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New York City Opera Chair Steps Down

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Susan Baker, the chairwoman of New York City Opera who presided over a turbulent period that included the ill-fated hiring of Gerard Mortier as general manager, will step down in December, the company announced Thursday. Baker, who is 59, has been chairwoman since 2003. Charles R. Wall, a former tobacco company lawyer who served on City Opera's board of directors from 2001 to 2008, will succeed her as chairman.

In a phone interview Friday, Wall expressed optimism about the company's future, noting that he intends to focus on fundraising and recruiting new board members.

"I think they’ve done a pretty good job, frankly, from where they were," he said. "Last season was well received. The finances are getting in better shape, though lots of work needs to be done."

Wall's predecessor presided over several crises during her seven-year tenure. Chief among them was the ambitious attempt to hire Mortier, the high-profile, iconoclastic Belgian opera director, as a replacement for the company’s outgoing general manager, Paul Kellogg, in 2007. Mortier held the position for less than a year, however, only to resign on the grounds that the $60 million operating budget he was expecting had dwindled to $36 million.

Baker’s tenure was also marked by ongoing efforts to find a new home for the company. She sought to make City Opera a cultural anchor at the World Trade Center site, a plan that never came to fruition. Negotiations to build a house on the site of the former American Red Cross New York headquarters on Amsterdam Avenue also didn’t work out.

The Mortier marriage was tumultuous. Upon his arrival, the director insisted that the New York State Theater, the home City Opera shares with New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, should be renovated. This forced the company to abandon its regular 2008-09 season in favor of sporadic performances elsewhere. During this period, the company saw a sharp decline in revenue, which coincided with the global financial crisis. For the 2008-2009 season, City Opera posted a $19.9 million deficit.

After terminating his contract with City Opera in fall 2008, Mortier decamped for Madrid's Teatro Real opera house.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, George Steel, the opera’s general manager and artistic director, said he did not know of any particular reason beyond her lengthy tenure for Baker’s departure as chairwoman. “Susan brought the company through some of the most challenging economic times in history, and she stuck with it until the company was on stable financial footing,” he told the Journal.

New York Times Reporter Dan Wakin says Baker left the job because she thinks the City Opera needs a change in leadership.

"She had been there for seven years and felt that it was proper governance to turn over the chairmanship," Wakin says. He adds that Wall was a natural choice. "Mr. Wall was on the board for seven or eight years and so was very familiar with City Opera. He was obviously a familiar figure in the corporate world and understands business."

Wall is the recently retired vice chairman and general counsel of Philip Morris International and has been involved with the City Opera in various capacities since his days as a VP at the Altria Group, a onetime corporate supporter of the company. He is also a major supporter of the Aspen Music Festival and School and is said to have been a music enthusiast since childhood, when his father took him to the St. Louis Municipal Opera. He takes the title chairman-designate until his official start date of December 16.

Wall believes that that the company's biggest missteps in the past decade were centered around the plans for a move. "Did we waste a lot of time and energy on that? Probably. But I can’t say it was wrong."

City Opera opens its fall season on October 27 with Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, a once-panned opera about a long marriage that’s told through a series of flashbacks. The opera is characteristic of George Steel’s decision to advocate offbeat and modern works in addition to standard fare. Last season, the company presented Esther, a once-neglected opera by Hugo Weisgall.

With additional reporting from Abbie Fentress Swanson.