ArtsATL > Music > Analysis: Does Atlanta Opera leader’s surprise departure herald step backward into the past?

Analysis: Does Atlanta Opera leader’s surprise departure herald step backward into the past?

(L to R) Music Director Arthur Fagen, Dennis Hanthorn, Chorus Master Walter Huff. (Photo by Jim Fitts)
From left: Music Director Arthur Fagen, General Director Dennis Hanthorn and Chorus Master Walter Huff. (Photo by Jim Fitts)

Atlanta’s classical music community, already pondering the sour possibility of a work stoppage at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, discovered last week that Dennis Hanthorn, the charismatic leader who transformed the Atlanta Opera, had resigned.

Changing the top leader at an opera company seems always to change the company itself. There is just something about opera that lends itself to a personal impact that is, well, operatic. It’s true wherever opera is taken seriously. The “Bing era” at the Metropolitan Opera was totally different from the “Levine era.” And in the “Gelb era,” the Met has been reinvented again. You can see the same thing with David Gockley’s years at the Houston Grand Opera or Speight Jenkins at the Seattle Opera. And here in Atlanta, Hanthorn has completely re-animated our opera company in only five years at its helm as general director.

Hanthorn took over a company that had not been performing at a professional level, and he very quickly turned that around. He brought a vitality to the orchestra and chorus that seemed magical. The production quality (sets, costumes, lighting and stage direction) improved. Atlanta began to occasionally see productions that went beyond the clichéd fare of the previous decade. Rossini’s “Italian Girl in Algiers” introduced us to something entirely different, and the sets and costumes for Roald Dahl’s “The Golden Ticket” were the finest ever seen here, whatever you may have thought of the work itself.

The level of singing also definitely improved, and we began to get a few major voices. As William Tucker, chairman of the opera’s board of directors, put it, Hanthorn “elevated the craft” and was a “transforming and transformational figure.”

Seared in my memory is a 2002 Atlanta Opera performance of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” at the Fox Theatre. It was the worst performance of a Wagner opera I have ever experienced, and I would have fled the theater at first opportunity had I not been on assignment. In 2009, with Hanthorn in control, the company again took on “Dutchman,” and the changes were so sweeping that it was hard to believe this was the same company. Perhaps, in many respects, it was not.

It was the occasion for the role debut of a fine Senta, Erika Sunnergårdh, whom Hanthorn somehow discovered through his vast network. Mark Delevan, a highly regarded baritone who would return here for “Aida,” sang the role of the Dutchman. Kevin Langan was perhaps the best Daland I have heard. Arthur Fagen, who would go on to become music director of the Atlanta Opera, was already in the process of building a fine orchestra, and Walter Huff was at work on the chorus. The production may have been clunky and bland, but it was musically on par with some of America’s finest opera companies. It was on this night that I realized what a truly amazing job Hanthorn was doing.

In terms of repertoire, the Hanthorn era brought with it a healthy percentage of new works, including Carlyle Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree,” Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” and “The Golden Ticket.” We didn’t get a world premiere, presumably for financial reasons, but Hanthorn realized that opera is a living art form and, given the limited number of slots he had to work with, he did a lot to bring Atlanta into the modern age.

One of Hanthorn’s greatest accomplishments was to move the company from the dismal Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center, where it had languished after spending years at the Fox Theatre, another wildly inappropriate venue. The current venue, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, is a major upgrade but far from ideal. It was built for traveling musicals and other shows, and neither its acoustics nor its stage facilities are truly adequate for opera, the stage’s most demanding art form. And scheduling is so tight that the company apparently could not expand beyond the original four operas per season there. Still, it’s an attractive space, it has a roomy pit, and the sound is decent. The move attracted new people to the audience and brightened everyone’s outlook.

It must be stressed that all of this happened during a time of great trauma in the not-for-profit world. The company’s total operating budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year, the one before Hanthorn’s arrival, was $5.3 million. In his first season, it jumped to $6.8 million. Then, as the recession took hold, the funding dropped, soon returning to the $5.2 million level, where it’s been for the last few years. The season was cut from four operas to three, and the company, with no endowment to speak of, was living on the edge.

In 2011, Hanthorn told me flatly, “If we have one mistake, it’s over.” And then a miracle happened. The opera received a surprise gift of $9 million from the estate of Barbara D. Stewart, a patron whom, according to Tucker, the board chairman, Hanthorn had helped cultivate. The gift not only saved the company from ruin but, Tucker said, “led to a stringent strategic planning process. [It] gave us the ability to say, What is our value proposition? Where should we be going?”

Tucker cited a study the Atlanta Opera commissioned from Alexander Babbage, a market research firm, which he said found that “Atlanta is a traditional city and we like traditional things. What we want to do is present operas that the people will come to.” He mentioned some of the small-scale outreach projects the company has done, such as “Rabbit Tales,” a children’s show, and said he hopes these will continue. But, Tucker said, the company’s mainstage works need to focus on “the top 30 operas of the repertoire.”

How this relates to Hanthorn’s departure is uncertain. Tucker kept repeating that “this is part of a normal transition,” though it clearly is not. Normal transitions at this level don’t occur suddenly, out of the blue, when the company has no plans for succession, or even for an acting director. Hanthorn is unavailable for comment, which is itself troubling, and there are no indications that he is leaving due to a job offer.

In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article by Howard Pousner, Tucker was quoted as saying, “Dennis … wants to explore broader things, and Atlanta is a traditional city.” This would seem to indicate a clear difference of opinion on artistic decisions. (Tucker contends that his AJC quotes are inaccurate.) Laura Soldati, the opera’s communications manager, was quoted by Pousner as saying that Hanthorn’s departure was a “mutual decision” with the opera’s board. It is telling that no announcement was made until Pousner contacted the opera more than a week after Hanthorn’s resignation.

Whatever happened, Hanthorn’s departure is very different from that of the late Blanche Thebom, a distinguished former dramatic mezzo who founded an opera company here in 1967 that ran for six years. Thebom’s work attracted critical acclaim, but the company went broke. As she departed for San Francisco, she declared about Atlanta, “If there are genuine opera lovers in the city, they have yet to identify themselves.”

It sounds terribly corny, but perhaps Dennis Hanthorn’s biggest gift to Atlanta was Dennis Hanthorn himself, someone so closely involved with his opera company that many are quite concerned about its future without him. A true impresario, he made himself the cheerful front man for everything the opera did. Even his trademark appearances before the curtain to thank key donors, an intrusion very rarely attempted at major classical venues, was handled with such a genuine and heartfelt quality that the coming season will seem to start on the wrong foot without it.

A committee to search for a replacement will soon be formed. Tucker indicated that the opera does not plan to hire an interim general director. Ann Owens, who has held high-level positions at the Houston Grand Opera and who was interim general director there during that company’s last transition, will serve as a consultant to the Atlanta Opera. Top members of the existing staff, including Paul Melroy, the managing director, and Arthur Fagen, the music director, will run the company during this period, which will probably last at least until the end of the coming season, which opens November 10 with “Carmen.”

Timothy O’Leary, general director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, recently said, “Opera companies get the audience they deserve.” He went on to discuss how St. Louis, like virtually all of America’s most successful opera companies, has developed an audience that is interested in new works, new production ideas and the use of new technologies where appropriate.

The greatest way for the Atlanta Opera to honor Dennis Hanthorn would be to continue to build on his legacy. Trying to determine what has just happened involves deciphering a handful of quotes and a lot of silence, and it would be unfair to assume too much. But if the board is planning a retrenchment toward conservative productions of warhorse operas, it would be a setback that could deplete the growing level of interest in Atlanta’s opera scene and set things back for years to come.

The website for Alexander Babbage, the market consulting firm, cites work with shopping centers and restaurants (Moe’s, for example), but not a single arts organization. It would be a tragedy if its report has become the basis for a wholesale reorganization of an institution that has finally, in the last few years, begun to follow Richard Wagner’s advice: “Children, make something new.”

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