When the New York City Opera recruited Gerard Mortier, the shock-jock-style visionary of the Paris National Opera, to be its general and artistic director in early 2007, it seemed a smart riposte to its cross-Lincoln Center Plaza rival, the much larger Metropolitan Opera, which installed Peter Gelb as general manager in 2006.
But as the finances of the hire become clear, the move is looking more like a Hail Mary pass. To woo Mortier, trustees had to increase the company's budget to $60 million a year, an almost 50 percent jump. They also agreed to renovate the company's home, the New York State Theater, to Mortier's specifications, which will cost $45 million and require raising $155 million for the building's endowment. Lastly, because of the renovations, the company must go all but dark for the coming season. That will not only dent the opera's bank account by an additional $32 million, according to a member of the opera's board, but most likely alienate fans as well. "Anytime there's an interruption in the performance schedule, members and audiences and donors can drift away," says Keith Cerny, former executive director of the San Francisco Opera.
Yet the New York City Opera did need something new. Unimpressed with recent seasons—a steady stream of favorites like Carmen mixed with a few modern works—the subscriber base has fallen off a cliff. Season-ticket holders now number just 14,000, down 44 percent from 2000. (The Met's subscriber base dropped 17 percent during the same period.) City Opera's total box office has been flat, paralleling comparably sized opera companies. But unlike the others, its budget has risen notably, from below $35 million in the 2003–04 performance season to $42 million in the 2007–08 season. What's more, because endowment income and fundraising haven't been covering costs, City Opera has been tapping the unrestricted principal of its $58 million endowment.
What to do? The opera's chair, Susan Baker, a former investment banker, thought she had found the answer when she sat next to Mortier at a 2006 dinner party. At that point, she hadn't seen a Mortier opera, but based on their dinner conversation and his reputation, she wanted to recruit him. It was a leap of faith, given that many of Mortier's productions, which are heavy on drugs and trashy sex, have been booed by European audiences. When he ran the Salzburg Festival, his Così Fan Tutte featured the lead soprano walking two men dressed only in leather strips and chains, like dogs on leashes. And for a production of Die Fledermaus, Mortier incorporated cocaine abuse, incest, and neo-Nazi characters. But Baker was convinced that Mortier would be City Opera's redemption. Though the search committee interviewed 20 people, Baker persuaded the board to take a chance on him. "He is—and he hates this term—a rock star," she says.
Under the terms of the agreement, Mortier will start next year, temporarily leaving management to Baker and the assistants of former general director Paul Kellogg, who retired in June 2007. In the meantime, Mortier has been planning the 2009–10 season, in which he hopes to stage nine or 10 new productions. "I hesitated about three months before I took the job," he says, "but I knew, when I agreed, a lot of what I wanted to do. I wanted not to be the artistic poor brother of the Met, but to be dedicated to young singers and American composers and 20th-century music—to have a new vision of opera." Undeterred by critics, Mortier believes that some New York operagoers are ready for his radical approach. "There is no one New York audience. There are many different audiences, and I will find my audience," he says.
The challenge for Baker is finding the means to pay for Mortier's vision. She won't disclose how much of the extra money Mortier wants to spend has been raised, allowing only that they "are digging very deep." So far, that has meant pressing trustees to abide by City Opera's requirement (recently doubled) that they "get or give" at least $50,000 a year and cultivating new trustees, with hedge fund managers as the prime targets. At the same time, Baker must also find money to pay for the New York State Theater's renovation. Baker has little progress to report on that front as well, though she says opportunities—like $100 million to rename the New York State Theater—are being shopped to donors.
Mortier, who once said he was scared of fundraising, is trying to help out and now claims to enjoy visiting potential patrons. "But I've had bad experiences too," he concedes. One big philanthropist vehemently disagreed with his decision to stage a season of 20th-century opera, writing in a letter that "20th-century music does not interest me." Mortier wrote back, "If everyone thought like you, opera would not exist."
Not a good move. Former City Opera chairman Robert Wilson admits that he wrote the letter. Wilson once promised to make a $50 million gift to the opera; he now says he's finished with the company except for his annual $25,000 donation. He doubts that New Yorkers will pay to see the post-World War II pieces Mortier has planned and will long for City Opera's tradition of casting young singers in warhorses like La Traviata. "All that history is being scrapped," Wilson says. "You'll have an entirely different City Opera." He is now on the board of the Met.