All the rage in Virginia

All the rage in Virginia


norman lebrecht

November 24, 2010

The firing of Peter Mark, founder of Virginia Opera and its director for 36 years, has fuelled a widening furore around the company. The board has hired Robin Thompson, formerly of New York City Opera, to help find a new artistic director, but Mark may sue and supporters are withdrawing their pledges all over the US.
Here are snippets from some of the letters that have reached the intransigent board (with email copies to your devoted correspondent):
From Don Conlan (ex-CEO Capital Group/American Funds): The quality of the operatic productions that VOA consistently proved
it could produce at a fraction of the cost of other, larger organizations is
what drew me–as a businessman and investor–to VOA in the first place. It is
also what caused me to underwrite two VOA productions, both of which were
first-rate. This despite the fact that I live on the opposite side of the
country! I love good opera, especially cost-effective opera…My purpose in writing this letter is not to
attempt to save Peter’s job– that’s a business matter between your Board and
him. I write it in an attempt to save VOA from what I perceive as an ignominious
descent into utter mediocrity and probably suicide, “led” by those who have had
a decade to demonstrate that effective, organization-building leadership clearly
is outside their skill set. 
From Charles O. Burgess (Dean of Old Dominion University): Last spring, at the
conclusion of my latest term as a statewide board member of the Virginia Opera,
I informed the president that I did not wish to be reappointed. I didn’t want to
continue to have my name listed on a board divided and confused, with most board
members (other than those on the executive committee) ignorant of what was
really going on. … I now find that, without informing or consulting most of the
members of the board, the powers that be in the opera have decided to separate
Peter Mark from that artistic leadership… If those now making decisions for the Virginia Opera deliberately choose not to
retain the leader who built it and continues with vigor and artistic excellence
to mount and supervise its productions, I find it hard to have confidence in
their judgment or competence. I have been a supporter of and subscriber to the
Virginia Opera since I attended its first Traviata and have tried to contribute
to its strengths over the years. I have no idea where the truth lies in the
current swirling accusations (talk of squabbles among staff, dire plots by the
Richmond board members, and evil conspirators in Norfolk). I just know that it’s
not working and that its artistic mission seems to have been forgotten. I had
planned to continue my giving to the opera at the same modest level as when I
was a board member, but I have now decided to defer any future commitments until
I can be confident that there is a future. 
From Tom Garner: I … clearly
stated that if Founding Artistic Director Peter Mark were to be forced out or
even seriously marginalized, the Garner family would certainly curtail our
financial support…. All the infighting, backbiting and self-destructive dynamic of late has been a
source of misery for Carolyn and me… What began as a gratuitous,
unpleasant power struggle has now devolved into a mean-spirited absolutely
senseless persecution of our founding artistic director, whose tireless efforts
and unique blend of creativity, passion, leadership, musical knowledge, teaching
and mentoring ability, international esteem and connections have gleaned
extraordinary rave reviews for the VOA and its productions and countless hours
of enjoyment by its patrons. The international music community, including
critics, patrons and the many superb young artists whom Peter has discovered and
nurtured, will be as stunned as I when the word gets out about how a small
secretive group has now seized control of the VOA and mistreated this renowned
figure whose nonpareil talent and toil built the Virginia Opera Association from
the ground up to exalted heights. The Garner family will cease to support the
VOA if these imprudent, ungracious plans for Peter’s unwilling departure are
From: Kay Rongley: I am shocked, dismayed, and
angry that you and a small group of people, who are totally unreasonable and
unprofessional in your power grab, have taken over what has been an absolutely
wonderful Virginia Opera.  … I can tell you that without Peter Mark at the helm, my commitment to
the Virginia Opera has ended. It will not be possible for me to patronize an
organization that has been so ruthless and misguided in their management style
and unfair treatment of Peter for me to continue as a patron or donor. … You, and the other misguided rogue board members, have succeeded in destroying a
beautiful opera experience. 
From John Allsteadt: The firing
of Peter Mark is an OUTRAGE! Peter Mark has brought an unparalleled level of
professionalism to the Virginia Opera for many years. It is only through his
excellence and high standards that the Virginia Opera has produced such
technical performances of so many classics. I always assumed that Peter Mark
would hold his responsibilities as ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, MUSIC DIRECTOR, AND
PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR indefinitely until HE decides to move on. This termination
is NOT justified on any grounds… And I swear, I will not be attending any more
Virginia Operas if Peter Mark is not reinstated. 
From James Bennett What a TRAVESTY to effectively DESTROY this
wonderful organization by terminating Peter Mark! Those responsible should
resign. A complete disgrace. 
From PeterCallo: It is a sad day indeed to see the sterling reputation
of Virginia Opera dragged through the mire created by certain board members and,
I suspect, the General Manager and CEO. I have attended opera performances in
the U.S. and abroad and have been gratified to watch the Virginia Opera become a
world class company under the artistic direction of Peter Mark and with the
assistance of Joseph Walsh. … You are simply not opera
savvy. Why you wish to humiliate Peter Mark and terminate his association with
the company he founded in such a distasteful way, I am sure we the opera goers
will never learn. You have forgotten the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t
fix it.” 


  • Hope Mihalap says:

    Hope Mihalap: As one of the founding members of the Virginia Opera in 1975, I have watched with pride the development of the company into an internationally known and warmly praised organization. One of the most important critics in the USA, Andrew Porter of The New Yorker, wrote about the world premiere in Scotland of Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots, “I did not see the Edinburgh production. I do not see how it could have been better than the one in Virginia. It was a remarkable achievement and an astonishing one for so young a company.” Since that date in the late 1970’s, these achievements have continued. Having been the private secretary of Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan Opera, I have seen world-class productions. Many of the ones I have enjoyed at the Virginia Opera have been, in fact, superior through the fact that the young artists discovered and trained by Mark were better and more believable in the roles than the “famous” older artists in the big opera houses.

  • Barbara Jacksier says:

    The entire saga of a Maestro Mark’s firing seems to have been carefully planned and orchestrated. If the small group of irresponsible board members who caused this disaster had paid as much attention to the running of the opera company in their care as they did to this hostile take over, we would all be enjoying world class opera in Virginia for years to come. As it is, they have wrecked an outstanding arts organization.

  • Dorinda Ennis says:

    I have learned from life, 46 years of marriage and my career as a social worker that there are at least two sides to every problem. Only when we stop blaming the other parties and begin looking at one’s own part in the drama can any any progress be made toward resolution. Unfortunately hurling invectives has become the basis of the battle plan.
    Mediation has been suggested. Before the funding and operation of the opera has been compromised, I suggest both sides choose mediation. This currently is a tragedy of epic proportions.

  • Agatha Bishop Browning says:

    It is truly sad that a few “big fish in a small pond” (the VOA Executive Committee) have been able to bring down into such ignominy a well established and internationally regarded opera company. Surely, those “Big Fish” responsible for this tragedy will soon find that in the Big Pond of Opera they are, in fact, merely Small Fry destined to end up on a Friday Night Fish Fry menu.