Sunday, January 15, 2012

Did program notes bring down Opera Boston?

Well, the Globe story on the Opera Boston mess dropped today, revealing that the company's closing seems to have been not so much a case of malfeasance (as I once speculated), as a case of clashing egos, childish pique, and a culture of financial mismanagement. Which, of course, is all malfeasance in its way.

Long story short: Opera Boston was perennially over-extended, and lived hand-to-mouth, relying on a small clutch of wealthy donors - and particularly one Randolph Fuller, who reliably came through with at least 10% of the annual budget, and who seems to have begun some sort of vendetta against incoming General Director Lesley Koenig after she edited his program notes for Maria Padilla without his consent (or even a call of apology). No, you read that right, according to Edgers - even though it sounds like something out of Guy de Maupassant, that slight seems to have been the start of the feud.  But then one gets the impression that Fuller had long held court on the Board, and had also always had the previous general director, Carole Charnow, in his pocket.

Koenig, however, may have played her own part in the company's collapse; cutting your biggest donor's program notes without even an apology is, well, a pretty big lapse in the bow-and-scrape world of arts-board etiquette.  I'm surprised she did that.  But then  Koenig was already a star in arts management (whereas Charnow had little experience outside Opera Boston), and so probably had her own ego, and her own plans.  And to be honest, she seems to have been aware of another major mistake the company made: budgeting on the assumption that they would win a major grant from the Fidelity Foundation, which did not in the end come through.  This, plus low ticket sales for the season opener, plus Fuller's putsch against Koenig, essentially did the company in, according to Edgers.

Of course, in the final analysis, this is a story about Opera Boston's Board, and not about Koenig, or even the company's finances.  In an admittedly bad situation, they made a stunningly bad call.  Given the collapse of the year's budget, and even given a looming, expensive production in February, the company still had options - it could have re-grouped, made a public appeal, or abandoned one, but not all, its productions, etc., etc.  It's hard not to get the impression that Fuller and his cronies simply took their ball and went home, and destroyed Opera Boston out of spite.

And it's worth noting that Fuller seems to have done this before - he brought down the Boston Academy of Music in 2002, apparently in a single day, over seeming dissatisfaction with its founding director; prior to that, he'd walked out of Boston Lyric Opera (which had the resources to survive his departure).  And what that means is: Fuller will probably be back, with checkbook in hand, looking for a new favorite operatic entrepreneur.  And I know it's hard for arts producers to resist that kind of temptation - but at the same time, they shouldn't forget what happened to Opera Boston; if you live by Fuller, you should always have a Plan B; because you could die by Fuller, too.

10 comments:

  1. It's a miserable situation and my heart goes out to the many singers, players, technicians and administrators that are now out of work.

    You are right to blame the board for their terrible choices and your point about not relying on one donor is very well taken. I am not sure I agree that Fuller had Charnow in his pocket, however; that was not my impression during my one project with OB. She may have had less experience than Koenig in the opera world, but she was a terrific diplomat with strong ideas. The many (mainly social) gaffes that have plagued OB since Koenig took over would never have occurred under her watch. I feel somehow -perhaps naively - that were she still running OB, they would still be with us.

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary.

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  2. Well, perhaps that's unfair to Charnow, but I get the impression she's where she is largely thanks to Fuller - and, in reciprocation, she knew how to handle him. Fair enough? I can't speak to "other social gaffes" by Koenig - but as I noted, the one cited by Edgers, though petty, is a fairly big mistake in the ego-driven realms of major arts donors. So I wouldn't be shocked to learn there were others. It occurs to me that Ms. Koenig perhaps subconsciously felt she was "stepping down" to an organization which she was going to take new places - or that at the very least Opera Boston should be highly appreciative of the very big fish they had landed in her person. And you know there can't be too many big fish in a small pond.

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  3. Leslie Koenig badly misplayed her hand. With only six large donors (and three of them the big fish)her most important job was to care and tend to them until she could get more donors and money in the door. My understanding is that she made almost no effort to cultivate her board and yes, I think that you are right - she thought that she was the big fish that they had landed. I had heard that she had basically ignored her board and found this to be most mysterious. Makes you wonder if she doesn't have her own agenda, here. That said, and giving her the benefit of the doubt, I have noticed, over the past 10 years that I have lived here, that newcomers often make the mistake of thinking that Boston is a smaller version of New York - it isn't; it's a larger version of Springfield. Regarding the budget - OperaBoston operated on a literal shoestring and Koenig should have understood that - the board did the right thing in pulling the plug. There was not a chance that they were going to raise $750,000 in the next few months and why pretend? Even after the board made the announcement to close down I don't recall any of our local plutocrats stepping up to say "Wait, I'll write the check".

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  4. I'm afraid I can't understand attitudes like yours. You seem to imagine we're watching some death-cage video game or something. "Koenig badly misplayed her hand, so the Board was right to screw the staff and subscribers!" Right - how is that supposed to work? A lot of people got hurt here, and Boston lost a major cultural enterprise. I mean sure, it can be fun to smack your lips when you're envious of someone who has been brought down, but I don't see how that's relevant. And I wouldn't be so very sure that we've heard the last of the plutocrats. But thanks for the image of New York as "an even BIGGER version of Springfield than Boston is."

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  5. My attitude is one of realism and not schadenfreude. That last Beatrice and Bededict was one of the best operatic times I have had in years and OperaBoston shutting down is a great loss. However, I have worked in the non-profit/foundation fields here since 2001. The reality is that in Boston (and really anywhere) if you diss your big donors, you (and in this case your organization) will pay. OperaBoston appears to have operated pretty much on a cashflow/credit line basis and there was no margin for error. It would be interesting to see how the money was spent the last year under Chernow and this past year under Koenig. Finally, I would be very pleasantly surprised if new money stepped up to the plate (OperaBoston did not, as far as I know, declare bankruptcy so theoretically it could be refinanced and restarted tomorrow if the cash appeared) and who knows, maybe it will happen.

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  6. Sure, as I've pointed out, Koenig must shoulder some of the blame here. Still, if the General Director "disses" the Board - do we really know it got that bad, btw? - then maybe it's time for the Board to find another General Director, NOT close the company. You seem to be dodging entirely the fact, btw, that the Board's money was not the only money at stake here. A lot of subscribers "donated" their money to Opera Boston, too, it turns out. Doesn't the violation of their trust by the Board factor into your consideration at all? If not - it should.

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  7. Yes, a lot of people did get hurt here - and not just the staff and subscribers. I was not under contract with OB, but I know many singers and players who were. If you pull the plug a few months before a gig that's pretty much lost income - period. The work that must be turned down in good faith to make room for a four or five week opera project does not magically reappear. I have not sensed a lot of board concern for the artists or the public, never mind the future of opera in Boston.

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  8. Thoughtful comments. As a fellow opera lover I too regret Opera Boston closing its doors. But I do think Anonymous's comments hit the mark square on the head. In a thinly capitalized nonprofit the nurturing of your donor base is the exec directors job # 1, before the glories of the stage, which was respected artistic director Gil Rose's job anyway. Job # 2 is treat your board well and work with them collaboratively to manage well in a tight environment. Job # 3 is know where every penny of your cash flow is at all times. Koenig flunked on all three measures, which is kind of odd given how much space Geoff Edgers gave to her crowing about her Stanford MBA in the puff piece he wrote about her last fall. Part of the reason I gave to Opera Boston under Carole Charnow's tenure was not only was she an artist and therefore understood the artists and creative side (she was originally an actress /director trained in England, and she also produced all of Opera Boston's productions), but she also understood because of their cost structure opera companies will always walk the razor's edge. Even with fully sold houses, the best managed opera company can only cover a third of its costs, so fund raising becomes critical to survival. Carole nurtured every dollar like it was her own while Lesley was too important to return phone calls much less to make them to thank Opera Boston's donors for their support over the years, something she should have done early and often, especially as a new gal in town. It's hard to fire a CEO five months into her tenure, but that's my vote as to the real reason the board was irresponsible. No way this debacle would have happened under Carole Charnow's leadership.

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  9. I get it - you're not fans of Lesley Koenig. I'm just not sure I'm buying it. You do realize she built the San Francisco Ballet into a global powerhouse, don't you? Somehow I don't think she did that by "dissing" her Board. You're also forgetting that it's Fuller who apparently has the umm, history of being difficult, and not Koenig. And, in the end, I don't care if she was Attila the Hun - the Board still violated the trust of their subscribers, and the whole community, for obviously petty personal reasons. You haven't brought any evidence to the contrary, I hope you realize that. Huffily saying that "Fluffing the Board's ego was Job #1!" doesn't really change who's at fault here. In fact it really only UNDERLINES who's at fault here.

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  10. I only seen occasional Opera Boston productions, but I have been going to more productions in the last 2 years. This would have been the first year that I was planning on seeing all 3 operas. I do believe that Carole Charnow is very skilled manager, and wish her well at the Children's museum. Charnow, however, did not expand the donor base during her tenure, leaving Koenig holding the bag (or cashbox). Also, Ms. Koenig got this job based on her resume and experience. Under the circumstances, of course, she would accept under the assumption, that she was in charge. Who wouldn't? Frankly was Opera Boston going to develop as a business or remain Randolph Fuller's hobby to share with the public under his rules? Looking back, I see possible facets of Fuller's personalities in two of OB past productions-"Cardillac" the goldsmith who killed to get his creations back, and "Maria Padilla" the secret wife of Spanish crown prince who demanded to be acknowledged.

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