By Howard Pousner
The unexpected resignation of the Atlanta Opera’s general director Dennis Hanthorn caught metro opera lovers by surprise this week.
The leader and public face of the 32-year-old company for eight years, Hanthorn was widely credited for achieving marked improvement in its artistry and helping it survive financial challenges that were in play even before the recession hit.
He shortened the Atlanta Opera’s season from four productions to three before the 2010-11 season, and the offerings have remained at that number since.
“If we have one mistake it’s over,” Hanthorn lamented in January 2011. A month later, the tune changed after the company received a $9 million bequest from long-time board member Barbara D. Stewart, a much larger gift than expected.
Then with the 2012-13 season opener approaching — “Carmen” at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Nov. 10 — Hanthorn left so quickly and quietly that the opera did not make a public announcement until the Atlanta Journal-Constitution inquired a week after his departure.
While the board conducts a national search for Hanthorn’s replacement, former Houston Grand Opera executive director Ann Owens will advise senior management leaders.
A company spokesperson said Hanthorn would not be available to discuss his departure. But William E. Tucker, board chairman since November 2011 and a board member since 2008, agreed to discuss the change and the company’s future.
Co-managing partner of Tucker Midis & Associates, an Atlanta-based firm that specializes in mergers and acquisitions, Tucker confirmed that the Atlanta Opera will operate this season with a budget approaching $5.2 million and continue to try to build its endowment now topping $6 million.
On making a leadership change so suddenly before the season starts: “I would say these are normal growing pains in a growing, thriving entity. I mean, leaders change.”
On the company’s efforts to define itself and carve a future: “We’ve just gone through a pretty extensive strategic planning process, laid out a multitude of issues, and brought in Alexander Babbage [a self-described customer “experience measurement firm”] to go through and understand and develop what our value proposition is for the community. I don’t know of many arts organizations that have really done that.”
On why the board and Hanthorn parted ways: “I think it’s just a direction of which way we’re going. Dennis is probably at a point in his career where he wants to explore broader things, and Atlanta is a traditional city.”
On if that means that Hanthorn wanted to make bolder programming choices than the board preferred: “No, this is very amiable. I have great regard and affection for him as an individual and regard for him as an artist. It came time for different paths…”
On progress he would like the company to make under a new leader: “Our major goal is to get back to [presenting] a fourth production. … We cut back from four to three to be fiscally prudent. I just really want the economy to turn and our donor base to feel confident in what we are doing.”
On the time frame for expansion: “Yesterday would have been great for me. It can’t be soon enough. … We want to produce works that Atlanta grasps, and typically that’s the top 30 pieces in the global opera repertory.”
On if he thinks the opera and the arts are heading toward greater stability: “I pray we are. If I had a crystal ball and knew which way the economy was going, I’d be in the wrong business. I’d be trading all the time.”