It's refreshing that New York City Opera has been leading arts coverage recently. I only wish it were for different reasons. At a press conference on July 12, NYCO's artistic and general director George Steel said, in response to a question from The New York Times's Daniel Wakin, that the company had no plans to dispense with the services of music director George Manahan. Members of the press corps who are inclined toward skepticism may have noted that Steel seemed peculiarly vague about how many months Manahan had to run on his contract.
Only three weeks later, the company announced that the position of music director was being eliminated. I have commented in other sections of OPERA NEWS on Steel's lack of candor in certain areas, and I'd prefer not to return to the subject here. What troubles me is this: what kind of future does NYCO have without a music director in place? One very important thing that music directors do is to block ham-handed artistic decisions from being put into play. If music directors are any good, they examine the artistic health and future of the opera company as a whole entity. (Obviously, guest conductors don't necessarily bring this concern to the table; often, they are focused on maximizing their isolated appearances at the opera houses, their eye very much on their own future.) An opera-house orchestra usually absorbs — for better or worse — the artistic personality of its music director. Without a single person at the helm, an orchestra runs the risk of sounding like a pack of musicians on a freelance gig. If all this isn't a compelling argument for the existence of a music director, what about this one (since money seems to dominate conversation in the opera world these days)? Music directors come armed with their own network of major donors. I know that New York City Opera is dealing with punishing financial realities, and I feel for the company. But for Steel and the board to treat this central position as if it were a mere vestige seems more than foolhardy. It seems maddeningly self-defeating.