Friday, May 2, 2014

After 33 years, James Caraher didn't fit a financially struggling opera company's idea of its future

James Caraher weathered several major crises during his long tenure at Indianapolis Opera, most of them as artistic director.  But he could not survive the organization's anxiety about its long-term viability.

A proposed leadership shakeup would have taken away his job, leaving him to report to a new artistic director and a new executive director. That led to his resignation Monday, effective immediately.

When we talked Friday afternoon, the 63-year-old musician had decided to break his silence about his departure. It had been publicly represented, first in the Indianapolis Business Journal and today in the Indianapolis Star, as a sudden resignation that took company insiders by surprise.

“When one loses their artistic director, I mean, that’s their job to come up with the season,” Carol Baker, the opera’s general manager, was quoted by The Star as saying. “While we expected to be able to announce our 2014-15 season, I think we’re going to have to put that on hold.”
 "When I saw people start blaming me for things, and questioning my integrity," he said, "I had to defend it....Anybody with half a brain would see that if I'd stuck it out through all [the company's] troubles for 33 years, I wouldn't all of a sudden just up and quit."

James Caraher explains why he needed to speak out about his resignation.
In fact, when Caraher left the company, there was no season ready to announce. Precarious finances had resulted in nothing concrete, he said. "There were tentative plans and tentative season combinations. We would talk about what would make sense — with big productions, small productions, how to use the Basile Opera Center and Clowes Hall.

"It all depended on what the overall budget was going to be," he continued. "We were sitting  tight on several scenarios."

What triggered Caraher's decision to resign was reading in minutes of an April 26 emergency board meeting that a new executive director, to be given "artistic control of the vision" of the company, would be hired, in addition to a new artistic director. "I was supposed to prepare a plan for the transition that would result in the termination of my services as artistic director," he said, adding that the wording seemed to leave open a role for him with the company under the new leadership.

"The way I look at it, it was my job (that was being sacrificed)," Caraher said. "I didn't do anything for about a week. I didn't do anything rash or rude."

A phone call from board president Judy Woods let him know that Steven Stolen, regional director at Rocketship Education, a charter-school group, was the directors' choice for executive director. Caraher knows who the proposed artistic director is as well, but for the sake of friendship, declined to name the apparent designate. (Stolen, a popular oratorio and recital tenor, formerly served in top managerial positions with the Indianapolis Children's Choir and Indiana Repertory Theatre.)

He decided there was no place for him in the new structure commensurate with his track record and his skills. "I'm not at an age when I'm looking forward to retiring," Caraher told me, so he is exploring  a few possibilities here and abroad. "I've talked to a number of people about this, people who will want to know why all of a sudden my calendar is open. At the moment, it's just fishing."

When asked if major donors may have had a hand in the change, Caraher said: "I have no specifics, but I think that was part of it. I think people enjoyed the opera, but donors who saw the bottom line — that attendance numbers are down, subscriptions are going down, and donations going down — thought there must be something wrong with the operation. It's very possible that attitude took over in this community."

The possibility that financial resources may be available only according to a viable business model rather than a sound artistic vision and sense of mission concerns Caraher, and not just with respect to the Indianapolis Opera shakeup.

"This is filtering into all the arts, that people are expendable," he said. "When people work together over a long period of time, it's different than if they are just capable of playing an instrument, or conducting, or singing. It's affecting the whole art form: The Met is not hiring back some of the great, experienced singers because they want young, pretty people who will look good on video."
Caraher said he never felt Indianapolis Opera was leaning toward closing its doors, even after the last production of the 2013-14 season, Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring,"  had to be canceled in March for financial reasons. "I was in on all the budgetary board meetings," he said. "And we couldn't afford to pay for it. Given the state of things, it was the only logical decision to make. I was really disappointed.

"I'm sure in some people's minds it might have looked like we would consider quitting [altogether], but at the meetings I attended toward the end, there was a very gung-ho attitude. Till it was so obvious that we couldn't go on, no one wanted to throw in the towel."

He said he was not aware anyone close to the company was dissatisfied with his leadership. Caraher refuted a viewpoint expressed by an observer quoted in The Star in March that Indianapolis Opera had lost support by veering away from mainstream productions. "The whole point of this season was 'Why don't we try something new, and do unusual things, pieces we've never done before? It was a board directive." Opera classics like "Carmen" and "La Boheme" have been mainstays of the company's schedule during Caraher's tenure.

Caraher reported that he had received many expressions of shock and best wishes from members of the Indianapolis Opera Chorus and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra this week. Kent Leslie, ICO charter member and principal horn of the Lafayette and Anderson symphonies, told a local music-scene observer today that Caraher is his favorite all-time conductor.

"It's kind of nice to know all these people feel badly and are my friends," the departed artistic
 director said. "To see the whole thing end this way is not fun."

Caraher's resignation ends the longest artistic tenure at an Indianapolis arts organization: 33 years. It encompassed both the visionary years of Indianapolis Opera under Robert Driver in the 1980s,  a crisis of leadership and fiscal stewardship under Nando Schellen in the early 1990s, an attempt several years ago at a takeover alleged to have been engineered by the former administrative head of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the jolt of executive director John Pickett's sudden departure a year ago.

He bore artistic responsibility for chamber-opera productions mounted in the company's new home, Basile Opera Center. Links to other opera companies, including co-productions with Opera Memphis and Indiana University Opera, and a track record of star loyalty (among them, baritone Robert Orth, soprano Maureen O'Flynn and tenor Gran Wilson) were hallmarks of Caraher's tenure.