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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

A tale of two cities

By Norman Lebrecht / June 26, 2009

This is the tale of two city operas, both of which present high art at popular prices. That contradiction has landed both companies in trouble, but where English National Opera (ENO) in London has turned around its fortunes to enjoy unbounded acclaim, New York City Opera faces a rump season that may, many fear, be its last.

It is no surprise that most of the problems afflicting the New York company have already befallen ENO yet such is Cityís insularity that it has made no attempt to study the London story and learn from its redemptive outcome. Letís see if we can help.

ENO was formed in 1931 as the Sadlers Wells Opera by Lilian Baylis, a high-minded spinster who would drop to her knees in budget meetings to seek divine guidance. Its historic high points were the world premiere of Benjamin Brittenís Peter Grimes six weeks after the end of World War Two and the 1980s Powerhouse Years of conductor Mark Elder, director David Pountney and general manager Peter Jonas who promoted a contemporary production style with a fast track to making headlines.

Mozartís Magic Flute was billboarded by a naked man with a snake round his torso. One season was devoted exclusively to 20th century opera. The family show of Hansel and Gretel was turned into a psychological thriller by the simple device of having the same singer play both mother and child-baking witch.

But after Jonas moved to run Bavarian State Opera in 1993, a black hole appeared in the finances which, despite Ďstabilisation grantsí from the Government-backed Arts Council, plunged the company into perpetual crisis. A production of Jenufa almost blew up in rehearsal when an untested stage director insisted on a catch-it session with tennis balls. A female music director, Sian Edwards, was ousted in a musiciansí putsch. A capable general director, Nicholas Payne, was removed by the board for failing to share information; he was replaced by an ingenu Irishman, Sean Doran, whose CV highlight was a festival in Perth, Australia.

The board chairman, Martin Smith, was a high-powered investment banker, a director of NewStar asset management, who made million-pound donations to companies he chaired. The downside was that he treated artists as personal staff, referring to music director Paul Daniel as Ďbeing in charge of the music side of the businessí. Daniel quit soon after, to be replaced by Oleg Caeteni, a friend of Doranís from Australia. When Doran was departed in a box-office frost, Smith and Caetani were swept away and the Arts Council warned that any further losses would bring the company to shutdown.

Compare and contrast the plight of New York City Opera. Founded in 1943 by Mayor Antonio La Guardia with tickets at 75 cents, City enjoyed its high noon under the much-loved Julius Rudel (1957-79) and Beverly Sills (1979-88), who nurtured home talent, staged American operas and fostered public debate and ownership in a manner unimagined at the haughty Met. Sills, herself a fine singer, was tireless in raising funds and rigorous in maintaining performing standards. City was the peopleís opera, a place where you didnít have pay through the nose or dress up to enjoy good singing.

The troubles set in when Cityís board toyed with moving from Lincoln Center to new premises at Ground Zero. The retiring Paul Kellogg was replaced with the Belgian peacock Gerard Mortier, high-spending, high-maintenance ex-director of the Salzburg Festival and the Paris Opera. Mortier proposed to tilt at the Met with daring modern operas only to quit last year, complaining of restricted budgets, leaving City leaderless and financially exposed. Then the credit crunch kicked in.

The companyís chair, Susan L Baker, a financier formerly with Goldman Sachs, responded to the Mortier walkout by pursuing rookie George Steel, a recent recruit to Dallas Opera. Steel, 41, was faced with an $11 million deficit and an endowment that had been drained from $51 million in 2001 to a barrel-scraping $3 million. He scrambled together a season of just five shows, among them a new Don Giovanni from director Christopher Alden and a revival of Hugo Weisgallís Esther, a biblical epic that made no ripples first time round beyond the island of Manhattan. Next year's finances will look even worse, since Baker and her board had decided to stop staging operas for a full season so the theatre's pit could be expanded. (ENO, while renovating the Coliseum in 2003-4, confined the main building works to the close season so the opera could carry on singing). There have been calls for Bakerís resignation and few expect Steelís patch-up to win many friends. Still, it is not too late for City to claw itself back from the brink if it follows the ENO track.

What turned ENO around after 15 years of disarray and three of perpetual crisis was the tight-budget chairmanship of a new chairman Vernon Ellis, the courage to hire a 30 year-old music director Edward Gardner and the desperate dedication of a makeshift management team of artistic director John Berry and chief executive Loretta Tomasi. The first shoots of success came in a co-production link with New York's Metropolitan Opera which brought about Anthony Minghella's blockbuster ``Madam Butterfly'' and John Adams's nuclear epic, ``Doctor Atomic.''

Next season ENO will have 12 new productions, led by Gyorgy Ligeti's ``Le Grand Macabre'' and the first company staging of Mozart's ``Idomeneo'' in almost half a century. The company made a clean sweep of the Royal Philharmonic Society's opera awards and is closing the season with record attendance numbers.

So, can City bounce back? Having watched ENO unravel and revive, I believe there are three lessons that City can learn. First, caution always fails. The only way to save an opera company is to spend on bold new shows. Even if they flop, they create waves.

Second, more is less. The more productions you put on, the better your chances of reducing deficits by attracting a bigger audience and a larger sponsor base. That message is being missed at City where Steel has planned 31 performances on a $30 million budget, a million dollars a night for nothing very interesting. Last season ENO staged 130 performances for $46 million, which looks like very good value for money.

Third, the show ain't over until the large bailiff sings. Dragged to within inches of the bankruptcy courts, ENO averted closure by means of artistic triumph. The way back for City is to appoint a chairman untainted by failure, and a general director who is prepared to take calculated operatic risks.

A version of this article appeared first on

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



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