Did Anna Nicole kill City Opera?

Did Anna Nicole kill City Opera?


norman lebrecht

October 18, 2013

A report in the impeccably named Non-Profit Quarterly suggests that the last production staged by New York City Opera was actually the nail in its coffin:

As a somewhat bizarre coda to these events, the final production put on by the NYCO may have led to its demise. The last work performed was “Anna Nicole,” a paean to the tragic life and death of blonde model/actress/reality-show-diva Anna Nicole Smith. Although the show drew fairly large audiences and generally positive reviews, those in a position to know say that it alienated billionaire donor David H. Koch. Why? Because Anna Nicole Smith was married to J. Howard Marshall II, an oil tycoon who had owned 16 percent of Koch Industries before his death—and the Marshall clan loathed her, fighting bitterly to keep her from inheriting any of J. Howard’s estate.

anna nicole roh

Surely not?


  • Without knowing the man personally and without wanting to start a political debate here, I’ll point out that, politically, he’s affiliated (although, I suspect, for tactical and strategic reasons rather than ideological ones) with a political movement not largely known for its mature reaction to things they dislike.

    I’d guess that he was more offended by the company’s move out of the New York State Theater (now, of course, known as the David H. Koch Theater).

  • oracle says:

    Even if Koch had bailed them out enough to finish this season, the cycle of problematic management would continue, George Steel was an inappropriate choice for the job. He was great at promoting himself, but untalented as a leader of a big arts operation and not knowledgeable about operatic repertoire. One would hope that he is not entrusted with another such job, as the result will be the same.

  • Eric says:

    It was the nail in the coffin, but it wasn’t as if it did it alone. Every report talks about years of poor decisions. I don’t believe that staging this opera was a poor decision…it injected a lot of good exposure to the company (if you look at the reviews, etc.). But, it was the years of bad decisions, compiled up, that really killed them.

  • PK Miller says:

    I agree. It was A factor but nothing could compensate for years of poor financial management, decision making and lack of community support. I have learned over the last few weeks since the story broke, that City Opera was in financial distress long ago but it was not widely known in the pre-internet/Facebook/Twitter etc., era. If you do not have a Board committed to your financial viability, leadership capable of bringing in the money then lack good artistic making capabilities, you have written your own obituary. As I have said before, too, if youre a nomadic company, your audience doesn’t know where to find you, it’s yet a few more nails in your coffin.

    Any non profit should have a wide base of support so if one funder is somehow po’d at what you’ve done & pulls its funding you will not make like the Titanic. But, as an area non profit learned you can NOT do emergency fundraising, “Help we’re drowning.” Chances are pretty good no one will throw you a life preserver. Why should the City of NY have thrown City Opera one? Another 6-12 months & it would have been deja vu all over again. If you have no long range financial plan, then on top of this you lack good artistic leadership/planning then you also don’t even know where you will be performing next time, you deserve to have your plug pulled. I don’t know if George Steel was/was not the right person for the job but it seems to me, nonetheless, he’s a convenient scapegoat for years of poor management. The horror stories I have heard the last few weeks from those in the know–quite aside from those posted on Slipped Disk–would have turned my hair grey if it wasn’t already! I feel badly for the musicians & other employees but when someone is already moribund you don’t bother giving them CPR!

  • One must read Howard Marshall’s wiki. Is it conceivable that no one in George Steel’s circle was aware of how important and personal a figure Marshall was in David Koch’s family? Seems he was the brains behind the Koch family fortune, and probably dandled little David on his knee in the family kitchen — I wouldn’t be surprised if their families did Thanksgivings together. Marshall was the legal mind and the legislative go-getter who restructured the oil industry from a risky wild-catter enterprise to the monolith it is today — and Koch Industries benefitted more directly from his acumen than any other Texas start-up. Without Marshall there would not be a David C. Koch Theater — or not so named. Was Steel’s audacity deliberate, to satirize this very big man’s senility? Is that a way to get back into the David Koch Theater? Isn’t Anna Nicole an opera about one of David Koch’s most stressful experiences?

  • Our ridiculous, neo-feudalistic system of funding arts by donations from the wealthy is what killed the NYCO. That couldn’t be more obvious. We only have three cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. We need a public funding system like ALL other developed countries have long had.

    • sdReader says:

      I agree with you completely, but, remember, it was a centuries-long system of patronage, not public funding, that established Western classical music in the first place and, as you know, the patronage occasionally fell away, leaving musicians (including famous composers) without support.

      America is not going to turn into postwar Europe, with its nice subsidies, anytime soon, just as Europe did not always operate the way it does now.

      • Patronage came from the aristocracy and church who were, in effect, the state. This background established a tradition that made it easier for modern Europeans to publically support the arts.

  • Mr. Osborne is right on the money (or lack thereof) on every count, especially in his last post. How disgraceful that we name concert halls, sports stadia, even parks, for over-bloated corporations controlled by yet-more-bloated CEOs, false entities that the Supremes deem to be “people.” If New York can no longer support its arts, why should people choose to live in such a pointless hive?

    Oh yes, the corporations – again.

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    There’s something here that doesn’t smell quite right. The holdings of J. Howard Marshall II in Koch passed on to his son E. Pierce Marshall, who is now dead. Pierce Marshall’s share of Koch then passed on to his widow, Elaine Marshall, who a) is worth some $12 billion, 2) no longer holds the stock in her own name, 3) lives in Dallas and 4) is a very private person. It’s preposterous to think that there’s going to be some boardroom battle over Mr. Koch’s possible personal contribution to a company putting on an opera that, whatever its virtues, hasn’t made much of a public impression outside of Manhattan.

    Mr. Koch mention of the Marshall family to Mr. Steele may have been a private joke. I’m speculating of course, but I think the real reason for demurring was a reluctance to give money to a company that is so comprehensively mismanaged.