Monday, May 07, 2007

Déjà Vu à la Belge

Allow me to don my Carnac the Magnificent headgear for a moment and make the following prediction: Gerard Mortier's tenure as head of the New York City Opera will be brief and ill-starred. I say this without pleasure, indeed with a fervent hope to be proven wrong; but also without much doubt. The reason is that I lived through Pamela Rosenberg's brief and ill-starred tenure as head of the San Francisco Opera, and the parallels seem to be shaping up with eerie exactitude.

It would be simplistic and wrong to call Rosenberg's stewardship of the San Francisco Opera a failure — her time here was marked by an invigorating spirit of adventure, and of course a number of genuine theatrical triumphs, including Saint François d'Assise, Le Grand Macabre, and Doctor Atomic. But it was also based on some very deep-rooted errors in judgment, both by her and by the folks who hired her. And the most fundamental one can be summed up in two hypothetical sentences: "It worked in Europe. Why on earth wouldn't it work here?"

You can take that "it" to refer to any number of things: repertoire choices, production styles, casting decisions, marketing strategies, financial priorities. They all apply. The Rosenberg era was based on a belief that San Francisco could become Stuttgart if we all just wished it hard enough. But Peter Pan isn't an opera, and the observers (out-of-towners, mostly) who still insist that Rosenberg was "run out of town" by mobs of provincial burghers-by-the-bay are actually just mad at reality for failing to conform to their own desires.

Now comes M. Mortier, with what looks from here like the exact same game plan. The priorities he cites in this morning's New York Times interview with Dan Wakin include the familiar intention to "bring in fresh European faces as directors," and his repertoire choices are positively Rosenbergesque: Stravinsky, Janácek, Bartók, and — oh, yeah — Saint François d'Assise.

Well, look, those are my repertoire choices, too; and when I win ten lotteries and can support my own opera company, they'll be on the boards nightly. But the real world isn't so malleable. Because here, if you'll forgive me, is the money quote:

Mr. Mortier said two prospects "scared" him. One is having to raise large amounts of money from private donors without the kind of government money that finances the Paris National Opera.

Exactly. Of all the things that don't replicate well from one side of the Atlantic to the other, funding is number one on the list. Maybe two, three, and four as well. And from there, all things flow.

"It worked in Europe. Why on earth wouldn't it work here?" If history is any guide, M. Mortier and the board that hired him may find out soon enough.


At 5/07/2007 10:50 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, damn, you are so right.

At 5/08/2007 8:31 AM, Blogger StephanieD said...

I was struck by those same two fears of Mr. Mortier. For crying out loud, why did City Opera hire someone who is fearful of trying to raise money??? The combo of in-your-face, I-don't-care-what-you-think programming and seemingly not having a fundraising plan or even a fundraising mindset is a recipe for disaster.

At 5/09/2007 7:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the fundraising issue - the $64,000 question, or rather, the $6 million question. I too doubt he'll be able to do it.

But there are a couple of reasons I think the San Francisco parallel doesn't quite fit here.

One: San Francisco has only one opera company (with a relatively short season at that), so opera-lovers who hated Pamela Rosenberg's innovations had nowhere else to go. But City Opera is New York's second company. It constantly needs to distinguish itself from the Met; that Mortier is offering it a distinct profile is to the good.

Two: San Francisco is not New York. This relates to One, above: the city is smaller so doesn't have the opera public to sustain a longer season. (At least, I assume that's why the season is short.)

In New York, operas done at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (almost always European imports) regularly draw an audience of people that you never see at Lincoln Center (and CERTAINLY not at City Opera). There is an audience out there; the question is whether Mortier can get its attention.

At 5/09/2007 11:52 AM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Anne, thanks for your thoughtful comments. If you agree that Mortier is going to have money problems, then surely that's the same as agreeing that he's going to go up in flames, probably sooner rather than later. The rest is quibbling over details. But sure, let's quibble.

You're quite right that the difference in size between NY and SF is determinative, and that I rather overlooked that in my post. New York is big enough to sustain two companies (good) which also imposes a burden on the Avis company to present a clear alternative. But that in itself is not sufficient defense for just any artistic program — I mean, dancing bears would also be an alternative to the Met. The question is whether GM has hit on the right, or canny, one.

I'm also not persuaded by the BAM example. The fact that those audiences don't go to Lincoln Center suggests that they're not the audiences GM needs most: i.e. opera-goers first, who will then quibble and debate about the merits of this approach versus that. I have every faith that Mortier can get the attention of the BAM crowd; whether he can get their support — donations, subscriptions, loyalty, etc. — seems much more doubtful.

BTW: The SF Opera season is short not because the city can't sustain a longer one (though that's entirely possible) but because the company shares its house with the SF Ballet, which is there all spring.

At 5/09/2007 10:11 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Anne, why don't you have your own blog???

Joshua, I had that same thought about why the SF Opera season is short, but City Opera is in a similar position with New York City Ballet. NYCO still manages to put on more productions per year, 15 to our 8 to 11. I think they can do it because they pay singers less. Top fee there is something like $7,500 per performance. I'm betting SFO pays more than that.

At 5/10/2007 9:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josh, I hear you on the BAM audience, but I don't think City Opera's current audience is the audience Mortier needs most, either. The real point is that a new audience needs to be stirred up, and I do think there's a new audience out there. I don't know if Mortier can get it, but the way to find it is to steer an entirely new artistic course, rather than offering a pale we-are-not-the-Met approach.

And I give him more credit than the dancing bears - after all, he did reinvent Salzburg, ultimately successfully (though some hated, hated, hated him for it). He may not be exactly setting Paris on fire at the moment, but he still has more savvy than putting "just any artistic program" up on the boards.

But yes, I know, in Salzburg he had money. The question is whether he can get the Euro crowd, the cutting-edge art crowd, all the people who pour money into, say, MoMA, to pull out their checkbooks.

As for blogs - thanks for asking, Lisa. That question has a long and complicated answer.

At 5/10/2007 7:03 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

I used to think the Times had something to do with it, and then Steve Smith started his blog, and I realized it was something else...

At 5/12/2007 7:16 AM, Blogger Alex Ross said...

Josh, you may well be right, but I'm siding a little more with Anne on this one. One big difference between Mortier and Pamela Rosenberg is that Mortier has a knack for what might be called show business. A different, Euro sort of show business, true, but he has the ability to arrange spectacles that get people talking, pro and con. Pamela was always a bit too earnest to play the publicity game.

Also, I'm impressed by Mortier's ability to take risks on younger or more far-out artists. He helped to invent Mark Morris, of course. Who would have thought that Saariaho could write a classic modern opera? Who is going to give Peter Sellars the environment he needs? (Not Peter Gelb.) If Mortier finds the next Morris, Sellars, Saariaho, etc. then he will have an opera house that will be much more than a site of controversial productions.

None of that addresses the money issue directly, of course. But the right combination of elements could bring in a different kind of money to the house, the arty downtown crowd (which includes some of the super-wealthy hedge-fund types) and the European internationals and so on.

This is the optimistic case, at least. If Mortier thinks he can conquer New York with Cosi at Columbine or whatever, he is indeed completely doomed. Americans have never gone for that kind of opera production and I am pretty sure they never will.

At 5/30/2007 12:45 PM, Blogger Drew80 said...

One thing Mortier has going for him is the fact that he is very, very smart, perhaps even cunning. I would not necessarily bet against his chances for success in New York.

I do not think that Mortier would have accepted the New York City Opera job if he were not fairly confident that he could raise the necessary money and present a repertory capable of attracting an audience in New York. There is a very practical side to Mortier, and people should not overlook this.

I would not write him off quite yet.

At 9/22/2007 6:28 PM, Blogger Henry Holland said...

The broad outlines of Mr. Mortier's first season were released this week:

Death in Venice
St. Francois de Assisi
Pelleas et Melisande
Makropolous Case
Nixon in China
Einstein on the Beach
Rake's Progress

Nothing too "out there" there, pretty mainstream 20th century stuff. Luckily, no Handel or musicals or fourth-rate Traviata's.


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