An Operatic Tale of Donor vs. Exec

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January 15, 2012; Source: The Boston Globe | This newswire will be short in an effort to encourage you to read this fabulous novelette- or case study-type article for yourself.

So, in short, this is the story of an opera company that failed. Not just any opera company, but Opera Boston, which had recently commissioned and produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Madam White Snake.” You could potentially pin the failure on any combination of the many challenges the organization faced: a lack of local audience, a bad season financially, or perhaps too few donors. But maybe the tipping point was the large donor who loved opera—and expected to be listened to—taking a dislike to the executive and demanding her ouster.

The story is interesting in any number of ways. Good reading for boards and executives alike. We’d love your take on what happened in this painful situation. What are its lessons? –Ruth McCambridge

  • Loretta Prescott

    Classic tale of the tail wagging the head, ego, power and lack of real leadership. I feel worst for the development director, who often sees things from a perspective that no one else understands, and is also often powerless to use the knowledge from that.

  • Bob LaVallee

    Great point Loretta! This story is further proof that being wealthy doesn’t equate with knowing anything about NP management. How many rules from NP finance & governance 101 did they break along the way?

  • Richard M. Biery

    I invited a friend who is seasoned both in business and in the performing music arts, trained in opera, holds a doctorate and is now director of performing arts for a small Midwest college to review the article. Here are his pithy comments:
    “Opera is a terribly expensive animal. I ran a company for four seasons; every production always finished in the black. As artistic director of the company, my biggest issue was reigning in the directors of the productions. There is a natural tendency to make productions ever bigger and extravagant.
    I did a bit of consulting for a university based opera program a few years ago. No accountability for the artistic director and an ineffectual board. They were $73,000 in debt at the time!
    Of course, the bigger issues here appear to be a management team that puts the art before the biz and donors who act like owners. Thin skins are common in the arts. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
    The board made the right choice. It is often better to blow the thing up, than waste the time and effort to try to save it.