Why Opera Boston's Closing Should Really Scare New Yorkers

Tuesday, December 27, 2011 - 09:36 AM

In the midst of the holiday season, Bostonians were hit with the unwelcome news that the city’s second opera company, Opera Boston, would close its doors as of January 1.

Staff members were notified on December 22 following a board meeting two days earlier that sealed the company’s fate. According to the Boston Globe’s Geoff Edgers, at least six of the 17 board members were not present at this meeting, which ended in a vote to disband. Edgers also implies that this was not a unanimous decision: Stephen M. Weiner resigned from the board over disputes with leadership, which included an edict that newer members not be included in financial problem-solving. “There were a number of people who, once they began to realize there was a financial problem, wished to have it addressed,” Weiner told the Globe. “They were not consulted.’’

As of press time, Opera Boston (who did not respond immediately to a request for comment) is still advertising its February production of Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage on its Web site, where it is also soliciting donations and teasing another future production of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. No mention is made of the company’s impending closure; in fact there is still an active job posting for a director of development. The company’s last tweet was sent on November 8, touting a recital by company member Hae Ji Chang.

This past January, Opera Boston experienced a turnover in leadership with Lesley Koenig (a former assistant manager and director of productions at the Met and general manager of San Francisco Ballet) taking over for founding general director Carole Charnow. The decision less than a year later to dissolve the company entirely comes as a shock even to Koenig, who was in California when she received the news. “I came in and made every effort to bring the institution to the next stage. And I’m very sorry the board has made this decision,” she told the Globe. Moreover, according to Edgers, founder and president emeritus Randolph Fuller denied financial problems when contacted earlier this month.

Opera Boston's production of The Nose. 

The news is indeed, as Koenig put it, “a tragedy for Boston.” While Boston Lyric Opera, New England’s largest opera company, produces its fair share of crowd-pleasing productions, its output allowed more than enough room for two companies to coexist in the same city. Even with two of BLO’s four productions this year coming from the contemporary pool (Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse and John Musto’s The Inspector), Opera Boston filled a particular niche for rare works from all eras, garnering praise as a thinking-person’s company. Its recent productions included a Fidelio starring Christine Goerke, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw, the North American premiere of Eötvös’s Angels in America, a highly-praised showing of The Nose prior to the opera’s Met debut and the 2010 world premiere of Zhou Long’s Madame White Snake, a work that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music. For all its accolades, attendance was still touch-and-go.

Many have attributed this closure to the notion that Boston is “not an opera town,” according to Charnow. However, difficult though it may be to run an opera company anywhere, even in Boston (where this reporter was born) with numerous failed companies in its past, there are still issues that extend beyond the climate and setting. Boston is the home to New England Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music. It’s readily accessible to Rhode Island, which has a solid music program at Brown University, and the city also sustains one of the country’s highest-regarded symphony orchestras. To blame this on the environment is ignoring greater issues.

At its core, Opera Boston’s issues were financial. According to Edgers, the company had a $220,000 deficit when Koenig came in. Twelve months later, that number had more than doubled to $500,000 (which was also the number quoted as the budget for The Midsummer Marriage). Freelance musicians for the company filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office to chase down payments.

However, such problems don’t crop up overnight, nor do they come unfounded. The events that occurred in the week of Opera Boston’s announced closure are indicative of a mismanaged board and company. The suddenness of the announcement has also raised eyebrows among fans, employees, former board members and journalists. And, unfortunately, what it also shows is that the merits and survival of a company rely in no small part on its leadership. Even given Koenig’s own esteemed pedigree, the company still folded.

Opera Boston's production of Fidelio.

As I write this on a train that originated in Boston and will leave me back in New York, I realize very intimately how close the two cities are and, baseball and accents notwithstanding, how similar they are. The sad story of Opera Boston is blamed on the city itself, but many of the events mirror the continued demise of our own New York City Opera. Many of that company’s missions—such as a focus on new and rare works, including premieres that have gone on to net Pulitzers—are similar to Opera Boston’s.

And while the decision to leave Lincoln Center has proven to be truly controversial, and the idea of becoming a roving company still bound to leave many with misgivings, even that radical change could be sustained with strong leadership. George Steel is, like Koenig, a keen artistic mind with a successful track record at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre and some stellar productions at City Opera. But, like Koenig, it’s hard to see how he will be able to successfully steer this ship with an equally unstable board and administrative situation. Sadly, the company has yet to recover from the stillbirth hiring of Gerard Mortier in 2007.

We’ve seen the effects these issues have had in Boston. What we’ll see from City Opera this year as it (hopefully) makes steps toward a February season opener at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is still anyone’s guess. But the precedent set is scary.

Was Opera Boston's best option to close? Could this influence other companies around the country? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo credits: Clive Grainger.


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Comments [14]

constancew from Massachusetts.

We've been enthusiastic season ticket-holders for Opera Boston for years. There is no excuse for what this bizarre board of directors has done. No one was consulted, there was no fund-raising, no outreach made for support; they just up and pulled the plug--and thus ripped us off to the tune of $500 we can ill afford. The Opera Boston company was great; they earned and deserved our support. Those who orchestrated (as it were) this debacle deserve our censure.

Jan. 05 2012 03:08 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

I saw great performances at New York City opera. I deplore that they went crazy during the last years trying to change the repertory into a specialized contemporary style.

Dec. 30 2011 11:29 PM
Carol F. Yost from New York City

So sorry to hear about this major opera company of Boston. Also, I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of it, but I haven't been Boston way very much. It distresses me to hear of its closing nonetheless, because Boston is such an important cultural center. I agree with those who say that we need younger audiences for opera. At 66, I'm the average age for an operagoer. Like others, I've been an operagoer for many years.

I've also been very distressed about New York City Opera. Sometimes it has veered into bad taste, but over the course of its history it has been an adventurous company that presented both the classics and the new works. It also has had stunning stage sets and costumes. It was also somewhat less expensive than the Met. Its singers tended to be younger; in fact, I think that often people started at NYCO and then crossed the plaza to the Met. I think NYCO was seen as a young upstart and the Met as somewhat stodgy but more prestigious. One of NYCO's best recent projects--and I hope this can continue--is VOX, the annual presentation of scenes from brand new operas or operas in process of being written.

Dec. 29 2011 10:53 PM
Neil Myers from Yonkers, NY

I am a lover of classical music, a regular opera goer since my teens, and my father-in-law played for over 30 years in the Met Orchestra. We love opera!

When I attend the Met I am at 48, one of the younger members of the audience. My six year old son recently attended a dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville, which he enjoyed immensely.

But youth at the Opera are an increasing rarity. The opera world is in danger of entirely losing not one but two generations. It cannot survive appealing only to the 60 plus audience.

Modern "music" has killed the popular taste for classical singing amongst the young. The Met and other Opera companies must make a major effort toward getting opera into the schools and offering all manner of programs to get youth involved (not just watching once in a blue moon) in the world of classical opera.

A sustained effort of innovative programs where opera goes to the schools over the next twenty years may if we are lucky, avert the evil day when live opera becomes a memory of something "grandpa and grandma used to do", like using a phone booth.

No amount of Broadway style productions or gimmicks will replace getting the message to the kids directly, so that they can appreciate the wonder, joy excitement and sheer beauty of opera.

If opera is to survive it must appeal and live in the hearts and minds of each succeeding generation, so that it can be supported and sustained.

Dec. 29 2011 10:04 PM
David from Flushing

As I have mentioned in the past, there would be virtually no audiences for classical music today without the over age 60 crowd. What will happen in 20 years or so is obvious.

First, we we see the demise of the lesser tier companies, then some major ones located in deteriorated cities. The NY Phil and the Met are likely to survive being in New York City, but I am not so certain about things in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, etc.

As the song goes in "Gigi,""I'm glad I'm not young anymore."

Dec. 29 2011 09:54 AM

Each time I read about this story I am saddened. Half a million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but it seems like a surmountable sum of money. From an outsider's perspective it seems like the Board just quit.

Dec. 29 2011 06:18 AM
Stanley Moon from New York

Nicola from Manhattan - You don't really know who preceded George Steel at Miller Theater, do you? I'll give you a clue: his name was not Mike Rogers. The rest of your post is completely misinformative as well.

Dec. 28 2011 04:14 PM
Josh from hudson, MA

the author's description of the musical environment seems odd to me. I guess that Brown University may add to the Boston musical environment, but certainly no more than the FOUR conservatories and Boston University. I mean, to single out Berklee in an article about opera doesn't make a ton of sense....

Dec. 27 2011 07:12 PM
Nicola from Manhattan

My last sentence in my previous post did not appear in its proper form. It should have read: The only thing that Steel is really capable of is selling himself.

A last word: this reader was surprised to learn that George Steel's departure from Dallas opera was imminent after 3 months, not because NYCO beckoned, but because he has no love of 19th century opera - a strong suit for a company that gave its first performance in 1957 with Maria Callas in Rossini's opera- The Italian Girl in Algiers. George Steel does not know opera. Hence: NYCO is doomed.

Dec. 27 2011 06:04 PM
Andrew from clefpalette.wordpress.com

Plenty of locals here in Beantown pin Opera Boston's demise on conservative tastes (one commentator summed it up as "not enough Beethoven for Boston!"), and there's always the specter of dwindling audiences for this music. Yet even if that were the case, local tastes and audiences of less than Gagatastic proportions are nothing new to opera companies. As this piece points out, funding and leadership are the bottom line.

As an expatriate New Yorker now living in Boston (the complete opposite of the author's path!), it's refreshing and quite sad to hear "it can even happen here in NYC," but it needed to be said.

Dec. 27 2011 05:06 PM
Stephen Lord from Bolton, MA

I would love to discuss this in a less public forum.

Dec. 27 2011 03:38 PM
Nicola from Manhattan

A recent article in the January issue of Opera News (The Ballad of NYCO) recounts the death spiral of a revered company which reached its height under Beverly Sills. Its board problems, like that of Opera Boston, seem to be the crucial factor. In both cases, it is a matter of wealthy underwriters who, it should be recognized, know nothing about running an opera company. Yes. New Yorkers should be worried. Mr. Steel's gambit is bound to fail since he is not the visionary he claims to be. His tenure at the Miller Theater was funded by a board which did all the fundraising, and the program he touts as his own was founded by his predecessor- a Mr. Mike Rogers. The only Steel is that of being able to sell himself.

Dec. 27 2011 02:40 PM
William V. Madison from New York City

What a thoughtful, beautifully written essay. I had been planning to visit Boston in February for that 'Midsummer Marriage,' but now I'm unable to count the opportunities I'll miss.

Dec. 27 2011 12:04 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

New Yorkers are already so shell-shocked over what has become of the New York City Opera that when they hear about Opera Boston, it just gives them a very cold PTSD shiver of a nightmare out of hell.

Dec. 27 2011 10:57 AM

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