Kennedy Chief Comes to an Opera's Rescue

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, has developed a reputation for saving performing arts organizations that are at the brink of disaster. Now he's adding a new leaf to his portfolio. In a letter to patrons, New York City Opera's chairwoman, Susan L. Baker, has announced that Kaiser will be advising that troubled institution in its urgent search for a new director.

"With guidance from Michael Kaiser, one of America's leading arts management advisors," Baker wrote in the letter, whose contents were reported yesterday by, "our board and staff are working to identify new leadership and to craft a plan for the 2009-2010 season and beyond."

Kaiser "is advising the New York City Opera on their planning," a Kennedy Center spokesman said in an interview. "He is not running their organization, and he is not being paid."

Kaiser was not available for comment, nor were City Opera officials.

City Opera has been in a state of flux almost since announcing in early 2007, with great fanfare, that Gérard Mortier would be its next general manager and artistic director. The Belgian-born Mortier, an administrator whose main claim to fame remains shaking up the Salzburg Festival from 1992 to 2001 with innovative and controversial stagings, marked a signal departure from City Opera's traditional American focus under Julius Rudel, Beverly Sills, Christopher Keene and, most recently, Paul Kellogg, who stepped down in 2007. Mortier announced an exciting inaugural season for 2009-10, including six 20th-century works.

But Mortier also had a long list of requests, starting with the demand that City Opera finally do something to renovate the New York State Theater, long a source of complaint for its acoustics. As a result, the company suspended its 2008-09 season, replacing staged productions with a few concerts around the city. Without ticket revenue, but still compelled to pay fixed operational costs, the company has been in a financial crunch; in October, it gave some staff members time off because it was worried it would not make payroll.

From the moment Mortier's name was announced, observers questioned whether a veteran of the European system of state-subsidized institutions -- Mortier currently runs the Paris Opéra -- could succeed at the American model, in which general directors typically do a healthy share of fundraising. Now the answer appears to be no. Last week Mortier resigned, noting that he had been promised a budget of $60 million and the board, compromised by the current economic climate, had approved only $36 million.

The economic climate is certainly tough for arts organizations. But the ones that are finding themselves in acute crisis -- another is California's Opera Pacific, which last week announced the cancellation of its remaining season and may not survive -- were already in trouble to begin with.

Kaiser, certainly, is a veteran of helping arts groups avoid extinction. His recent book, "The Art of the Turnaround," summarizes the fruits of his experience saving such institutions as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

One might guess that Kaiser will advise City Opera's board to keep as much of Mortier's planned season as possible. A cornerstone of his philosophy is that arts organizations have to think big and program adventurously in order to flourish.

"We have been scared into thinking small," he wrote in a 2002 op-ed in The Post, as performing arts organizations reeled in the economic wake of Sept. 11."And small thinking begets smaller revenue that begets even smaller institutions and reduced public excitement and involvement. No wonder so many arts organizations are announcing record deficits."

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