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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why the big music jobs are no-go arias

By Norman Lebrecht / February 18, 2004

The two best musical jobs in America have fallen vacant and there is no rush of credible applicants. Last week, Joseph Volpe announced his retirement in 2006 as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. A stage carpenter by vocation, Volpe has run the Met with a rule of iron since 1990. He was 63 last birthday and has earned the right to a life in the sun without tenors calling up to cancel.

The week before, Robert Harth returned home on a Friday evening from Carnegie Hall and dropped dead. Harth was 47, a softly-softly manager who, over two and a half years, rebuilt confidence in America’s premier concert venue and inaugurated its underground Zankel Hall with an enterprising programme of jazz, solo recitals and world music. A fitness fanatic, Harth worked out daily in the local gym. His death, of a heart attack, sent shock waves through the upper echelons of America’s performing arts.

Neither man has a ready replacement. Volpe, with a handshake like a wheelclamp and a fretsaw voice, stamped his fist on an operatic monolith riven with labour disputes and beset by star fixations. He instilled industrial peace (at a high wage price) and put divas in their place. When the tendentious Kathleen Battle cut up rough in rehearsal he sacked her for ‘unprofessional actions’, ignoring clemency appeals from his artistic director James Levine. He later shut out Angela Gheorghiu for high-handed behaviour and ordered Luciano Pavarotti (unsuccessfully) to apologise to his audience for a late withdrawal. Pavarotti, now 67, will make his Met farewell in three Toscas next month.

Replacing Volpe will be tougher than finding the next big tenor. The Met so dwarfs the rest of American opera that its seasonal deficit can exceed the entire budget of the next biggest house. This is not an economy that breeds successors. There are capable opera chiefs in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco but they have not been tested in the Met’s unforgiving limelight.

Unless Placido Domingo aims to add the Met to his existing half-managements in Washington and Los Angeles, the only visible candidate on the American continent will be Michael Kaiser, briefly of Covent Garden – and he may be too comfortable to move from his presidency of Washington’s Kennedy Center. In the absence of a career veteran, the Met board of million-dollar donors will either turn to Europe or to one of its own, an aria-loving stockbroker.

Carnegie’s choice is no easier. The hall had been run in exemplary fashion by Judith Arron who, dying of breast cancer, groomed a German, Franz-Xaver Ohnesorg, to take over in 1999. The brusque and haughty Ohnesorg lasted little over a year before, en route to the airport, he rang his chairman, Citibank’s Sanford Weill, to say he was teaming up with Simon Rattle in Berlin (whence he has since departed, for unspecified reasons).

Weill launched a global search which yielded a paucity of talent. Harth landed the job on a modest record of running the Aspen Festival in Colorado and the recommendation of his mentor, the former LSO and Los Angeles boss, Ernest Fleischmann. Harth arrived at the start of September 2001 and coped impressively with the tremors of terrorism. His death leaves the board with virtually the same list of names they tested and found wanting or unavailable only three years ago.

Deborah Borda, who runs Frank Gehry’s new Disney Hall in LA, declined last time and is not expected to change her mind. Henry Fogel, who quit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a $6 million deficit, will be called again, as will Clive Gillinson, the LSO manager. Gillinson, who ducked out last time for family reasons, may be more willing to make the move now that his kids are at college and his orchestra has achieved its resplendent centenary.

Two more British names are likely to appear on a very short list. Roger Wright, head of BBC Radio 3, has US form as former artistic administrator of the Cleveland Orchestra, and Peter Alward of EMI has close relationships with artists and tight budgetary skills.

These are, however, slim pickings for the world’s finest concert hall and glammiest opera house. Some may find the rewards inadequate. Neither company will disclose salary details, but both Harth and Volpe were in the half-a-million dollar bracket (Borda tops the pay league at $600,000), and that may not be enough for a 24/7 job. Borda was about to take her first day off in a fortnight last weekend when the stage director Robert Wilson asked to be shown around Disney on Sunday.

Nor does the boss necessarily have the best paid job. Backstage unions have won US bluecollar workers bigger rewards than their bosses – so much so that a wealthy Carnegie patron was once invited by one of the electricians onto his yacht.

But the dearth of leadership material is not a consequence of poor remuneration. It is, rather, the fault of a system which diffuses authority in too many directions. The boss of most opera houses and concerthalls (Carnegie excepted) has an artistic director who makes the fun decisions and a board of big givers who double-guess everything else. The boss’s hands are manacled. Initiative is stifled and financial setbacks swiftly punished. The manager of a tyre plant in Denver has more power to transform the product than the president of any US arts centre or opera house.

Things are no easier in continental Europe, where a government official sits in an office adjacent to the opera intendant’s, and certainly no freer in Britain where both the Arts Council and the Culture Department meddle incessantly with everyday business. If London’s South Bank has been quagmired in inertia for 19 years, that is not wholly the fault of limp chairmen and inept managers, for none has ever been allowed to take charge. This derogation of responsibility will not be remedied by well-meant training schemes for would-be arts managers.

A few bosses ignore their manacles and impose themselves on the job. Volpe overruled his artistic director and his board on numerous occasions and will actually downgrade Levine’s title before he departs. Gillinson restored the LSO to pomp and prosperity by cautious, charming, consensual measures. But they are two titans in a chain-gang. The lyric arts will never thrive until executive directors are allowed as much executive freedom as the managers of any industrial installation. The key to running a good arts centre is not a bottomless budget or flow of singing talent but the simple, straightforward right to get on with the job.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001