Deborah Sandler, now the lone director at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, has a clear goal for the organization.
“Make us indispensable to the public,” said Sandler, the Lyric’s general director and CEO. “We will have a much deeper community footprint as an organization. That’s my vision — that we become indispensable to the community through what we provide.”
On Wednesday, Lyric Opera announced a “major artistic reorganization” that restructured the company’s management. Sandler is now also responsible for artistic leadership. As a result, longtime artistic director Ward Holmquist’s job was eliminated.
The news seemed shocking at first. Holmquist broke the news himself just over a week ago, before the Lyric sent out a news release, after a reporter questioned him about his employment status.
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But Sandler said it was all part of a yearlong planning process. Holmquist, she said, was told in a March 11 meeting that his contract would not be renewed after it ends June 30, 2016.
Sandler said, however, that the Lyric would compensate Holmquist through the contract period, although he is no longer working there. His salary was about $143,000.
“Opera companies are like families,” Sandler said. “That means it’s a close-knit group of people who live together in their work lives. And sometimes they agree and sometimes they disagree. Ward and I had a professional relationship and I have been intimately involved … in every artistic decision.”
Sandler said the new plan calls for partnering with other arts groups and developing new arts initiatives to elevate the company’s profile. This summer, for example, the Lyric will team with the Coterie Theatre’s Young Playwrights Roundtable and the UMKC Conservatory’s Composers in the Schools program for a performance called “Words and Music” at KC Fringe.
Until the reorganization, the Lyric’s management structure resembled a model found at other big performing arts groups. Orchestras, ballet companies and theater organizations are often led by two officers responsible for the financial stability and artistic growth.
At the Kansas City Ballet, for example, artistic director Devon Carney and executive director Jeffrey J. Bentley lead the company as a team. Music director Michael Stern and executive director Frank Byrne lead the Kansas City Symphony. At Kansas City Repertory Theatre, artistic director Eric Rosen sets the vision and executive director Angela Lee Gieras leads the organization.
Holmquist pointed to those partnerships as successful collaborations, something he said did not happen at the Lyric.
“I want the Lyric to succeed,” he said. “It’s very common within opera companies to have differences of opinion.”
Sandler said those comparisons didn’t apply to the Lyric.
“We didn’t have a two-headed structure,” she said. “Ward reported to me. It was in the contracts.”
Holmquist said he and other senior staff were involved in the reorganization effort early in the planning process. But after a certain point, he was no longer invited to meetings.
“I’m not going to comment on personalities,” Sandler said. “We wish Ward the best. A lot of people are very fond of Ward. But this was a decision that came about because of the reorganization plan.”
Holmquist, likewise, said he hoped the Lyric would enjoy continued success. “I don’t want to do anything to mar that,” he said.
Some Lyric supporters aren’t thrilled by the change.
“I’m appalled,” said Kirk Carson of Parkville, a longtime patron and financial contributor to the Lyric. Carson expressed his views in an open letter to the board, which he shared with The Star.
“I also have concerns that damage has been done not only to Kansas City, but the national reputation of the Lyric within the national arts community,” Carson wrote. “I’m sure the board is aware that social media is on fire regarding Mr. Holmquist, and not one source that I have read has yet to agree with the decision.”
Some, but not all, opera companies have general directors at the top of the management pyramid who guide the company artistically as well as administratively. Some have music directors, who are responsible for maintaining a resident orchestra — which the Lyric doesn’t need because its orchestra is the Kansas City Symphony. No two companies appear to have exactly the same management structure.
Kenneth Hager, the Lyric’s board president, said the 2011 opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was a significant moment for the Lyric. The opera company became a resident tenant at the Kauffman, along with Kansas City Symphony and the Kansas City Ballet. The following year — the year Sandler was hired — saw the opening of the company’s opera center, a complex on East 18th Street that houses a rehearsal studio, scenery and costume shops and administrative offices.
Hager said the board hired Sandler, who had previously been the general director of the Kentucky Opera, because of her experience. The board, he said, wanted Sandler “to take the Lyric to the next level.”
Sandler and Hager said the opera is now committed to a continual three-year planning process, which allows not only the planning of future seasons but other initiatives in the community. The company’s current budget is $6.5 million.
Holmquist said his career plans were unclear at the moment. But his memories of the Lyric are almost all positive.
“I gave 17 years to this company and they gave me a phenomenal opportunity that I will always be grateful for,” he said. “I’m thankful for that and I cherish it.”