Bloomberg: Let’s hear it from City Opera board (before the handcuffs start rattling)

Bloomberg: Let’s hear it from City Opera board (before the handcuffs start rattling)


norman lebrecht

October 07, 2013

There’s a brilliant piece on Bloomberg Muse today by its editor, Manuela Hoelterhoff, who has watched the decline and fall of City Opera from some of the best seats in the house. As with Edward Gibbon, the fall of empire makes stronger reading than its rise and Manuela sure knows how to tell and story and who’s to blame. Pulitzer jury, please note.

Of recent matters, George Steel was a hopeless pick as manager, she’s said so all along. But the board who appointed him were brazenly negligent in this and so many financial matters that you’d think the boys in blue might start to rattle the handcuffs. She names Susan Baker, Mark Newhouse and Mary Sharp Cronson as chief miscreants. She calls it dead right.

Here’s a sample:

It’s shocking how little attention is paid to the boards

that control our cultural institutions.

     NYCO had big problems all along. The State Theater, too big

for the People’s Opera, was built for the New York City Ballet,

which owns the lucrative Christmas season with George

Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.”

     Even that amazing fundraiser Beverly Sills, in her heyday

as general director, ate herself fat wooing patrons to cover the

perennial shortfall.

     But to end as a two-bit touring company expiring in the

wake of a pathetic Kickstarter campaign really stretches my

suspenders of disbelief.

Read the full article here.


city opera


  • ed says:

    This is all very delicious, but where the heck was Mayor Bloomberg during all of this and what did he do to stop his rich friends?- he of ‘he who must be obeyed’…….at least, when it comes to how much soda New Yorkers can buy at one time from their neighborhood bodega, or who should or shouldn’t be profiled, spied upon, and stopped & frisked. He wants to privatize everything in the City, so those who would wish for “people’s opera” shouldn’t be surprised by the hypocrisy.

    • MWnyc says:

      Notwithstanding the fact that the company was founded by a New York City Mayor, New York City Opera was always a private entity. The City of New York was never under any obligation to use any taxpayer money to keep the company running, and the voters here would not have tolerated spending taxpayer money to rescue an opera company rather than on roads, schools, libraries and parks.

      As the NY Times reported over the weekend, Bloomberg Philanthropies was one of three foundations who made large emergency donations to keep City Opera from running out of money last season. As for more emergency donations to save the company this year, Bloomberg said in just about so many words (“The business model doesn’t seem to be working”) that he didn’t think City Opera could be saved.

      But if a company arises to take its place in the next few years, don’t be surprised to see Bloomberg Philanthropies among the crop of founding donors.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Brilliant article. Certainly you need a company with very generous state subsidies to afford M.Mortier, possibly no-one will want to. But this seems to be just one aspect of the very unhappy state of classical music in the US, documented here daily.

  • John Porter says:

    I think it would be absolutely right to blame the board above all. In the end, they are legally responsible. While it is best practice for the CEO and board to be in partnership, the board has been accorded ultimate responsibility.

  • One of the inherent flaws in America’s system of arts funding is that board members are generally selected more by their ability to donate than artistic, cultural, social, or political intelligence. In every other developed country in the world, the arts are publically funded. Board members are selected according to their cultural and social expertise, and the institutions answer to the people’s elected representatives.

  • PK Miller says:

    Indeed, the BOARD of ANY non-profit is legally responsible. And it seems from this article, others on Slipped Disc & what friends in the know down the “Big Apple” tell me, this article is on the money. The adults left the room & left the kindergartners in charge. There were any number of experienced opera directors City Opera’s Board could have chosen. But if the Director knows little to nothing about opera and he ruined his previous company why hire him? Due diligence anyone? i am truly saddened by City Opera’s demise. So many stupid decisions over the years including the move to Lincoln Center then raiding the endowment again and again. Did they really expect the Kickstarter campaign–a grassroots effort several area organziations have used to raise a maximum of $2000–to raise what was it–7 MILLION???? In what universe? And who is going to donate to a sinking ship? Even if i had the kind of disposable income that I could donate a few thousand or even a few HUNDRED thousand $$$ why would I?

    i dont know if the Board can be held civilly or criminally responsible but that sounds like a start. Hell, AG Schneiderman????

    • MWnyc says:

      No, this article isn’t on the money, though its fury may be satisfying to people angry about City Opera’s demise.

      Yes, in theory there were any number of experienced opera directors that the City Opera Board could have hired (though Leon Botstein was not one of them). But it was widely said at the time that they wouldn’t take the job – that every likely candidate who was approached said no, because the company appeared to be doomed, or at least in an impossible situation.

      The one qualified candidate who is known to have been interested in running City Opera, and who was passed over (twice, apparently), goes unmentioned in Hoelterhoff’s article. That candidate was, of course, Francesca Zambello, who was at the time Hoelterhoff’s long-term partner. (They have since split – and that was reported in the press, so their couplehood was not a secret.)

      So yes, Hoelterhoff, as Norman put it, “has watched the decline and fall of City Opera from some of the best seats in the house”, but she wasn’t exactly an impartial observer.

      PK, George Steel was at Dallas Opera for approximately four months – not enough to time to have “ruined” the company – and (whatever his shortcomings in Dallas and at City Opera) Steel most certainly did not ruin Miller Theater. He made it one of the city’s hot spots, which is why – rightly or wrongly – City Opera’s board thought he might be a good choice to reinvent a company that obviously needed to be reinvented. (That and the fact that other people had turned down the job and Steel was willing to come on short notice.)

      As for the law pursuing City Opera Board members —

      I can’t see any criminal prosecution possible unless any of them embezzled or criminally misappropriated funds. (And if they did, that would be under the jurisdiction of the Manhattan District Attorney or the chief Federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York.)

      Regarding civil liability, I think you’d have trouble finding injured parties with standing to sue. (Season ticket holders? That would go to Small Claims Court, and if they won they’d have to get in line with the rest of City Opera’s creditors.) And I doubt that Attorney General Schneidermann would want to set a precedent where any board of an arts organization that ran out of money and closed could face civil prosecution; if that happened, very few people would be willing to join the boards of new organizations, and so new organizations might stop being created.

      • DrewX says:

        I still think her essay is on the money insofar as she is affixing blame on the board, which is exactly where it belongs. In all the other coverage of this mess over the past couple months, nobody has called out the board specifically for their incompetence, or even asked them for a substantial statement about the goings on. George Steel (and Paul Kellogg and whoever else before him) are easy scapegoats, which is why she pointedly notes that, in general, shockingly little attention is ever paid to boards and their responsibilities and actions. All of the bad decisions City Opera has made in the past 15 years were dreamed up and/or approved by the board; no executive director can ruin an organization without the full partnership of the board.

  • Carla says:

    Nothing to add to this interesting topic but I’d like to subscribe to further comments.

  • Ben Ordaz says:

    Hey Norman, you should re-post the link to the 2012 “Ballad of NYCO” from Opera News

  • Sarah says:

    Did she have to make that crack about Beverly Sills?