For a long time now -- at the very least since the downturn following 9-11 -- we’ve been wringing our hands about the future of the arts; we’ve been watching institutions struggle for funding and audiences; and we’ve been braced to lose some of them. Today, October 1, came two wrenching announcements about exactly such losses. The New York City Opera is going to close, and the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, has made good on his threat to resign if the year-long lockout of the orchestra’s musicians wasn’t resolved. What’s really sad is that, although some people may try to blame both these events on the economic downturn, they’re actually a result of blatant mismanagement: not the economy, but simple human error.
Or not so simple. Because it took a lot of doing to get both these institutions into the fix they’re in.
Above: Osmo Vanska leading the Minnesota Orchestra at the Proms, in the Royal Albert Hall.
Memo to the Minnesota Orchestra management: lots of orchestras are struggling. We know that. We understand. Fixed costs, declining revenue: it’s not a great equation, and it’s common to orchestras around the country. Everyone is trying to come up with a better solution. And there have been plenty of labor disputes, and plenty of disgruntled musicians returning to work at lower rates of pay. But here’s the thing: this is seen as a necessary evil, something we don’t want. It’s not a goal. I talked to the Minnesota Orchestra’s president, Michael Henson, in May, and he was able to cite from memory all of the recent orchestral lockouts -- Saint Paul, Indianapolis, Atlanta -- and the salary reductions they had achieved. The lesson some orchestras draw from this kind of thing is, How can we work together with our musicians to avoid this (witness the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where musicians took two separate voluntary salary cuts, which are now gradually being restored)? The lesson Henson seemed to draw from it was, Look what’s possible.
Henson wants to get the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual budget down from $32 million to $26 million, something I’m perfectly willing to accept as necessary. It’s just a shame that the way to go about it appears to be digging in your heels and treating the musicians as expendable, even the music director who has been the main reason, for the last few seasons, that your orchestra is on our radar. I’m not going to get into the he-said, she-said of who rejected whose proposal — the composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who followed Vanska’s lead on Tuesday by resigning as head of the orchestra’s Composer Institute after a 15-year tenure, blamed both sides equally — but management appears to be the one who finally walked away from the table on Monday. Indeed, you could say that management has now gotten part of its wish: without Vänskä, the ensemble is probably worth a lot less than it was before, particularly as more and more of its players are leaving. But, thanks to a separate fund-raising campaign, it’s got a snazzy renovated hall to play in -- or not play in, as the lockout starts its second year.
As for City Opera: their tale of woe has unfolded over the last few seasons at a Wagnerian pace, moving inexorably toward what in hindsight seems clearly its inevitable doom. The stations in the decline have been, by now, well-documented: Gerard Mortier, the high-profile but controversial European impresario, was anointed as Paul Kellogg’s successor. The opera sat dark for a season during renovations to the New York State Theater. Then Mortier realized he wasn’t going to get the kind of funds he wanted or needed to do the kind of work he envisioned, and pulled out, leaving the company looking for a new leader; according to Francesca Zambello, now the artistic director of the Washington National Opera, she was in a handshake agreement with the board when someone got the hots for George Steel, who had just moved from Columbia University’s Miller Theater to the Dallas Opera. Steel left Dallas for New York after only a few months in office (Dallas was, it’s said, not sorry to see him go), and took over a company that was already, after the missed season of revenue and the leadership woes, in financial disarray. Things never really recovered; the company eventually decamped from the State Theater in an effort to cut costs, performing in different venues around the city (the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted the last production of the company’s history, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera “Anna Nicole,” in September). Somehow the company only made public at the start of the month in what dire straits it found itself, publically announcing that if it didn’t raise $7 million by the end of September, it would cancel its season, and starting a Kickstarter campaign to help. There are certainly people in New York who are capable of writing a $7 million check, but at this point none of them, clearly, was convinced that offering that kind of money to an institution that had floundered so spectacularly and publically represented a wise investment.
Above: “The Merry Widow” at New York City Opera in the 1970s.
So it’s farewell to City Opera. I don’t think there are larger conclusions, though, to be drawn from this story. Of course New York can support more than one opera company: the Gotham Chamber Opera, for example, appears to be thriving doing just the kind of thing -- unusual repertory and co-productions in different venues -- to which City Opera, in its death throes, aspired. In any case, the City Opera we all loved basically stopped existing around the time of the company’s year-long hiatus; there were some good performances in the Steel era, but that doesn’t in itself make a company. City Opera in its heyday was a cradle for young artists, interesting productions, American work, but also a lot of B-list stuff; the mixture of good and bad that gives a company texture. I grew up going to City Opera -- I feel as if I saw “Merry Widow” a dozen times there, though memory is overgenerous -- and I have a pang thinking of the days of Beverly Sills and Frank Corsaro and Julius Rudel (who has expressed his sadness at outliving “his” company). I am wistful that its leadership was so bungled. But many have already predicted that some other opera company may arise from the ashes, as soon as the current board and management are conveniently cleared away. Indeed, the musicians’ union has already issued a statement declaring the orchestra’s willingness to remain together “should the opportunity arise.” This closure could actually clear the way for the next chapter.