‘There Were Phenomenal Levels of Denial and Arrogance’: Heidi Waleson on the City Opera Collapse

A moment from New York City Opera’s final performance (of Anna Nicole: The Opera) before the company closed down in 2013. Photo: Bill Cooper/New York Magazine

Heidi Waleson’s Mad Scenes and Exit Arias traces the history of New York City Opera, from its founding in 1943 as the “People’s Opera” to the night, 70 years later, when executive director George Steel presided over an ignominious closure. Waleson talked with her fellow critic Justin Davidson about how an institution that seemed essential to the city’s cultural life flourished, struggled, and withered. (See Vulture’s exclusive excerpt from her book here.)

Justin Davidson: You describe City Opera as a company that staggered from crisis to crisis. But you and I both attended many performances there along the way, and some of them were wonderful. Did it seem to already then that it was always on the precipice?

Heidi Waleson: No, I didn’t know. I mean there were strikes, and AIDS [which killed artistic director Christopher Keene in 1995] — those were dramatic moments. But when I started digging into the history, I realized that the roller-coaster ride went right back to the beginning. There was this positive attitude that ultimately became a factor in its demise. People thought: We are scrappy, we can get it done, we can put on shows with no money.

Do you think the optimism that had been the company’s strength eventually turned into delusion?
Yes, absolutely. In the 2000s, when audiences fell off precipitously and costs started rising so exponentially, nobody looked back and said, Gee, is there really a bigger problem here?

The company gave young American singers great parts and New York exposure, but didn’t pay them much. Did that affect its ability to keep going?
Eventually, yes. When the company started, young singers had nowhere else in the country to go. The whole regional opera system hadn’t been developed yet. But after a while, other opportunities came along, and singers started to find it less attractive to come in and sleep on someone’s couch for the privilege of making $750 per performance.

For a while in the 1970s, Beverly Sills was City Opera’s biggest draw. Was the company able to cultivate other box-office stars?
They tried in the 1990s, with singers like Lauren Flanigan, Mark Delavan, and Elizabeth Futral. But nobody after Sills could really pull in an audience.

And some great singers, like Plácido Domingo, started out at City Opera but were snapped up by the Metropolitan Opera.
Yes, but even in the big houses the star system is pretty much over.

So did you conclude that City Opera’s death was inevitable? I always assumed that New York would be able to support two major opera companies.
City Opera faced two major problems. First, by the mid-1990s, the audience that had sustained the company in its early years had gotten considerably older. Younger people were coming in — a thrill-seeking audience, interested in unusual works — but not enough of them. Which brings us to the financial problem. Ticket sales were flat and costs were going up because of inflexible labor contracts. These trends affect companies everywhere. For many years, operas functioned by getting 50 percent of their revenue from ticket sales and 50 percent from donations. Now — if you are lucky — the ticket portion is barely 30 percent. So you have to raise a lot of money. But in New York, if you were rich and you supported opera, you gave to the Met, not City Opera.

The costs went up dramatically when City Opera moved from City Center to the State Theater (now the David Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center in 1966. Was that a bad idea from the get-go?
If they had stayed at City Center, they would have continued to subsist in a much smaller form. When they moved to Lincoln Center, they expanded dramatically. They doubled the number of performances and grew into a big repertory company. In the end, New York couldn’t sustain two of those.

The State Theater, which was designed for dance and had terrible acoustics, never really suited the company.
Right, and the search for a new home became a terrible distraction. When Paul Kellogg took over [in 1996], he said: We have to find a new theater! We have to find a new theater! What he should have been asking was: What are we? Whom do we serve? and What is the business model that will allow us to continue to do this?

And when things got really dire, the company went looking for other silver bullets, didn’t it?
Right. Hiring [the impresario Gérard] Mortier [to run the company] was the same thing. It was a way of saying: We don’t know what we’re doing, we’re taking money out of the endowment to plug the deficit holes, but Mortier will save us, and everything will be fine.

Everybody knew what City Opera was in the early years. As time went on that sense of identity really dissipated.
That’s definitely true.

We’re getting to the last act. Who’s the villain in this opera?
When [board chair] Susan Baker hired Mortier, that was the beginning of the end. He was a totally inappropriate choice. He had never raised a dime, didn’t understand anything about how American arts institutions worked, and he clearly did not understand what New York City Opera was. Baker promised him a ridiculous budget and never raised the money. It was loony. There were phenomenal levels of denial and arrogance.

And when the budget didn’t materialize, he backed out. Why was that episode so damaging?
The worst thing that came out of it was the decision to cancel a season and close the theater for renovations. When the company came back a year later, people said, Actually, we didn’t miss you.

This is why people don’t take vacations.

From that point on, was the end foregone?
Maybe not. They still might have been able to save City Opera in some form if they had hired the director Francesca Zambello to run it. She understood how opera houses worked. She had a lot of friends, and she could have called on people to come together and help the institution. Instead they went with George Steel, who was totally unequipped.

Right — he pulled City Opera out of Lincoln Center, auctioned off the costumes, and eventually shut the company down. Do you think he killed it, or was he just a kind of Candide, wandering into a situation he didn’t understand and couldn’t control?
Steel had big ideas about what he wanted to do, but he didn’t rally people to the cause. He displayed the same kind of arrogance that Susan Baker did. You need a vision, but you also have to bring along the staff, board, patrons donors, press. You need to get everybody to believe in you, and he did the opposite — he alienated everyone.

We critics cut the company a lot of slack. I wonder how much responsibility we bear in contributing to the delusion that if we would only be patient things, would work out.
Yeah, it’s possible.

But they kept letting us down. I remember feeling that if Steel was going to succeed, he was going to have to stage some productions that were really off the charts — you know, “They can’t get the most expensive costumes and the best spangles, but boy can they really put on a show!” Instead they did Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
Oh my god, the worst!

And Prima Donna, the Rufus Wainwright thing?
H.W.: Yes. Well, that was … [repulsed grimace]. The two good things that George Steel put on in the State Theater were Christopher Alden’s production of Don Giovanni, which was certainly arresting, and Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, which I was glad to see in New York.

I was too, but it was for a very rarefied audience of people who have never seen it and always wanted to. There were maybe nine of us.
They did eight performances! It was ridiculous! And once they left the State Theater they didn’t do anything good.

Even before they left, I remember going to Steel’s office, and he said, Hey, take a look at our new logo! And what I see is …
A black hole? Where all the money goes! They had done this big new rebranding thing for Mortier and there were going to be different events plugged into the hole but then there were no events, so they just had the hole left.

There are some voices missing from the book. Mortier died. And some people, including Susan Baker and George Steel, refused to talk to you. Did they explain why?
Nope. I assume that they felt there was no way that they could justify what they had done.

Heidi Waleson on New York City Opera’s Collapse