Big, secret party tonight for George Steel

Big, secret party tonight for George Steel


norman lebrecht

October 16, 2013

He may have presided over the collapse of City Opera, but New York’s super-rich are not letting George Steel go without a party. It’s being given by donor Rita Mehos and it’s so private no-one is allowed to say they’ve been invited.

Slipped Disc’s informant has declined to attend.

Last one to leave turns out the lights.



  • Pamela Brown says:

    Wonder if Mr. Henson will attend…:-0

    • MWnyc says:

      Why on earth would you ask that, Pamela?

      One may or may not think George Steel made good decisions, but nobody thinks he was deliberately trying to destroy the company or reduce its quality to something unrecognizable. And while he did tell the musicians’ union that City Opera couldn’t afford to guarantee to pay for more performances than the company could actually produce, he never locked anyone out.

      Not a remotely fair comparison.

      • Pamela Brown says:

        Are you saying they did not both preside over debacles? Is the idea of a secret party of celebration not entirely unlike the MOA Symphony Ball that kept the players (for whom the ball was presumably to benefit), locked out, while quietly hiring another band to perform for them? IMO, the analogy is cogent, albeit a bit subtle…

        • MWnyc says:

          I wouldn’t call that analogy subtle. I’d call it superficial.

          Whatever you think of his choices, Steel tried to avert a debacle that was well underway before he got there.

          Henson deliberately engineered a debacle.

          • Pamela Brown says:

            With all due respect, that is your opinion about Hensen and you are entitled. My position on him and MOA is somewhat different. I happen to have a somewhat unique perspective, which you may choose to accept or not.

            While I agree that MOA does seem to have actual malevolence against the players, I think that they may perceive that as not entirely unjustified. In one case, at least, things have happened behind the back of the board that could also affect the existence of the orchestra. It may be that MOA is flushing trying to flush anyone involved with this out, albeit in a clumsy manner with dire consequences.

      • oracle says:

        Steel rose to the level of his incompetentcy. He was void of creativity, a poor manager and unable to put round pegs in round holes. The fact that a secret party was held clearly indicates the fact the donors knew members of the company, as well as company alumni would be deeply offended. Steel should never hold any position of leadership again.

      • houndentenor says:

        How sure are you of that? Even back in the 90s there were rumors that the board wanted to get rid of the unions (AGMA, AFM and IATSE) even if it meant bankrupting the company so they could reform without those agreements. It seems like Steele was just the man for that. Do I honestly believe Steele destroyed NYCO on purpose? No, that would mean I thought he was competent. Look at how badly he fucked up Dallas Opera without even being their a full season. Why would anyone throw such a loser a lavish party? There is obviously something missing from our understanding of what went on. I will say that much.

        • John Wehrle says:

          “There is obviously something missing from our understanding of what went on. I will say that much.” said all the people not in the room. And, still, “that much” won’t be enough, will it? Ah, it is fall and the blather is … well, falling.

  • It really is, largely, just a game to these people, isn’t it?

  • They should have it around a flaming trash barrel under the Manhattan Bridge. Oh wait, that’s prime real estate now.

  • Carina says:

    May I bring my dancing shoes?


  • Figarosu says:

    And I’m sure Mr. Steel will land on his feet again, thanks to his patrons who are wealthy enough to look after him but too cheep to pay the artists that actually make it all happen.

    • Unfortunately, the larger the arts organization, the more likely it is to be about the administrators and less about the artists.

    • Dave T says:

      Are you saying that the NYCO crashed because the artists weren’t paid enough? That makes absolutely no sense (unless of course your agenda has nothing to do with the reality).

      • houndentenor says:

        No one said that. but it was obscene to pay Steele $400k a year to mismanage the company into bankruptcy. Certainly someone could have fucked up so spectacularly for less than half that amount. Steele’s only track record of managing a large company (Dallas Opera) was disastrous enough that the only conclusion is the board hired him because of his incompetence and wanted this result. That or they are actually stupid enough to think this was a good decision.

        • MWnyc says:

          Considering that Steel was at Dallas Opera for less than four months, it seems unlikely that the Board hired him for what he did or didn’t accomplish there.

          (It’s possible, though, that the Board wanted him to have the title on his resume, which could explain why he went to Dallas and turned around and came right back.)

          The general assumption at the time, which I believe was correct, is that George Steel was hired on the basis of his successful record at the Miller Theater.

          That experience turned out not to be enough to save City Opera, but (a) the Met had started doing most of what City Opera had traditionally been there to do, and the Miller Theater was probably – rightly or wrongly – seen by the Board as a possible model on which City Opera could remake itself, and (b) as you pointed out yourself, Houndentenor, just about nobody else would take the job.

          • oracle says:

            @MWnyc Steel made himself unloved from day 1. From the stage hands to the lower ranks of the administration, he quickly became despised. The Board suggested he find other employment, or he would be fired.

        • Without opining on the qualifications of Mr. Steel, $400K is not much to pay the person running such a big organization. If that’s what his predecessors were getting, no wonder they couldn’t get better management.

      • Sarah says:

        I think he’s saying that the NYCO Board had their priorities bass-ackwards, which is one of the reasons why it crashed.

        • MWnyc says:

          That might or might not have been the case under the final Board chair, Charles Wall. (He, at least, insisted for the last couple of seasons that the company not spend more than the $12m to $14m it was actually bringing in.)

          It – bass-ackwards priorities – was certainly the case under previous Board chair Susan Baker. She seems to be the one who deserves most of the fury that’s being directed at George Steel hereabouts.

          Norman, since there seems to be a need to blow off some steam about City Opera’s collapse, why not put together a quick post about Susan Baker? Then we can really let rip!

          • oracle says:

            Steel put the final nails in the coffin. Incompetance, lack of imagination, did not understand opera repertory, could not manage a large team and zero management skills.

  • V.Lind says:

    Most artists I know — and these include Met regulars — profess to detest parties and receptions where they are obliged to schmooze the sponsors and donors — sing for their supper, as it were. It seems to me likely that the administrators are much slicker about their attendance upon these benefactors, and more at one with them, as they run businesses and many of the donors do too. So the donors are likely on much more intimate terms with administrative staff, who probably attend every party while the artists rotate their penances.

    For all the problems of the company, Mr. Steel has probably always been someone the donors could feel affection for. I doubt the party has sinister motives — though the secrecy element does raise question marks. I am mystified by high-end donors — if Minnesota is fundraising, who are these people and WHY are they donating to an orchestra that is out of service? In New York, it may be highly social, and the donors may feel Steel did his best in the face of insuperable odds. Where I live, donor innocence is pretty widespread.

  • gomez de riquet says:

    i’m sorry, but do we really think the guy is corrupt? based on all of the articles that have been printed in the wake of this ridiculously unfortunate situation, it seems like he was handed an organization that was deeply, deeply in debt and that he did whatever he could to turn it around, one strategy of which was to stop paying rent at what i can only imagine is one of new york’s most expensive venues.

    i’m not suggesting that any or all of his strategies were the best, but this seems a little bit like blaming the head firefighter for not being able to extinguish a several-alarm blaze already well in progress. i doubt very sincerely that he sat on his hands. to say “it’s all just a game to these people” is a bit reductive in light of the volumes of evidence that have been presented in the past few weeks, no?

    • I was referring to the people throwing the party, not to Steel.

      • gomez de riquet says:

        is it terribly inappropriate for a group of his supporters (either his directly or opera supporters in general) to have a private affair–with their best efforts to have it remain strictly invisible–to share their gratitude for his efforts and to attempt to let the guy have a moment of dignity amidst a highly public firestorm from which his career may never recover?

        i’m guessing this is more a pat on the back and “nice try kid; thanks for giving it your all; hang in there” rather than a “will you look at these canapes? what opera company?” kind of affair, but i’m totally speculating.

        • Figarosu a.k.a. Neil Eddinger says:

          The supporters giving Steel this secret party are the former board members who wrecked the company. They couldn’t have done a better job of hijacking and destroying NYCO if they had hired professional pirates. There is some belief and some evidence that destruction was their goal. Steel got an obscene salary for cutting the core out of the company. He served his masters well. The whole truth will only be known if some hard-nosed investigative reporter digs into this rotten fish. It will be discover that, like fish, this company rots from the head.

        • houndentenor says:

          Why should his career recover? He was a disaster at Dallas Opera, where he left them in a big steaming pile of debt and went to City Opera with even worse results. Sorry, but that shows that perhaps he should not be running such a large organization. He obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing. If a soprano crashed and burned trying to sing Aida at two companies in a row would we keep hiring her to sing that role or admit that either she’s not a very good singer or perhaps this role is not for her? In America we now reward people for failure. CEOs go from one failure to the next at ridiculously high salaries and perks. No amount of failure at that level is ever punished and it’s destroying the company in the process.

          • MWnyc says:

            Now, Houndentenor, how could Steel have racked up a big steaming pile of debt to leave Dallas Opera over the course of less than four months?

            If there was truly a big steaming pile of debt at Dallas Opera, most of it must have been there before Steel arrived.

            (Unless the Dallas board actually told him, “Spend whatever you want on anything, George, really,” and then exercised no further oversight whatsoever. That would seem unlikely, especially since, by most accounts, Steel managed to alienate most of the Dallas company very quickly. Bad job performance, yes, but it makes it that much less likely that the Board would let him spend whatever he wanted – which would mean that Dallas Opera’s debt, at least, was not Steel’s fault.)

            Steel didn’t crash and burn at Dallas Opera; he barely even had time to land before he left again. (The only thing he seems to have had time to achieve was alienating his staff, which he reportedly managed to do rather quickly.)

            It’s no good being furious at George Steel for things he couldn’t have done; there’s quite enough that he actually did to be furious at.

  • Stereo says:

    Henson is probably guest of honour!

  • Gail Kruvand says:

    Fine, throw him a party. Just don’t allow him any severance pay. And don’t invite me.

    • MWnyc says:

      I’d be surprised if Steel did get any severance pay, considering how many creditors New York City Opera has. If he did, I expect the New York Times will let us know when they find out about it.

      • oracle says:

        Unfortunately, the judge allowed Steel to receive serverance, ridiculous in my viewpoint. He’s been seen slithering around Columbia University over the past few weeks. One would hope they realize he is poison.

  • Greg says:

    This sort of story is more reminiscent of Fox News than anything. Populist rabble rousing, no details, ridden with innuendo and self righteousness with an underlying narrative that doesn’t even attempt to be subtle. I’m not offering a defense of anyone. Just pointing out the sophomoric nature of this sort of posting

  • Those attuned to ethical matters can take at least one thing away from this posting: The “informant” was invited to a party to celebrate a circumstance which he or she finds—at the very least—embarrassing. If actions do indeed speak louder than words, this posting says a lot.

  • Bill Dyszel says:

    To Gomez’ comment: Mr. Steel wasn’t “handed” anything. He asked for the job and said he could do it. More qualified candidates were available and an offer had already been made to a more experienced professional. Also, he already had another job. He was manifestly and obviously unqualified to lead New York City Opera; the proof is in the results. He should neither have sought nor accepted the position. Hundreds of artists lost their life’s work because of his hubris and irresponsibility.

    • gomez de riquet says:

      “handed” as in offered the job by the board. there’s no doubt hubris was at play, but the board should be faulted if he was indeed “manifestly and obviously unqualified” to do it. i could be wrong, but i very seriously doubt they were dead set on choosing another candidate and he twisted their arm into hiring him, or at least i have never heard of an executive position being won in that manner. the board made a poor choice in hiring mortier from which they had a lot of egg on their face and so i can only imagine their vetting process was rigorous (or as flawed as it was when they hired mortier, but it still doesn’t put the blame on steel for his own appointment).

      all this aside, i am 100% in agreement that the lack of irresponsibility by all parties led to a disaster and the loss of lives’ work for hundreds of musicians and an important ny institution. it is heartbreaking without any qualifying language.

      my point is, simply, that getting out of a hole that deep (dug by someone else) seems like it would be a horrendously difficult and possibly even impossible task. (though to this latter point i’m not sure we’ll ever know, sadly.)

      • gomez de riquet says:

        *lack of responsibility

      • houndentenor says:

        His record at Dallas Opera is evidence enough of his incompetence. He had to leave in the middle of the season because he was about to be fired. The board knew or should have known that he was in over his head. So the question is why was he hired? Is the board that stupid or did they hire someone incompetent to run the company into the ground. I don’t know which and honestly one explanation is no more flattering to the board than the other.

        • oracle says:

          Steel promised to bring several heavy hitters from the Miller Theater. They had promised the job to Francesca Zambella, who actually knew how to run an opera company and would have been the last best chance. Keep in mind that I understand Steel did not have to do any fund raising at the Miller, it was apparently done for him.

    • MWnyc says:

      Who was the more experienced professional to whom an offer had been made, and why didn’t he or she accept it?

      (Unless you mean Gerard Mortier, who had just quit when the budget he was given was 60% of what he had been promised. And, if we can believe George Steel, the NYCO Board didn’t actually have half of even that reduced budget.)

      The word at the time was that City Opera had approached a number of seemingly qualified individuals to succeed Paul Kellogg, and none of them would consider it. Things were that bad there.

      • houndentenor says:

        Even when Kellogg was hired, the board approached a number of people who could have run the company better and none were interested.

        • MWnyc says:

          Isn’t that an indication right there that City Opera was probably doomed?

          As I’ve observed elsewhere (and even been plagiarized on), if not for Beverly Sills’s unique skill set, New York City Opera would have closed 30 years ago.

      • Sarah says:

        I’ve heard Francesca Zamballo’s (sp?) name as someone who received a verbal offer; it was obviously not honored.

        • MWnyc says:

          Zambello certainly felt she was robbed of that job, and said so to The New York Times in so many words. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem clear (to us bystanders, at least) how formal or how legally binding the offer was.

          Here’s the story as I’ve heard and read it – it’s basically gossip, so take it with the appropriate dosage of sodium chloride.

          Francesca Zambello is very intelligent and capable in many ways, as we’ve seen over the years. She is also said to have a hot temper. My understanding is that her temper alienated some of the people on City Opera’s board who would have to sign off on hiring her.

          With what we know now, it sure looks as if Zambello would have been a better choice than Steel. (Though even she might not have been able to save a company that was evidently only pulling in $12 million to $14 million a year.)

          Putting myself into the shoes of a Board member at the time, not knowing what would happen, I definitely sympathize with the impulse to hire the candidate who won’t yell at you over the one who will.

  • Figarosu a.k.a. Neil Eddinger says:

    In my earlier post I referred to wealthy patrons who were too cheap to pay their artists a living wage. Obviously, I was not referring to “household name” artists who make large sums of money, travel from continent to continent, and enjoy lucrative recording contracts. NYCO had few of these. I am referring to the rest of us, the majority, who somehow manage to eke out a living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. I’ve been in the business for forty years. This phenomenon of the rich patron who expects something for nothing is relatively new and reflects the general attitude of the present time. To all those readers who just found out there was something amiss these last few years: You are clueless. Please don’t opine about something you know nothing about. And don’t believe anything just because it got printed in the paper or it turned up on the internet.

    NYCO’s “business model” is being compared to a commercial enterprise that is supposed to make a profit or at least pay for itself. Never did and never could. As former Attorney General (and amateur musician) John Ashcroft sniffed, “Garth Brooks doesn’t need government funding.” Mozart and Verdi can’t pack in the MTV crowd so they must be worthless, right? Incidentally, the last time we had a knowledgeable and capable Chairman of the Board, Irv Schneiderman, he said: “The only thing wrong with City Opera’s business model is: we have to raise more money and sell more tickets.” George Steel could do neither. He also infamously said: “I don’t care about the audience; I only have to please the donors and the critics.”

    • Sarah says:

      I’m not sure the NYCO “business model”, or the Minnesota one, would actually succeed in the “real world”. Certainly the MN Orchestra Board execs have done things which would get them fired from their “day jobs” (at banks).

    • MWnyc says:

      “The only thing wrong with City Opera’s business model is: we have to raise more money and sell more tickets.”

      One could take that to mean either that nothing was fundamentally wrong with the business model or that everything was wrong with the business model.

  • This is interesting, in light of the discussion of artists’ being trivialized by donors and management:

  • Susan Fels says:

    By now all you clever people know that there WAS NO SUCH PARTY. But whoever starts these rumors seems not to need facts to support his/her snarky comments.

  • Figarosu a.k.a. Neil Eddinger says:

    It doesn’t matter if they gave him a party or not. It’s their money. Francesca Zambello was prepared to take the job, was going over the contract with her lawyer, in fact, when Mary Sharp Cronson strong-armed her candidate and personal pet, George Steel, into the job.Their first order of business was to break the unions and get rid of all tenured artists whether it destroyed the company or not. They accomplished their mission and the company died. I sincerely think Zambello could have turned the company around. She had the vision, experience and talent to do so. She has international operatic connections and the ability to raise money and attract patrons. It was a great opportunity thrown away.

    • Santootsie a.k.a. Jill Bosworth says:

      Figarosu speaks the truth. Sadly, many of us can back him up. Zambello would have been a fantastic choice, Steel (sic) was preposterous. The smug 1%, the Board, won. Why?????