How to run an opera without an artistic director

How to run an opera without an artistic director


norman lebrecht

May 01, 2015

Lyric Opera of Kansas City thinks it can, firing Ward Holmquist after 17 years in charge.

Statement from the chairman, Kenneth Hager: ‘Lyric Opera of Kansas City is reorganizing along the lines of standard industry structure for the purpose of improved effectiveness and efficiency in our operation and has eliminated the position of artistic director. Lyric Opera of Kansas City today announces the departure of Artistic Director Ward Holmquist. We thank him for his years of service.’

‘Standard industry structure’? What is he on?

joyce didonato kansas


  • william osborne says:

    Kansas City ranks 299th in the world for opera performances per year – far behind even the remotest European backwaters. Perhaps such small timers need no Artistic Director. Never mind that the city has a metro population of 2.34 million.

    • william osborne says:

      A few of the cities that outrank Kansas City: Ulan Bator, Gourgas, Gdansk, Giessen, Landshut, Lodz, Debrecen, Rijeka, Catania, Brasov, Petrozavodsk, Eisenach, Bialystok, Astrakhan, Winterthur, Usti nad Labem, Ruhr, Chisinau, Szczecin, Kazan, and Wexford.

      Ever heard of them? Never mind, at least Kansas City beats out mighty Atlanta by 77 positions and Cincinnati by 67. America educates so many great opera singers, and releases them into a wasteland. And yet these schools do almost nothing to improve the funding situation. By any measure, they are unethical frauds who betray their students.

      • Max Grimm says:

        “Ever heard of them?”
        Unless secondary education has reached a new alltime low, Ulan Bator and Chisinau should have been heard at some point during ones school years (though I cannot comment on American secondary education).

        • william osborne says:

          Yes, the geography of Moldova and Mongolia are big topics in American schools….almost as important as opera….

      • Cameron says:

        As a Kansas City native who studied voice in the US and Austrian system and who now makes a living in the fest system in Germany, I while-heartedly agree with this statement. What’s going on in the US college system that charges students tens of thousands of dollars per year for a voice degree with about a 1% chance of finding a job to pay for that education is absurd. I love my country, but the voice education system and subsequent opportunities to make money singing are abysmal!

      • Greg Hlatky says:

        Of course they’re unethical frauds. Like all institutions captured by the Left, schools and universities are run for the benefit of teachers and administrators.

        Albert Shanker may not have said, “I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren when they start paying union dues,” but the attitude is a hallmark of the current US educational establishment.

    • Richard Cumming-Bruce says:

      But it also has the advantage, as the photo alludes to, of having probably the finest mezzo-soprano in the world and one of opera’s most articulate and passionate promoters as a hometown girl. It needs to take full advantage of that, as it won’t always be the case.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    Lyric Opera Kansas is a fine opera company. Not in the very top tier – they don’t have the money for that – but certainly in the upper echelons. They have played their part in helping to build some stellar careers.

    As regards the number of performances they put on, they only do as many as they can sell. If there was public appetite for more performances, no doubt they would put them on.

    I am sad to see Ward go, and wish him the best of luck.

    And, by the way, if you think Catania is a backwater, then you need your head examined!

    • william osborne says:

      Catania has a population about equal to Boise, so I’m sure its on par with New York, London, Vienna, and Paris in the opera world. Thanks for letting us know…… On the other hand, Catania can stake its claim as the birthplace of Bellini, and they have a beautiful opera house named after him, though they only did 37 performances last year — part of the general erosion of opera even in Italy.

      • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

        Catania may, indeed, not be Vienna, or Paris; but it is very far from being a ‘backwater’. Up until the depression hit, it was a house that Italian singers would proudly have on their CV. They paid well, and attracted very good singers.

        There is a difficulty in ranking houses by the number of performances that they do. Many European houses are small. Some have only around 800 seats. In addition, many German houses have smaller spaces for modern or chamber opera. State Theatres will also host a ballet company and perhaps even a straight theatre company. So when you see that the Badische Staatstheater, for example, puts on 270 performances, some of these will be opera, some will be chamber opera in the secondary theatre (a few hundred seats), some will be ballet and some will be schauspiel.

        There is a legitimate conversation to be had about the amount of opera performed in the US, about the amount of people willing to pay to attend opera performances, about why and how companies are funded, and about the ‘oversupply’ of performers to the industry; but it cannot be had on these terms.

        • william osborne says:

          Operabase lists numbers for just opera performances, so they are not being mixed up with spoken theater, ballet, or orchestra concerts. Numbers of performances don’t tell us everything, but when the KC numbers come so low it does tell us something about the weaknesses of our system of arts funding. Wiesbaden and Brno should not outrank Chicago and San Francisco, but they do.

          Nor should they massively outrank Catania, especially with its operatic heritage. Through Berlusconi and Co., Italy is suffering the American disease of neoliberalism.

          • william osborne says:

            Also the small size of houses argument doesn’t work too well either, since the size of the house is generally in proportion to the size of the city. That means per capita consumption is higher, another useful measure for the general health of the arts. That these small cities can do so many performances in smaller houses and with ticket prices a third or fourth of those in the USA, is another indication of how much better their public funding systems work than our private system. One of the major problems is that we make so many excuses and rationalizations to justify our lack of arts support.

          • william osborne says:

            Readers should note that Catania is relatively low on the totem pole in Italy and would be considered somewhat provincial by even Italian standards. Milano, Turin, Venice, Rome, Napels, Bolgna, Genoa, Palermo and several other cities far outrank it for opera performances, and yet it outranks KC even though it is a major American city.

          • Juliana Gondek says:

            If “neoliberalism” is to blame for the demise of the so-called “higher arts” in America, then how do you explain the fact that Republicans always vote to cut back on local, state, and federal spending for the arts while Democrats vote to restore/expand arts funding?

  • Ward Holmquist says:

    Thank you, Mr. Lebrecht!

  • James says:

    They could save even more money by replacing the orchestra musicians with a CD player and the singers with mime impersonators (lip sync).

  • contrarian says:

    The “industry standard” is having a company run by a director,or a stage maneger or a firmer agent, who can’t play or sing, but is in charge of all artistic decisions.

  • Midwesterner says:

    This is so sad for us Kansas City folks.
    Ward Holmquist is an absolute gem — a fantastic conductor, and a wonderful musician.

  • Andrew Petersen says:

    If we have the money to build such a fantastic house, we should be able to find the money to support a season of at least six quality offerings. The board’s decision to remain a backwater goes so much against everything else that Kansas City has become and moving towards. Thank God for the Symphony and its leadership. I guess we will just have to imagine what the opera house could have been and hope we can keep it booked for on the non opera events.