Now I Am Convinced: LA Opera Needs a Shake-Up.
By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink
If you wish hard enough, you just may get what you wish for.
Although I have stated that Plácido Domingo should not remain Los Angeles Opera’s general director but should become its artistic adviser, thus opening the door for a new innovative leader to take the helm, Domingo’s contract was renewed.
With attempts to make an unsatisfactory decision workable, I wrote that I would have accepted the decision to retain Domingo as the company’s top leader if an on-site director to head the day-to-day operations of the company had been assigned. I realize, however, that I was mistaken to surmise that such reorganization would make a difference.
On Sept. 22, LA Opera announced that Christopher Koelsch has been named chief operating officer of LA Opera, thus replacing Stephen D. Rountree in that position. Rountree has been named the company’s chief executive officer, but remains president and chief executive officer of the Music Center. And Marc Stern, who is being replaced by Rountree as the company’s chief executive officer, will remain the chairman of LA Opera’s board of directors.
It all looks great on paper. Members of the press and the public have been complaining that Domingo has spread himself too thin by thinking that he could effectively head two opera companies – LA Opera and Washington National Opera – and still sing and conduct throughout the world. Now he has someone to hold down the fort in his absence, and Rountree can spend more time overseeing the Music Center.
Yet in spite of this organizational shift, nothing has really changed. All of the players are exactly the same, and they are all accountable to Domingo.
In an online article in the LA Times on Sept. 22, Rountree said that the company “didn’t want to shake up the leadership structure too much given its current financial health.”
The current financial health is precisely why a shake-up was indicated. LA Opera has a $5.96-million deficit due to the company’s irresponsible decision to produce a $31 million “Ring” when the funding was unavailable. The company would have gone bankrupt had the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors not granted it a $14 million loan by issuing bonds that were purchased by Banc of America Leasing & Capital LLC. If LA Opera doesn’t pay the loan back in less than three years with interest going to the bank, county taxpayers will foot the bill since LA County has guaranteed the funds.
“The company was $20 million in debt, partially because of the undertaking of its ‘Ring’ festival” which was the result of “years of overspending,” according to Rountree (LA Times and Opera News on Dec. 9, 2009).
Domingo has been general director of LA Opera since 2003. He and music director James Conlon are Wagnerians. They allowed their lust for Wagner to supersede their responsibilities as fiscally responsible business leaders. They believed that by producing an expensive avant-garde Achim Freyer “Ring,” LA Opera’s prominence in the opera world would be elevated. They marketed the “Ring” as an event which would enhance the Los Angeles economy by drawing tourists into the city. But it didn’t. It didn’t draw the people who had never seen a Wagner “Ring,” and it didn’t draw the “‘Ring’ nuts” either because they were skeptical of Freyer’s staging.
Yet in light of all of LA Opera’s financial woes, Conlon “has been lobbying” to revive the Freyer “Ring” within the next five years (LA Times, July 2, 2010), and the same opera administration is making all of the decisions.
Hasn’t the company learned anything? I’ll bet that they’d do everything exactly the same way if they had it to do it over again. What would hold them back? Domingo is still in charge. And the county supervisors endorse everything that they do even if it takes taxpayer dollars to do it.
THE NEW COO AND CEO
Chrisopher Koelsch has worked for LA Opera since 1997. He was the director of artistic planning when Edgar Baitzel was the company’s chief operating officer, then became the company’s vice president of artistic planning. Koelsch has operatic expertise in artistic planning, repertory selection, casting, production management and other creative elements. As the company’s new senior vice president and chief operating officer, he will add marketing and communications to his duties since Jean Oelrich, LA Opera’s former director of marketing, was laid off. By consolidating positions, the company has eliminated its desire to recruit a vice president of marketing and communications as outlined in the LA Times (July 6).
Rountree’s areas of expertise are quite different. With a master’s degree in management from Claremont Graduate University, he excels in executive operations management, capital projects, construction design development, fundraising, publicizing and administration.
In many companies there is an artistic director and a general director, but in the case of San Diego Opera, General Director Ian Campbell has combined both jobs into one.
“In most cases, the artistic director decides what operas will be performed and how they will be cast,” Campbell told me in 2007 when I wrote an article about him for OperaOnline.us. “The general director is more focused on the funding and running of the administration, and on the survival of the institution. There are lots of artistic directors who don’t want to do fundraising or deal with the boards, but would rather just deal with the product. In my case, I would never have an artistic director separate from me or a general director separate from me because I love doing both.”
Apparently Domingo is much like Campbell. The difference is that Campell is an on-site administrator with years of both artistic and business experience.
The result is that LA Opera still does not have an on-site general director with Campbell’s varied skills.
LA Opera’s job descriptions may be better defined now; the salaries are probably being adjusted; but the organizational changes have more to do with the titles of people than anything else. Everything is more-or-less just as it has always been — with Koelsch attending to artistic matters, Rountree attending to business matters, and with both of them accountable to Domingo.
In reality, I was shortsighted when I wrote that I could accept Domingo in the general director’s slot if the company found an on-site manager. There can only be one general director who makes the major decisions that affect an opera company. Domingo has the artistic background but has shown no ability to create budgets or stick to them. He doesn’t have business, management or accounting skills that show he can balance the books. And in the case of the “Ring,” he allowed his artistic passions to affect the fiscal solvency of the company.
He has failed similarly at the Washington National Opera, which may merge with the Kennedy Center to alleviate its financial burdens.
Domingo receives a hefty $814,000 salary from Los Angeles Opera (2008-09).
The company has laid off numerous lower paid employees, thus safeguarding Domingo’s income. Another general director would have required less compensation, although some of it has been deferred.
Faith Raiguel, the company’s vice president and chief financial officer, remains in place.
THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
Opera-goers often write comments after articles printed online. In the one posted on the Huffington Post about Domingo’s contract renewal (Sept. 20), someone wrote:
“LA Opera has a dilemma. On the one hand, Plácido Domingo is a world renowned singer and promoter, but on the other hand, his management and decisions have left a growing company highly in debt and losing many longtime fans. The ‘Ring’ fiasco has now been proven to be a money loser and basically a failure. Ironically, it is just an outgrowth of huge egos and elitism and not what the opera public in LA wanted. As for [repertory] choices, LA [Opera] is becoming a joke. . . . LA [Opera] had a chance to carve out a niche for itself. Instead, it is trying to be what it will never be. Is that Domingo or [Eli] Broad? Sad . . . “
The opinion expressed is not my own. It is signed by the name, “caffeineod.”
LA Opera needed to make major organizational changes with an infusion of new blood. It needed a new general director with artistic and business skills, although Domingo would have been an asset as an artistic adviser without having final decision-making powers.
Yet Domingo is remaining the company’s general director.
The changes that have occurred are simply a marketing ploy to make it appear that LA Opera is trying to resolve its financial dilemma and enhance its image. The truth is that no substantial changes have been made, and the company’s only commitment is to itself to maintain the status quo.
The will of the public has no influence on this elitist company’s business practices or repertoire.
I believe that the LA County Board of Supervisors should hire an unbiased party to act as a liaison between the county and the opera company to ensure that past mistakes are not duplicated. If not, I pray for a miracle.