Virginia Opera fires longtime director Peter Mark

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 12:54 AM

Taking drama off the stage and into the boardroom, the Virginia Opera, a scrappy regional company that's been bringing productions to three cities in Virginia for decades, has fired its founding music and artistic director, Peter Mark, after 36 years of service. The announcement came Thursday after weeks of acrimonious debate that divided the opera's board and much of its audience.

The dispute had centered on Mark's current contract, which ran through May 2012. The executive committee said it was his last, but in recent months Mark has said there was no such understanding. His supporters grew increasingly vocal about what they depicted as a cabal against him.

On Thursday, the executive committee attempted to silence the squabbling by announcing the termination of the contract, effective immediately. It cited "violations of obligations arising under Peter Mark's employment agreement," according to the board's president-elect, Alan Albert, who declined to be more specific.

Mark, 70, vehemently protested. "This termination is not justified either on moral or legal grounds - or by common sense," he fired back in a statement. "If it is not promptly reversed then my attorneys will take the appropriate legal actions. I should hope that that would not be necessary."

Mark has long been a polarizing figure. No one argues that his achievement at the company has been impressive. Hired in 1974, a gifted musician without much conducting experience, he sought out undiscovered talent, presenting the soprano Diana Soviero, who went on to become something of a cult figure in the opera world, in the first season's "La Traviata." Ashley Putnam, Renee Fleming and Rockwell Blake were among other singers who sang in Virginia on their way to renown.

The company presented world premieres by Thea Musgrave, a Scottish composer who was internationally acclaimed in the 1970s and '80s and who happens to be Mark's wife. It expanded to perform regularly in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax - a true state opera - and develop a significant educational component. (Its current production of "Cosi Fan Tutte" comes to Fairfax on Dec. 3.)

But in recent years, the opera has found fewer young stars, retreated to a more conventional repertory, and, like most other companies, battled declines in ticket sales, mainstage performances (from 50 to about 32) and budget (from more than $7 million a year to about $5.5 million). There's more competition in the region, including two other companies devoted to fostering young professionals, Wolf Trap Opera and Castleton Festival, though both are in summer only. And some of Virginia Opera's critics have spoken of artistic stagnation.

Mark is an adept fundraiser who's popular with donors and audiences, but although his conducting has been praised in reviews, he has not established a significant conducting career with other companies. And he has not always endeared himself to those who have worked with him. "Basically, he's one of these charismatic people whose charisma can be positive or negative," said one musician, who spoke on condition of anonymity; in the small opera world, people are unwilling to speak out against someone who is still capable of hiring and firing.

Others have characterized him as mercurial and prone to outbursts against staffers, singers or members of the Virginia Symphony, which plays for the opera's productions. Mark's supporters dismiss such allegations as a smear campaign. Mark's own defense is that no complaint against him has ever resulted in an adverse legal ruling - a tacit admission, one might add, that the complaints are there.

"We are in a business where the egos of everybody go beyond the roof," said Bernard Uzan, a stage director who has directed several productions at the Virginia Opera, most recently a "Faust" in 2005. "When you are demanding and you insist on what you want, and you make a singer do something over and over and over, it could create conflicts. But that's his job."

The case is an illustration of just how difficult it can be for an arts organization to move on after the tenure of its founder. Sometimes, the organization can be rocked to the core: The board feels it's time for the founder to move on and hands him his walking papers, as the Washington Chorus did to Robert Shafer in 2006 (he left in 2007, and a number of singers followed him). Sometimes, it works to ensure an orderly transition, as the Choral Arts Society is doing to prepare for Norman Scribner's departure in 2012, after more than 45 years at the helm.

"It is always the board's decision to make personnel decisions," says Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, a service organization for the industry. "It is difficult for a board to make personnel decisions when they involve people who have either been with the company for decades or are the founders of the company." One of the challenges in Virginia, he added, "is that those who are in leadership are having to endure a very strong crosswind of opinion."

In 2003, the Virginia Opera's board, eager to start creating an administration that wasn't dependent on a single individual, took the administrative leadership out of Mark's hands and gave it to Paul A. "Gus" Stuhlreyer. In January, some of Mark's adherents convened a meeting of the 64-member board to try to take action against Stuhlreyer, expressing dissatisfaction with his leadership. They garnered only a handful of votes. Mark, meanwhile, still holds the three titles of music director, artistic director and principal conductor, each with its own salary, adding up to a total of about $185,000 a year.

And the executive committee has been looking to the future. "We really are the garage start-up that's gotten too big to run out of the garage," Albert said. "We have to become a second-generation company."

A timeline distributed to the board at its last meeting on Oct. 30 cites e-mails in which Mark acknowledged that his current contract was his last; he now denies it and cites a clause in the contract entitling him to discuss his future role with the company by January 1.

The dispute went public after a Sunday matinee of "Rigoletto" in Norfolk on Oct 10. During the curtain calls, Mark thanked the audience for their support and said he looked forward to serving for many more years; then Edythe Harrison, 76, the opera's founder, made an unexpected entrance. Harrison, a longtime volunteer and activist responsible for helping the state of Virginia gain desegregation in schools, Planned Parenthood and opera, lives in Florida now, but is still on the opera's board and remains a familiar face at the company (the opera house in Norfolk is named for her and her late husband).

She took the microphone from Mark and made an unscripted, and unscheduled, announcement. "I just want you to know," she recalls saying to the startled audience, "that there's a small group of people working in secret to remove our Peter Mark."

There followed an impromptu news conference on the steps of the opera house the next morning, a couple of full-page ads in local publications and a campaign to solicit e-mails in Mark's support at addresses like "SaveVirginiaOpera." The supporters pinned their hopes on a compromise proposal drafted by a board member named John Field that suggested, among other things, extending Mark's contract by another year. Some long-time board members resigned; some donors wrote letters expressing their outrage at Mark's purported treatment. The executive committee continued to offer Mark compromises; Mark was not interested.

"This really isn't about me," Mark said the day before the announcement of the termination was made. "It's about the mission of the opera. . . . I'd like a role in the discussion." Still, he repeatedly rejected the executive committee's proposals; whatever role they offered him wasn't quite what he had in mind.

"The executive committee," Albert said, "has attempted for 10 months to negotiate with Peter Mark for a positive and constructive transition in artistic leadership that would be coupled with an appropriate recognition of his long service to the Virginia Opera. And it is unfortunate that those efforts did not succeed."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company