They met late one October afternoon in 2011 in the lobby of the Westin Copley Place Hotel. Randolph Fuller, the millionaire opera aficionado who helped found Opera Boston in 2003, wanted to tell Jim Marko, only six weeks in as development director, that the company was being led on a doomed path.
Fuller’s target: General director Lesley Koenig, the former Metropolitan Opera staffer just 9 months into her job. She was “incompetent,’’ Fuller steamed, and he would have nothing to do with her.
Marko felt shaken. The company’s biggest donor wanted Opera Boston’s leader out. And over the next two months, Fuller backed up his words by withdrawing much of his financial support. That, along with poor ticket sales and the failure to score a $250,000 grant, led to the demise of Opera Boston, only months after the Pulitzer Prize for Music was awarded to composer Zhou Long for “Madame White Snake,’’ a production commissioned and premiered by the company.
Just before Christmas, the remaining members of Opera Boston’s fractured board announced the company would close, leaving ticket-buyers, arts leaders and even Mayor Tom Menino stunned and angry.
“Why do we find out one day they’re done?’’ Menino told the Globe. “Where is the leadership within the organization and why hadn’t they gone out and asked for help on this?’’
The leadership, it turns out, determined that the opera company couldn’t recover from losing its biggest booster. As weeks passed, Opera Boston’s deficit grew from about $250,000 in July to $500,000 by Christmas. With an expensive February production scheduled, “The Midsummer Marriage,’’ the board projected that the debt load would burgeon to more than $1 million - an unsustainable burden for an organization with a roughly $2.5 million budget.
Marko, the development director, offers a somewhat different account; it wasn’t debt that did Opera Boston in, he says, it was dysfunction. The only hope was a complete overhaul of the company’s board structure and its financing, he said, so Opera Boston would not be so reliant on a few key donors like Fuller, board chairman Winifred Perkin Gray, and board president Gregory Bulger.
“This happened for two reasons,’’ said Marko. “A board that didn’t understand governance and Randolph’s antipathy toward Lesley. It’s a dangerous situation when your three major donors are also in charge.’’
Koenig’s tenure started with promise last January.
She succeeded founding general director Carole Charnow, who left in 2010 to become director of the Children’s Museum. Charnow knew very little about opera until she met Fuller in the 1990s. He gave her recordings, took her to the Metropolitan Opera and became a treasured adviser.
Koenig was different. She arrived with considerable expertise, having directed productions at the Metropolitan Opera and serving as general manager of the San Francisco Ballet.
Her dream was to run her own opera company, but not at all costs. She says it was important, as she considered the position in 2010, to get assurances from company leaders that Opera Boston was in sound financial shape.
Bulger, in an interview Thursday, said Koenig should have known coming in that the company was scraping by because Opera Boston couldn’t afford a search firm to assist in finding a new director. He had also stepped in himself as interim general director to save cash.
Bulger declined to discuss Koenig’s performance. But when asked about the 2010-2011 budget, he said: “We’re all responsible for the large budget deficit and she was here for more than half of the year.’’
It took Koenig only a few weeks on the job to realize the company was broke.
“There was a point where we had $54 in the bank on a Friday and owed $110,000 on a Tuesday,’’ says Koenig. “The only way we could make it was to ask for board help. I was told that was how it always worked.’’
If there was a hope, she was told, it was in a $250,000 grant proposal the company had made to the Fidelity Foundation. Though Fidelity hadn’t provided money the previous year, word from the foundation was so encouraging, she was told, that Opera Boston’s finance committee and board built a budget that assumed it would come through. With the foundation money, the company budget would almost be balanced.
Too few donors
The fundamental problem with Opera Boston was an open secret within Boston’s tight-knit music community: Too few major donors.
While the older and more established Boston Lyric Opera has 25 donors who give at least $50,000 a year, Opera Boston had six giving at that level.
That wasn’t by design. In 2003, Charnow says that Opera Boston’s strategic plan specifically stated that it should never draw more than 10 percent of its budget from Fuller. The rule was destined to be broken. In fiscal year 2010, for example, Fuller provided $420,000, or 14.5 percent, of the company’s $2.9 million budget, according to Bulger. In fiscal year 2011, he gave $267,000 of the company’s $2.5 million budget - slightly more than 10 percent.
“This wasn’t for lack of trying,’’ says Charnow. “I beat myself into the ground trying to build support. But it was hand to mouth.’’
The company centered around Fuller, whose four decades on the city’s opera scene were marked by generous gifts as well as conflict. Some say Fuller, who declined several requests for an interview, almost single-handedly kept Opera Boston afloat for years. Others cast him as a petulant meddler who demands special attention.
“Insufferable and overwhelmingly pompous,’’ says Stephen Lord, artistic director of the opera studies program at New England Conservatory and, from 1992 to 2008, the music director of Boston Lyric Opera. “But because he had money, everyone courted him.’’
Opera Boston’s artistic director Gil Rose disagreed. For years, he and Charnow brainstormed with Fuller.
“We would always kick around ideas and I will tell you, many of Opera Boston’s great successes came out of Randolph,’’ said Rose.
In 1976, Fuller helped found Boston Lyric Opera, the city’s larger, more mainstream company. In 1998, he left BLO, frustrated with its direction, according to Lord. He and Gray, another former BLO board member, began to support the smaller Boston Academy of Music, or BAM, an organization founded in 1980 by singer Richard Conrad.
“He was very generous,’’ says Conrad. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to put on many of the things that I did put on. And then, one afternoon, I was out.’’
Beverly Orlove, a BAM board member, was at the meeting in 2002 when Conrad was ousted. Fuller gave no good reason, she said.
“He sent Richard out of the room and said that if we didn’t get rid of him, they would take their money and go,’’ said Orlove.
With the remaining assets of the academy, Fuller and Gray founded Opera Boston in 2003. They installed Charnow, BAM’s general manager, as the company’s general director.
Over time, the company developed a reputation for putting on rarely performed works at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Audiences grew, as did the company’s reputation, with such works as Shostakovich’s “The Nose,’’ John Adams’s “Nixon in China’’ and “Madame White Snake.’’
During this time, through economic upturns and downturns, Opera Boston could always depend on its biggest donors, Fuller and Gray. The pair are an odd power couple, observers say.
“He’s what I would call eccentric,’’ said Douglas Schneider, who served with both on BAM’s board. “If you’re looking for a colorful personality, that’s not Winnie.’’
What they have in common is wealth and a love of opera.
Gray’s father, Richard Scott Perkin, founded a company in 1937 that became a leading manufacturer of optical systems and scientific instruments. She lives in Wenham, works as an artist’s representative and has given generously to Republican party candidates and, through the family foundation, a range of arts organizations.
In 2010-2011, Gray gave Opera Boston $180,000. Her foundation, the Perkin Fund, added $150,000.
Gray, in an interview Thursday, said she and Fuller were merely “good acquaintances.’’
“We happen to have been in three different organizations together,’’ she said. “I don’t even know where he lives,’’ Gray said.
“Randolph marches to his own drummer,’’ said Gray. “Randolph gives what he wants to give and he gives it when he wants to give.’’
Fuller lives in a $1.4 million brownstone in the South End, has an unlisted phone number and hasn’t ever voted, according to city records. His late father, Robert Gorham Fuller, managed investments and served as an overseer at the Museum of Fine Arts in the 1980s. Randolph Fuller gave art to the MFA during the ’70s and ’80s, but otherwise, his philanthropic giving has been almost entirely to opera.
In 2010-2011, records show he gave Opera Boston $267,000. But over the last year, he began to withdraw. He gave $70,000 for the current year, Bulger said.
A growing rift
Nobody knows exactly what Koenig did to upset Fuller. Some believe he felt threatened by her opera expertise. Others say she wasn’t sufficiently solicitous of such a major financial patron. Rose, the artistic director, confirmed an incident surrounding a May production of Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla.’’
Fuller, as he often did, wrote an essay for the company’s program. The piece came in close to the program’s printing deadline. It was too long and included some asides Koenig didn’t like. She edited the essay and gave it back to a staffer and didn’t check the changes with Fuller.
At the opening night party, a staffer, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, saw the donor confront Koenig.
The rift became obvious. In September, Fuller offered Opera Boston $150,000 to strip Koenig of her artistic authority. Bulger and Gray resisted. Fuller continued to complain about her to board members and staffers. He even called Anne Ewers, the president and CEO of the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. She had served as BLO’s general director in the 1980s.
Ewers didn’t know Koenig. But she said that it was clear that Fuller, who she had always found helpful, sounded hurt. In an interview this week, Ewers defended Fuller.
“He takes a lot of care and feeding,’’ says Ewers. “But I’ll tell you, when the going gets tough, if you have built up a relationship with him, you can tell him that, ‘you know, Randolph, that’s not going to work’ and he will listen to you. When you don’t bother to develop that relationship, you get what you’re seeing now.’’
A collapsing plan
Only weeks after Fuller’s meeting with Marko, Opera Boston’s season-opening production of “Beatrice and Benedict’’ opened to weak ticket sales. Just 63 percent of the Cutler Majestic Theatre’s seats were sold during the three-show run. The previous season, the company played to 81 percent capacity.
Koenig felt support waning from Bulger and Gray. She began to wonder how she ended up in this spot.
“I’m an experienced professional,’’ she said. “Why did they bring me in? What were they looking for?’’
At the same time, Koenig began talking more with a group of less-prominent board members. They were led by Steven M. Weiner, an attorney who had joined the board in 2005 and, by his own admission, remained content playing a supporting role over the years.
Now he wanted to dig in. Weiner knew the depth of the crisis. When Opera America held its annual conference in Boston that spring, for example, Opera Boston’s credit cards were maxed. So Koenig wrote checks from her personal bank account to pay for the company’s registration in the national conference.
Weiner formed a committee that included Jill Fopiano a senior vice president with US Trust, Anthony Pangaro, a principal of Millennium Partners-Boston and David Speltz, an investments company founder who had previously run a hospital turnaround company, Speltz & Weis. They met on Nov. 17 and quickly determined the bottom line: The board needed to provide money to erase the deficit.
That wasn’t going to happen. Bulger, speaking this week, said that the Weiner committee’s plan wasn’t a plan at all.
“It wasn’t doing away with the debt,’’ he said. “It was just putting it off to a later date.’’
By then, he added, Gray and other board members were tapped out. Normally, in the fall, Gray gives about $40,000. During this crisis, she had provided $120,000. Bulger had given twice his normal fall gift of $25,000.
On Nov. 30, things got worse. Fidelity rejected Opera Boston’s grant request. In e-mails, Bulger told the board of the crisis deepened by Fidelity and Fuller. He called for a meeting in December to discuss Opera Boston’s future. And Gray told Weiner to disband his committee. The crisis was so great the larger board needed to deal with it.
Weiner and his committee disagreed. They felt marginalized and frozen out. Three of them resigned, joining two other trustees and an overseer who would be gone by Dec. 20, when nine of Opera Boston’s 11 remaining board members voted to dissolve the company.
“This has been a wrenching experience,’’ said Bulger of the final vote. “I’ve never gone through this in my life.’’
Earlier this month, Gil Rose sat at a coffee shop in Harvard Square and talked about the collapse. He admitted that maybe he, like so many others, got carried away with his ambition for Opera Boston, a company that had no endowment, no broad financial support, no real security blanket.
“Know thyself,’’ he said. “We may not have understood who we were. Maybe we didn’t realize we should have stopped our growth and hung out a while and taken stock before looking to move forward so fast.’’