The Lady Is Willing

In the interim between the departure of Paul Kellogg and the arrival of Gerard Mortier, New York City Opera board chair Susan L. Baker will take on an uncommonly hands-on executive role. She talks to F. PAUL DRISCOLL.

Photographed at the New York State
Theater by Peter Reitzfeld

© Peter Reitzfeld 2007
When it was announced in February that Gerard Mortier would succeed Paul Kellogg as general and artistic director of New York City Opera, it was clear that a prime mover behind bringing the Belgian-born impresario to Manhattan was Susan L. Baker, NYCO's board chair since 2003. Baker joined the board of NYCO in 1999, shortly after having what she terms a "seminal experience" at Stephen Wadsworth's NYCO staging of Handel's Xerxes, "a brilliant, brilliant production in every way." Born and raised in the greater Washington, D.C. area, Baker was educated at Wellesley and at Harvard Business School before beginning a highly successful career in finance. She says that she hasn't been "gainfully employed in some time, [which] gives me the time to devote to the sort of thing I love so much"; her other board affiliations in the New York City area include the Collegiate Chorale, of which she is chairman; the School of American Ballet; and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But it's clear that NYCO will take up the lion's share of Baker's time in the near future; she's volunteered to take a hands-on role in the running of the company until Mortier takes up his position full-time, in September 2009. OPERA NEWS spoke to Baker about the company's short- and long-term future in the City Opera offices in June 2007, just a few weeks before Kellogg's scheduled departure.

OPERA NEWS: Did Paul Kellogg's decision to step down come as a surprise?

It did, actually. I adore Paul. Paul is very youthful, very busy, very active. It never had occurred to us that he was actually reaching retirement age. But I am a firm believer that when somebody decides something is over - or decides that things are better done a different way - you really have to accept it. You can't force people to do things that they are not of the mind to do. Paul has decided that at this moment in his life it's time to smell the roses. But every challenge has embedded in it immense opportunity, and it's always my intention to try to see the positive in things. So after I regrouped, Paul and I had a long conversation about how we would proceed. He gave us a statesman-like couple of years - eighteen months or something like that - to get ourselves together.

How did the hiring of Gerard Mortier come about?

I had, of course, been aware - as most of the search committee had been - of Gerard Mortier for many years. If you're awake and not simply ethnocentrically American in your approach to the arts, you have to be aware of Gerard. [Laughs.] I was serendipitously seated next to Gerard at a dinner at the French Consulate. It was a dinner at which Gerard was meant to speak - he was there representing the Paris Opera - so it would have been enormously unseemly for me to have used it as a recruiting opportunity. What we did was just spend the dinner in conversation with one another. He is a great conversationalist. We really made something of a connection and left one another hoping that we'd run into one another in Paris or in New York next time, et cetera. And I came away thinking "Ah, wouldn't that be fabulous."

I didn't want to put anyone in an awkward position, so I approached Gerard over the course of the summer through a mutual acquaintance. Gerard was willing to discuss [coming here] as long we were open to doing something quite different at City Opera. Much as Gerard esteems what's been done at City Opera over the years, I don't think it is particularly of interest to him to follow exactly in the tradition.

He speaks so compellingly about the difficulties of really connecting emotionally with people because of the tremendous sensory overload we experience. In Gerard's mind, opera is about emotion. If he were here, he'd say this much more eloquently than I will, but what he has tried to do is to put people in touch with their emotions by showing them opera - various operas, new operas, old operas - in a way that they haven't seen or heard it before. He has had an enormous amount of press as a "bad-boy" of opera, but what he actually is doing is attempting to use every arrow in the quiver in service to the arts. He is white-hot passionate about making people feel the beauty of the music in a way that they haven't been feeling it in a long time. A tear trickling down the cheek is great success for him. Any sort of keen emotion is a great success for him.

In any case, it was clear that if we were willing to undertake a journey with him to let him do that sort of thing, then he was interested in being here.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about him?

Well, based on my rather short acquaintance with him, I can tell you that Gerard is a warm, articulate intellectual. He is not a sword-brandishing firebrand in the way much of the press depicts him. He is not afraid of doing something that is controversial, he's not afraid of … he's very grounded in his mission but he is also an extremely decent individual. This notion that he is about shock for shock's sake runs absolutely counter to what the man is actually all about. He uses the mind in service of the heart.

Mr. Mortier arrives in the fall of 2009. So what about the 2008-09 season? Is that already planned? Who will plan it?

We have a rather advanced draft prepared of 2008-09, which is actually the last of the Paul Kellogg seasons. The question before the house is, "What will we really do in '08-09?" Our '08-09 season was intended to be a season of signature revivals that would give people an opportunity to see what City Opera has been all about, before we undertake the Mortier vision. But I believe that it would be reasonable for me to link our conversation about '08-09 with some of the strategic issues we're considering, with respect to the New York State Theater and City Opera's role within the city.

You will have read, I'm sure, much of Gerard's strategy about where we're headed. For example, he's embraced the New York State Theater as [New York City Opera's] home, because he believes that we can make acoustical adaptations to the theater that will make it more opera-friendly. At this point in time, it also makes perfect sense for us to hold hands with the [New York City Ballet] and look at changes that they might want to make in the building, some changes that we'll want to make and some changes the city will be very happy to see us make in this city-owned building.

But at the same time, while this theater will be home for Gerard and for New York City Opera, we'd like to take the opera to other places within the city. We hope to be performing a number of site-specific works in a number of important venues around the city. We're in preliminary conversations and very excited about working at, for example, the [Seventh Regiment] Armory [on Park Avenue], New York City Center and the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Baker with Kellogg
With Kellogg at NYCO's 2004 opening-
night gala

© Patrick McMullan/photo by Michael Loccisano/
PMc 2007
ON: This is all for '08-09 or for '09-10?

2009-10. And in order to be in the position to produce the '09-10 season in the way Gerard wishes, we will need to have finished the adaptations to the State Theater in time for his first season. Lincoln Center is in the process of a major redevelopment effort that is intended to be finished in the early fall of '09. Gerard's first season starts just about then. [New York City Opera and New York City Ballet] would like to be finished with what we want to do with the State Theater by then, so that we can participate fully in the year-long festivities that will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking for Lincoln Center. We also want all of these changes complete in time for Gerard's arrival. So, it is possible that for part of the 08-09 season, it may be necessary for us to be dark for a little bit.

You've mentioned in the press that you see yourself taking a more active role in the day-to-day running of the company until Mr. Mortier gets here. How will that manifest itself?

I spend a lot of time here. I don't have an office here, but I'm always available for consultation. I don't have a staff title, and I don't think it's particularly appropriate for me to have one. We have a fabulous staff with whom I've been working quite closely since Paul announced his impending retirement. Gerard will be here often - maybe 25 percent of his time from now until he finishes his contract with Paris Opera in 2009. Strategically, there are actually a fair number of areas that it makes good sense for a board chair to be involved with. Anything involving the Lincoln Center relationships is something that I've always been quite close to. And I'm also quite involved in trying to keep the liaison with Gerard as focused and as clear as possible.

The City Opera's relationship with Glimmerglass Opera doesn't seem to be something that's part of your future right now. Is that connection something that will be replaced?

The Glimmerglass-City Opera relationship was a wonderful element of Paul Kellogg's tenure, and there were great things in City Opera's repertory that had their early days at Glimmerglass. That said, I think that for anyone who's seen much of Gerard's work, it's probably safe to say that there's a good chunk of what was done as a coproduction [with Glimmerglass] that doesn't particularly fall between the goal posts now. Gerard has a rich network of working relationships, so I imagine that we'll be doing a fair number of coproductions with institutions in this country and in other countries. We probably won't wed another organization for multiple coproductions in the way that we were wed to Glimmerglass.

One of the things that has always distinguished City Opera in the past is the quality and loyalty of its singers - artists who made a real commitment to the company. How has the definition of a "City Opera singer" changed?

You know - and I think many people don't - that New York City Opera, which is often called the "people's opera," actually was founded by [New York mayor] Fiorello LaGuardia in 1944, in an era when there was an enormous influx of extraordinarily cultivated immigrants from Europe to New York and to the United States. La Guardia believed that it was very important to provide this audience an enormously high quality of opera, and that it should be accessible, and that it should be innovative and wonderful. If you go back and look at what City Opera has done over the years, there's been enormous innovation here. It was and is a thinking person's opera company.

There have always been fabulous performers here. At one point, American opera singers really didn't have a chance in some companies - City Opera was always a place where American opera singers were given great chances. They were nurtured, they were cultivated. New York City Opera became a truly wonderful artistic community for American singers, and as time went on, they found great careers elsewhere. All of that is fantastic. These are thoughts that haven't been vetted with anyone at all, but as I ruminate on the subject, I imagine that the City Opera singer of today would be one of the wonderful, young, fabulous artists who come from this country - singers who have dramatic skills and who look the parts that they play. But I also believe that - as an institution - we'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn't take a look at some of the fabulous singers who have been emerging for several years from Asia and Eastern Europe. We already have some of those singers here. I can imagine that, with Gerard's more recent experience in that part of the world, we may well be doing more of that.

Because this will always be a company where young singers will be nurtured and brought along, there may be one further nuance to the arrangement in the future. Gerard feels very, very strongly - as we've learned in our further conversations over the course of the courting process and more recently the more focused conversations -that it's very important for City Opera to provide enhanced opportunities and perhaps enhanced facilities for rehearsal. Although these are the things that every previous administration has always wanted to do, this seems to be one of the legs of the strategic stool for Gerard. It won't happen instantly upon Gerard's arrival, but I do think that we will judiciously explore the development of additional rehearsal spaces and that we'll be very careful to include in our budgeting the sort of rehearsal time that Gerard thinks these young artists really require. They'll continue to enjoy the warmth and excitement that the City Opera experience always has. With any luck, that experience will include a little bit more in the way of rehearsal time. We hope to provide some of those young singers an enhanced commitment, so that they will consider themselves part of the City Opera family over time.

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