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Steely Thoughts


by Jerome Weeks 16 Jan 2009

The opera scene from Citizen Kane Now that the various calamities and changes in Dallas culture circles have abated for a few moments, I want to return to the one that started the merry-go-round spinning three days ago: George Steel’s departure from the Dallas Opera as general manager and all-purpose wunderkind. Understandably, quite a few […]

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The opera scene from Citizen Kane

Now that the various calamities and changes in Dallas culture circles have abated for a few moments, I want to return to the one that started the merry-go-round spinning three days ago: George Steel’s departure from the Dallas Opera as general manager and all-purpose wunderkind.

Understandably, quite a few Dallasites are furious with Steel. It’s not just a feeling of betrayal; it’s the reminder that much like the Yankees, New York culture gets the money, prestige and talent and acts as though all that is theirs by right — a feeling neatly underlined by the New York Times report that, in passing, referred to the Dallas Opera as the “less prestigious” company, as if its readers needed the reminder. In these circumstances, the reporter could just have easily described it as the “more solvent” company.

Predictably, the many comments posted to Steel’s video message to NYCO supporters are uniformly exultant and self-congratulatory. Only two pointedly remind everyone of the abrupt about-face in Steel’s expressed refusal of the NYCO job. Not a soul asks, hey, do we really want a general manager who so easily and quickly welshes on a deal?

But then, vaunting ambition and a certain cold-bloodedness are pretty much the price of admission into many New York circles. Not, I hasten to add, that Dallas arts leaders don’t have the same qualities at times — it’s just that one usually doesn’t see them so nakedly hailed and rewarded.

The feelings of betrayal and dismissal often led to two questions from Dallas observers: Why wasn’t the Dallas Opera’s response more outraged? In fact, couldn’t they sue Steel for breach of contract?

First, I don’t think the DO was entirely unhappy to see Steel depart. Second, and more importantly, expressing outrage was only going to backfire.

Of course, Steel had informed the DO officials several days before his decision was made public, so they had time to get their ‘regretful but supportive and only wishing everyone well’ responses down pat. But in the Dallas Morning News, Scott Cantrell reiterated how unusual Steel was as a choice for the Dallas Opera in the first place: “With little apparent interest in mainstream 19th- and early 20th-century operatic repertory, he struck many opera fans as an odd choice for the Dallas company” — which, frankly, is precisely why many of us eagerly looked forward to what changes he might effect here. Surely, organizations like the Dallas Opera must have realized by now: Business as usual is not going to work in the new multi-million-dollar glamor boxes going up in the Arts District. Whatever else they do, however they are received, those performance halls are going to demand something different and more ambitious from their resident companies.

But the hint here — and hints from elsewhere — suggest that, upon arrival, Steel and the DO were not the warmest of friends. Actually, those of us who hoped for big things, different things, from Steel were expecting some tread-upon toes. In this light, Steel’s departure may only leave the steady-as-she-goes operations entrenched.

As for the DO’s possible responses, think about it: If they raged at Steel — or even sued him for breach of contract — it would simply look to a great many people in classical music circles as if they were trying to snatch away the ailing NYCO’s only chance for survival. The City Opera’s salvation may not be what Steel proves to be at all, of course — he’s not run an opera company, remember? — but that’s the way it would look: Angry, sore losers in Dallas are willing to go to court to push City Opera into the grave over which it has teetered.

Steel may have realized this or not — and I confess it took me a couple hours before the coin dropped — but his choice of New York over Dallas was fairly bulletproof.  In New York opera circles, as we’ve seen, it’s all been hallelujah, what a great hire. No one has reflected, gee, kinda bad about screwing Dallas like that. As my Yankees comparison makes plain: This is opera as contract negotiation time in professional sports: Winner takes all.

But the point is that there’s really no downside for Steel here, other than a few grumbles in Dallas that he can safely ignore. If his quitting-a-job-after-a-few-months is recalled at all among the long knives of opera gossip, he’ll probably only be credited with the kind of careerism that’s expected.

The fact is, if City Opera fails, no one will really hold Steel responsible. Tough luck, doctor, the patient was on death’s door anyway. If it survives, he’s a savior. If it survives and succeeds, he’s a golden boy. If it survives and it turns out he’s been a self-centered, self-entitled, tantrum-throwing prima donna all along, well, maybe he’s not so golden but he’s still a savior, and that’s all that counts.

So the one way Steel could fail is if City Opera survives and it’s boring.

Although there’s also a way he could end up with some egg on his face: If — without him — the Dallas Opera becomes undeniably, raved-about magical.

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  • Sarah

    Well-put. Good riddance, I say.

  • Patricia

    If Dallas Opera was less prestigious than NYCO, why is that NYCO is holding on by a thread?

    • I’m not an opera buff, but I recognize it’s important in the trickle-down theory of a city’s cultural life, where the major art institutions form the core and hold the focus, and hundreds of other venues and groups benefit from the attention.

      It took the Kimbell 18 months to hire a new guy. Will the opera be pressed to come up with a majordomo before the paint dries in their new house?

  • Carlo

    Here’s to City Opera being boring… and magic down in Dallas.