas, which was preceded by great success as the concert presenter at the Miller Theater. Maybe Steel is the third big mistake; hard to say at this point. He's in a terrible position, where he'll get blamed for mistakes other people made. Honestly, you'd have to be a miracle worker to pull them out of the current skid. 
Oh, I forgot about the way NYCO has run through its endowment. Once valued at $55 million, presumably at the height of the boom, the endowment is down to $9 million. That's the fourth terrible mistake. They've also got an inexperienced board president, appointed just a few months ago, who says things about not disclosing their finances. As a non-profit, hello, you are legally required to release financial information to the public. Don't talk about keeping things under your hat. It only makes you look bad. So, let's call this the fifth mistake.
I certainly will stand by all of that.


Paul Pelkonen said...

Going to war with their orchestra and chorus was another mistake, as well as their decision to perform in obscure and hard to access musical venues that were well off the beaten path in NYC. You could also argue that shows like 'Seance on a Wet Afternoon' and 'Prima Donna' add to the comedy of errors.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I admire the risk-taking spirit shown by those shows, but you are right to bring them up as issues. Should a company on the brink of ruin be taking those kinds of risks? SF Opera is in far solider shape, but David Gockley has been remarkably conservative; he is a long-term thinker and felt it best to be cautious. I can't argue too hard with those arguments.

You are entirely correct about the war with the musicians and the decision to perform in off-the-beaten-path venues.

Henry Holland said...

If we look at the history of NYCO, it's been on the brink a few times before, but not this bad. The Christopher Keene era (1989-1996), when he succeeded Beverly Sills, was pretty touch-and-go, not helped by his alcoholism and AIDS-related health issues.

I think the baseline problem for them has been being stuck at the State Theater. They were always the red-headed stepchildren to Balanchine and the NYC Ballet, it was built so that the stage deadened the sound. Mortier had the right idea (get out of the State Theater) but he bungled that completely.

Still, if NYCO goes under, I saw a great performances of Die Tote Stadt and Moses und Aron there, so there's that. :-)

Henry Holland said...

he is a long-term thinker and felt it best to be cautious

He has been good for SFO after the Pamela "What? I have to suck up to the rich for money? HAHAHAHA" Rosenberg era, especially in very trying financial times for the US. What I ding him for is his horrible record (going back to his Houston days) of spending chunks of money on premieres of operas that should never have made it out of the workshop stage but because they're written by Americans get a mainstage production.

MWnyc said...

Lisa, I don't think Mortier deserves the blame you assign him.

If his plans for that first season had come off - meaning with good productions - the company would have gotten worldwide attention and the cool factor would have soared. (Remember how much attention San Francisco Opera got when they did Messiaen's St-Francois d'Assise?)

Chair Susan Baker and the Board didn't fail to do due diligence on what budget Mortier would require. They promised him a $60 million budget. Then, just before he started, they said, No, actually, you can only have $36 million. (And for what it's worth, George Steel is now saying that the Board had actually raised only about $14 million.)

Can you blame Mortier for walking away? I can't.

MWnyc said...

Henry, I see your point about David Gockley giving mainstage productions to too many operas that shouldn't have gotten past the workshop phase.

I think the problem is that he promises (and probably signs contracts for) mainstage productions before the operas are even in the workshop phase.

Gockley's hardly the only one to do that; it's pretty much endemic to the process of a big company commissioning a new opera.

You don't ask someone like Tobias Picker or Jake Heggie or Mark Adamo or Jennifer Higdon or Nico Muhly to write you a new opera if all you'll guarantee them is a workshop. They'll get all insulted and tell you no.

(Jennifer and Nico, for instance, already get offered more commissions than they can accept, and Mark's royalties for Little Women, much beloved of conservatories with lots of female students, probably have him set for life.)

The commissioning process is simply a giant gamble.