Gerard Mortier Reneges on Plan to Take Helm of New York City Opera


Company is Left Clambering for New General Director to Arrange Details of 2009-10 Season

Gerard Mortier, who last year was named as the incoming general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera, has reneged on the plan to join the company at the beginning of next season because of City Opera's financial difficulties.

Mortier, whom the City Opera announced as its incoming chief in February 2007, was to have reinvigorated the troubled company by mounting innovative productions of twentieth-century repertoire and by extending its audience outreach initiatives around the city. Now the company will reportedly abandon Mortier's tentative plans for its 2009-10 season, and is actively looking for an administrator that might help arrange the details of next season. For its current season, with its home, the New York State Theater, undergoing major renovations, City Opera will only present two concert performances of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra at Carnegie Hall as well as five orchestral concerts highlighting repertoire that was to have been featured during Mortier's inaugural programming.

In an interview with the New York Times, Mortier attributed his decision to withdraw from his agreement with City Opera to the lack of funds that would have been made available to him by the company's board. Mortier told the Times that his contract with City Opera had specified a budget of $60 million, but that the amount that the board had intended to put at his disposal was approximately $36 million. Mortier told the Times that this amount would only have covered the basic fixed costs of running the opera.

"I told them with the best will I can't do that," Mr. Mortier, who is currently near the end of his tenure as the director of the Opéra National de Paris - which has a budget of some $300 million - is quoted as telling the Times. "I cannot go to run a company that has less than the smallest company in France. […] You don't need me for that. New York City Opera, which the Times reports is carrying a $15 million deficit, had been operating during previous seasons on a budget of nearly $42 million. In the past two months, the company, facing clear financial challenges, was both forced to dismiss a number of employees as well as furlough staff members because of a lack of capital with which to pay them.

Susan L. Baker, City Opera's chairwoman and the person responsible for bringing Mortier to the company, told the Times that the current economic crisis was to blame for City Opera's lack of capital, and that while the opera's board felt no ill will toward Mortier it was "enormously discouraged and disappointed." The opera's board reportedly plans to restore the position of executive director within the company, which Mortier eliminated when he agreed to accept the job.

"The irony of all this, I really believe and many others do as well, is if we could simply have gotten the first season on the boards, it really would have galvanized fund-raising," Baker is quoted as saying.

Mortier's 2009-10 season was to have included productions of Messiaen's St. François d'Assise, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, Jana ček's Makropulous Case, Britten's Death in Venice and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Now it appears as if the company's board must create plans for its 2009-10 season from scratch - a daunting prospect in an industry that regularly works several years in advance - without an chief administrator running the organization. In addition, during the months leading up to the scheduled beginning of his tenure, Mortier had commissioned operas from Philip Glass and Charles Wuorinen, who were to have composed works based a fictionalized biography of Walt Disney and Brokeback Mountain, respectively. According to the Times, Mortier plans to gauge other companies' interests in adopting both projects.

In September, Mortier and Nike Wagner, one of Richard Wagner's great-granddaughters, presented an unsuccessful bid to the board of Germany's Bayreuth Festival that would have seen the two sharing directorship of the historic, six-week-long summer festival. In an email to reporters at the time, Mortier claimed that his Bayreuth endeavor was intended as a message to the board of New York City Opera, which he claimed remained unsure about his plans for the company and had fallen behind in requisite fund raising.

More information can be found at New York Times, New York City Opera and the OPERA NEWS Archives.

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