When New York City Opera selected the swashbuckling Belgian impresario Gérard Mortier to run it starting next fall, some opera-watchers warned that he would blaze through a couple of groundbreaking but financially disastrous seasons then retire back to Europe, leaving the company covered in ash. They were too optimistic. Mortier made his exit even before his entrance; when the budget he wanted failed to materialize, he walked away, leaving City Opera with a stack of visionary plans and the specter of a Lehman Brothers–like future. Reeling, late last week the company announced plans to bring in Michael Kaiser, a rescue specialist who runs the Kennedy Center, to administer some emergency management. Let’s hope he brings his wand. City Opera is too important to fail.
Kaiser will whip together a short-order season for 2009–10 by scraping up a few crumbs of Mortier’s ambitions and mixing them with some revivals. He may even keep catastrophe at bay. But in the long-term, City Opera can’t retrench its way out of this crisis. The old standby operas no longer fill the house, which is why chairwoman Susan Baker courted Mortier in the first place. As director of the Paris Opera, he was accustomed to a taxpayer-assisted budget of $300 million a year and the license to reimagine familiar operas as outrageously as he liked. Baker and the board were so bedazzled that they agreed to his every demand: Scrap the repertoire system! Slash the number of performances! Pump up the budget from $40 million to $60 million! Mothball all existing productions! Put on modern operas only!
This was a bold, exciting agenda. And despite the Mortier fiasco, a bold, exciting (but cheaper) agenda remains exactly what the company needs. For a while, it will probably need to unpack its shoestring Toscas and cut-rate Carmens, but that diet will finish off the company before too long. Fund-raising is stuck, the deficit grows, and while the company has moved out of its home, the New York State Theater, during renovations, orchestra members, choristers, and stagehands collect paychecks to stay home and watch Wife Swap.
It needs to reconnect with the reasons Fiorello La Guardia founded the “People’s Opera” in the first place—as a frothier, less pretentious, and more affordable alternative to the Met. For 65 years, it has been a champion of American music, a launching pad for young singers, and a turbine of innovation. It’s sad that the Mortier experiment was a bad one, but it would be downright tragic if this misadventure wound up crippling or killing City Opera. The result would be a big, bleak crevice in the cultural landscape and a portent of more disasters in the arts. Bailout, anyone?