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Gerard Mortier resigns from New York City Opera

November 7, 2008 |  4:50 pm

Mortier After promising to revolutionize the opera scene in New York, Gerard Mortier has announced to New York City Opera that he can no longer run the company in the current economic climate.  He had been guaranteed $60 million for his first season of productions, set to begin next fall.  But funding has fallen substantially short, and just over half that sum is all the company's board can now offer.

The new $36-million budget, Mortier pointed out, is smaller than that for the smallest opera house in France and about one-tenth of what he has at the Paris Opera, where he is in his last year as director.  With no funds for innovation, which Mortier has done pretty much nonstop since his appointment at Lincoln Center was announced in 2007, he told the New York Times that he had no choice but to resign.

This has suddenly made the company, which is currently operating with a skeleton staff, seem extremely lackluster.  Mortier had instigated a renovation of the acoustically inadequate State Theater and therefore confined the current season to select concerts around the five boroughs and a concert performance of Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra" at Carnegie Hall.  The concerts and the work on the hall will continue, but the adventures Mortier had announced for next season won't. 

New York will lose not only its first staging of Messiaen's "St. Francois d'Assise" but also a long-awaited revival of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson classic, "Einstein on the Beach." Thus ends a presumed rivalry between a Mortier City Opera and NYCO's far wealthier neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera, which is trying to update under Peter Gelb.  Mortier had hoped to make City Opera a showcase for new work and for the venturesome directors to whom he is close, particularly Peter Sellars and Wilson.  The Belgian impresario had also commissioned for City Opera an opera by Charles Wuorinen based on "Brokeback Mountain" and one on Walt Disney by Glass.  Mortier says he will try to find other companies that will take these new works on.

The fallout of this situation may also reach Los Angeles; an effort was being make to bring the "Einstein" production here, possibly under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera and/or UCLA Live.  That hardly seems likely now, unless other companies can also be persuaded to help mount the expensive production.  It does mean, however, that "Brokeback" and the Glass work are now fair game for poaching.

Mortier's resignation caps a depressing week for American opera.  On Tuesday, Opera Pacific canceled the remainder of its current season, including the West Coast premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon's "Grapes of Wrath." And Thursday, Edo de Waart, who began as chief conductor of Santa Fe Opera last summer, said he could no longer continue to conduct at a 7,000-foot elevation.

-- Mark Swed

Photo by Eckehard Schulz / Associated Press

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