Leader of NY's City Opera is stepping down

November 8, 2008 5:33:43 AM PST
The general manager-designate and artistic director of City Opera, who was aiming to revolutionize the company as it renovated its Lincoln Center home, is leaving his position amid deep financial problems at the organization. City Opera issued a statement Friday confirming the news about the departure of Gerard Mortier before he took on the job full time in the 2009-10 season. City Opera had already scrapped its season at Lincoln Center while construction was under way and said it would now abandon at least some of the plans Mortier had for future productions.

As the opera assessed its fundraising prospects in the weak economy, its leaders concluded they wouldn't have the resources to carry out Mortier's aims, board chairwoman Susan L. Baker said in an interview. The painful decision had to be made now because of a looming deadline for printing brochures cementing the 2009-10 schedule, she said.

"You can't proceed on a wing and a prayer. You have to have it in hand," Baker said of the necessary funding. "We have to be financially prudent."

New works commissioned from Philip Glass and Charles Wuorinen are unlikely to be presented, Baker said. Glass' opera was to imagine the final months in the life of Walt Disney; Wuorinen's was on the theme of the Oscar-winning film "Brokeback Mountain."

A plan to stage Oliver Messiaen's "Saint Francois D'Assise" at the Seventh Regiment Armory also will probably be called off, she said.

Other productions Mortier had planned for 2009-10 and the following season may go on, depending on talks between him and his replacement, whom Baker said the opera hoped to find within three weeks.

She said Mortier had made "extraordinary plans" for his first three seasons with City Opera. That included pushing aside some traditions while staging contemporary works and taking opera to the city's neighborhoods, perhaps to such locations as Harlem's Apollo Theater.

"We're terribly disappointed for all the venues we had planned to appear at," Baker said.

The Belgian-born Mortier, 64, is departing less than two years after he was named to the job amid great fanfare and a reputation for staging daring new shows in Europe, including the Salzburg festival in Austria. He brought impressive credentials to the new job, including a successful run at the Paris Opera, and promised to revitalize the New York organization as it moved back to the New York State Theater.

In a statement also issued by the company, Mortier said he came to City Opera "because the board shared my enthusiasm for the great potential of this company to change people's lives."

He said he had wanted "to bring New York a new experience of the transforming emotional power of opera," and that he and the board had worked hard "to revise the budget in the light of the current economic climate."

However, he said, "the significantly reduced funds available" made that impossible.

With no 2008-09 performances at the State Theater because of the renovation, the opera expects to run a deficit of $5 million to $7 million this season, Baker said.

The board was aiming for a budget of about $60 million, but despite layoffs could approve far less. In his current year at the Paris National Opera, Mortier is working with a budget of about $300 million.

In past years, City Opera has been seen both as more innovative and more "American" in its productions than its wealthier Lincoln Center neighbor - and sometime rival - the Metropolitan Opera.

Baker said her board is now "actively assessing its options and developing a plan to move the company forward."

As renovations continue at Lincoln Center, City Opera will go forward this season with two performances of a concert version of Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra" at Carnegie Hall and some orchestra concerts featuring composers Mortier had programmed.


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