A Viable Opera - Leadership at Opera Companies

Artistic Development serving a strong Community Growth and supported by clear Financial Goals


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Produce an Opera has been a complex challenge since the beginning of this art back in the 16th century. As an art that involves multiple arts and people, all collaborating together towards a unique goal, it is for sure a demanding human expression. In addition to its complexities from the artistic perspective, Opera also demands from the administrators a clear leadership to create the community development and business effective models that could allow the company to life and produce sustainable artistic development.

The purpose of this publication is to analyze the history of the New York City Opera to clarify and exemplify the necessity of a clear Financial and Community Development to make viable a sustainable artistic development. The history of the NYCO and events described in this text are based on the researches done by Waleson described in her Book "Mad scenes and exit arias. The death of the New York City Opera and the future of Opera in America". This history proves that if a robust artistic development is not strategically planned in conjunction with clear financial and community development, it won't last for too long.


How an opera company is born is always a complex interrelation of events. But in general, two main elements were the generator of the New York City Opera. In the 1940s, Opera was an essential part of European immigrants' living way settled in New York City. It was a way in which they were connecting with their culture and traditions. However, Opera in the USA was and is until nowadays an expensive experience that not all people can afford. Also, in the 1940s, New York City invested in a new Arts Center designed to offer affordable or even free artistic experiences for the community.


Both elements allowed the born of a new opera company at the capital city of business in the united states: The New York City Opera. An organization that no matters than Opera in itself wasn't profitable, it was committed to offering affordable tickets to the people. An organization that became the "People's Opera."


The company's first years were very connected to their initial mission, giving opera experiences to their communities. Even though Opera as an art is very expensive and tickets could not balance the budget, to provide many people opportunities to attend, the company also offered other services and received New York city's funds to balance their budget. This Opera company gave meaningful first opportunities to musicians and singers but was only a communitarian project in its early years.


Photo: Maestro Rudel with NYCO

After the founder of the company quit, found a successor was a complex effort. Board members considered that they couldn't find someone to fit the position until they found maestro Rudel. With the European maestro, the company had a significant change in its vision, mission, and work. From a more community-focused opera, the New York City opera changed to a more Opera Company model focused on getting great artistic results. The company focused on a very Operatic development from the move to a new theater near the Metropolitan Opera and started looking for more trained singers and musicians. From an artistic and musical perspective, that looks amazing. The company gave the debut opportunities for multiple singers and may United States operas were premiered. However, this change of theater near to the Met was not beneficial from a financial and strategic management perspective.


Moving near to the Metropolitan Opera added to NYCO a critical pressure. Known as the best opera company in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera was offering the most important opera productions in the country. With the resources of the most wealthy people in New York, by the 1950s, this company invited the most prestigious singers, directors, conductors, and artists from the world. Besides, the amount of budget and powerful Board members offered the possibility to give the staff, musicians, and guests good payment and important benefits.


For the NYCO, moving near them forced the organization to be always compared to the big company. They wanted to be seen as powerful like the Metropolitan. But a realistic view showed that this was a very bad decision. Despite Rudel and many other leaders' efforts, NYCO never could really compete with the MET, and its constant comparison only created problems with the unions, staff, and singers. Despite the artistic developments moving to a more repertoire based opera with multiple productions, an orchestra, stable singers, etc. The financial view was problematic. Since these days the numbers started to go in red.


Photo: Beverly Sills

After Rudel years, looking for a successor was difficult, as always happens when a prominent leader leaves the organization. Now the one in charge was Sills. A fellow NYCO in the years of Rudel, Sills made a brilliant singer career launched and supported initially by the "People's Opera" the other name of the New York City Opera. Now as General Manager, she found the company in a complex financial situation. The company had numbers in red, problems with the unions (that since the move near to the Met they want the same treatment as Met employees), and not clear fundraising strategies. Despite her commitment to the company and her charisma, Sills didn't have strong experiences in that; she was an artist, an amazing singer that is consider by many one of the best in United States. Her approaches for the NYCO focused on using her image to influence donors to help other young careers. The company became a significant debuts company where multiple young singers made their debuts right across the Metropolitan Opera and where multiple managers could see them. Besides, she started to do operettas and musical production to find a balance for the budget. After some years working at NYCO, Sills came really great Opera as administrator, people said that she can even said the full amount of rehearsals and budget needed for a production only by having the name of the opera.


However, despite her notable improvements in management and fundraising, Sills years also delivered a company with a more artistic name and value but still with a budget with negative numbers. In general, it is fascinating that all years no one realized the necessary changes that had to be made. Yes, growth artistically is significant, but if the artistic development does not allow a balanced budget, there will be a moment where the project could not continue. In general always after the years of a new leader, NYCO always had someone who worked as harder as (s)he could to keep the company alive but not solve the financial and business model problem.


After Sill's era, Keene and Kellog took the organization's leadership. Keene was a conductor, and he wanted to focus on only Musical and artistic aspects. His idea was to get better artistic levels with fewer operas to have more rehearsals and best results, and fewer operatas to change the profile of the company to a more intellectual one in the city. The company was happy with his leadership; even he managed to get an agreement between the orchestra union and the organization without lawyers. However, due to health issues, he left the company (he died).


After Keene, Kellog took the leadership. An Opera impresario, his focus was an alternative repertoire (alternative production styles and baroque Opera). Due to he worked in Glimmerglass, he managed to get new productions for NYCO at lower costs. It was a great deal for both organizations. At Glimmerglass, the production costs were lower due to non union theaters. Therefore for NYCO was cheaper to get new things. For Glimmerglass, the idea of have their productions at New York was a big benefit too. He also continued with Keene view of more rehearsals and better payment for artists. All funded by the "Fund for Artistic Excellence" that Kellogg designed and branded as his way to get the money. In addition, National tours of the company and new Opera readings were added to the company services, as other ways to balance the budget. But once again, even with the incredible efforts, the budget was still in dangerous numbers.


As can be seen easily here, with more than 30 years of financial trouble, the company was always focused on getting more donors only by increasing his artistic profile. However, they didn't realize two main aspects. They were not building a strong relationship with their communities. In many ways, the company's mission and vision shifted from an Opera company for people into an opera company for the art and artists.That could be good if this had been paired with influential board members like the Metropolitan Opera, but a very dangerous position for a company claiming to offer community services. Second, they didn't focus on analyzing the new trends in how people approached the city's arts. From the 1940s, when immigrants found the Opera and the cultural connection with their tradition, until the 1990s all changed. New generations are farther from the Opera, and only offering better artistic quality is not the solution to get them involved.

Photo: Maestro Diego Barbosa-Vásquez at the premiere of the Barber of Seville by Indiana University Opera 2020, an empty room with live broadcasting. (More info: Click Here)


These two particular problems have been not only the problem of NYCO; they are the main issues of the full artistic organizations nowadays. Orchestras and Opera Companies have to realize that only by serving their full communities will they survive in an era where fewer people are interested in art. They have to find new ways to re-find the connections between their audiences and arts, and this is only possible by looking outside the theater and more into its communities. More so now when the COVID-19 pandemic has left artistic institutions in a very difficult position to survive (See more information about Leadership of Orchestras and/or Opera Companies)


After Kellog years, the company again had difficulties in finding new leadership even at the board level. The solution was Susan Barker, a Wall Street banker; she seemed to be perfect for the role and even immediately appointed as Board President. However, very soon they discover that it was a not good idea. First, her lack of experience in the non-profit sector was a crucial point. She didn't know how to fundraise nor manage a company to do it. Besides, her micro leadership approach with the lack of respect from the organization's past and the people's work was not well received by the artists and staff.


But this was not the worse aspect. Barker created the company's real problem with her authoritarian leadership, where only her opinion was valid. She considered that the unique way to solve the company was to reimagine it from its artistic proposal. And she believed that only Gerard Mortier, an Opera Artistic Director from Paris, was the one that could do it. No matter if he requested more than the double budget for a season that NYCO was used to, a total dark year with not shows but with contracts to pay, or even an artistic proposal totally disconnected with the New York city's reality.


From my perspective, Mortier was not a problem. He had a 250 million annual budget for his company in Paris and an important name to support his request. Asking for only 60 Million in New York, the money's world capital city was not a problem. His proposal of changing the company into a more intellectual one, where the Metropolitan had the luxury one, was not bad. The real problem was the disconnection that Barker created between reality and Mortier's vision to all people. In the end, as a foreign artist, you have to trust in your board, who are the ones that understand the city and the organization's reality. And Barker not showing the truth only to have him on board was the real problem.


After the disaster of a dark year with no performances, the company faces reality. The bubble, that the organization was supported by very committed people giving even their wealth, finally was not manageable. Mortier didn't agree to come for the only 30 Million offered to his first season, leaving the company with no clear future. The previous donors realized that the company was not delivering what they said they were doing for the people since many years ago. And even worse, the dark season showed that the company was not more necessary in the New York landscape. After the dark season, the company moved to other theaters to save money, fewer operas, and worse artistic results. It was a matter of time until the company finally filled up for chapter 11 (bankruptcy).


In general, the bubble was clear. A company that started as a "People's Opera" enterprise lost its focus in an artistic path that was not supported by strategic financial, marketing, and branding campaigns. All driven by clear developments with and for its community. A path that many arts organizations are following now and that will create the same kind of results in case they don't build their strong relations with their communities. They are their today audiences and the ones that, if cultivated properly, will become into their supporters, friends, and even board members later securing the future for the organization.

Finally, by 2016, the NYCO was revived by NYCO renaissance by an ex Board member of the NYCO and a General Director with experiences in the construction business and opera management, an exciting combination. For now, the company is returning to its roots. Performing in different venues and trying to be more connected to the people. The company is also working in build into its history but with a careful business model to don't make the same mistakes of its past.


For now, is very difficult to see how this enterprise will evolve. And with a pandemic running, all the performing organizations are challenged with complex decisions. But something is very clear with the history of New York City Opera. It is good to think big and have a robust artistic development. But in order to keep it in a long run, a clear financial and community development proposal that reciprocates the artistic development have to be made. Only if all goals (artistic, financial, commuity) are aware of the ohers, collaborating and supporting each other, arts organizations could succeed in this new difficult era for performing arts.

Bibliography

Waleson, Heidi (2018). Mad scenes and exit arias. The death of the New York City Opera and the future of Opera in America. Metropolitan Books, New York. ISBN 978-1-250-23072-0

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