By Michael Feldman
Sato Moughalian is angry.
Her fifteen year tenure as principal flute, personnel manager, consultant and advocate for the Gotham Chamber Opera Company has come to an abrupt end with the governing board’s shock announcement of the company’s liquidation. A trove of $600 thousand dollars in unreported and unposted liabilities had materialized that the directors could not find a mechanism to cope with.
Moughalian had been one of a small cadre of extraordinary artists and administrators, idealists all, surrounding the much admired artistic director and conductor Neal Goren. For 15 seasons they had mounted (with the most modest of recourses) some of the most persuasive and respected mini-opera productions seen locally. Now, suddenly, it was over.
The genre seems almost an oxymoron: mini-opera? chamber opera? No overweight singers, overblown scores (as wonderful as they are) 3500-seat houses, budgets with nine or ten zeros in back of them?
Actually the repertoire is astonishingly rich and the problems associated with their production are almost as baffling and obstacle-strewn as those facing grand opera.
The pieces range from the Baroque to Contemporary, mind you, many Baroque Operas are quite grand and do not readily fit into this category, but others are tiny—small casts with modest-sized orchestra, meant to be performed in an intimate space. Both the MET and Scala flirted with the concept, but the MET ultimately concluded that any such effort compromised funding for the main-stage.
The problem with small houses is while they generate limited income, expenses are yet proportionally higher. An appropriate theater for Gotham simply did not exist. Nevertheless, the company exalted in its homelessness by wandering throughout the City—including a triumphal appearance at the Hayden Planetarium for Franz Joseph’s “Moon” opera (different Haydn). And happy audiences and delighted critics rambled along after this modern day Pied Piper.
But now the company is gone. You can still visit the website and read notices of past triumphs and evocative future productions but a banner from the board displays the bad news
Moughalian was much more than a run-of-the mill orchestra manager. She was a prime mover in the acquisition of the prestigious Catherine Doctorow Prize for vocal composition for the company.
For her, the villain is clear: David Bennet, the recently departed executive director who is now comfortably ensconced as the big-time general manager of the San Diego Opera.
Ms Mooughalian recalls a chaotic environment of late, in which contracts for stage directors were executed just prior to performances, production budgets omitted space for the inevitable cost overruns (this is opera for god’s sake), and a routine request to the musician’s union for reduced rates was omitted. None of the above (perhaps not the last) are unknown in the start-up world, but this company was in its 15th season.
Mr Bennet, while showcasing the required cheerleading skills of PT Barnum, kept financial details close to his vest. Reporting to his supervisors (the board) entailed the posting of all invoices into a quick-books program which magically generated financial statements for the director’s consideration. Fiduciary oversight is impossible if one third of the bills are unposted. And that is what apparently occurred.
As reported by the New York Times and others, Mr. Bennet presented a file containing those liabilities, totaling approximately $600,000 to the incoming executive director, Edward Barnes literally as he walked out the door. The bomb had dropped.
Responsibility now shifted to the new exec, but mainly to the directors.
Boards of fledgling organizations usually begin with three penniless buddies of the prime mover; mature over time to “working boards” of efficient junior professionals and ultimately comprise prominent citizens, experienced in arts affairs, willing to and able to make substantial donations and to wring them from their acquaintances.
An examination of the Gotham board notes at least two or three of the latter category although leadership was still mainly working board types. Apparently, the company was in transition in this regard. No one volunteered to step up to make or get the needed $600,000 to allow the company breathing room despite a summer-long’s best effort (as the board chairperson attests to).
But the real question is: were those capable of solving or postponing the problem even directly asked to do so?
Beatrice Broadwater, the boards’ president is less willing to vilify Bennet than Moughalian She thought him smart, able, but he wasn’t forthright, she lamented, “If only the board knew…”