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Posted at 2:40 PM ET, 11/18/2010

Peter Mark out at Virginia Opera

By Anne Midgette

Edited to add: A longer version of the story, in today's Washington Post.

Peter Mark. (Courtesy of Virginia Opera)

The Virginia Opera announced this morning that its board had terminated the contract of its artistic director, Peter Mark.

Mark, who is in his 36th season at the company, will be dismissed effective immediately. His one remaining performance this season was scheduled to be “The Valkyrie,” a shorter version of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” that Mark helped to abridge himself. A guest conductor will be announced after Thanksgiving.

Mark was the founding director of the Virginia Opera. Hired in 1974, a gifted musician without much conducting experience, he helped create a company known for quality productions with undiscovered talent. Diana Soviero, Ashley Putnam, Renee Fleming and Rockwell Blake were a few of the singers who numbered the Virginia Opera among their early employers. The company also offered premieres of works by Thea Musgrave, a Scottish composer who was internationally prominent in the 1970s and 80s and who happens to be Mark’s wife. A true state opera, it presents all its productions in three cities: Norfolk, Richmond, and Fairfax, where its GMU performances draw a Washington-area crowd. (Cosi fan tutte, which Mark was not conducting in any case, opens there on December 3.)

But Mark has also been a polarizing figure: an adept fundraiser who’s popular with donors and audiences, but is said to be difficult with musicians and staff. There is a long history of alleged personnel problems – something Mark’s supporters, saying that conductors are always temperamental, brand a smear campaign. And in recent years, the company has struggled - like most opera companies these days - with declining ticket sales, a lower budget, and charges of artistic stagnation.

The executive committee of the opera’s board, which is responsible for personnel decisions in the organization’s leadership, determined that Mark’s current contract, scheduled to end in May, 2012, would be his last. As the date grew nearer, Mark said that there had been no such understanding and that he wanted to negotiate about his further role; he also, according to a timeline drawn up by the executive committee, repeatedly refused to discuss the committee’s proposals about a transition.

The debate spread to the opera board, dividing long-time supporters, and went public when Edythe Harrison, the opera’s founder, came out during the curtain calls for a Norfolk “Rigoletto” in October and informed the audience that there was a cabal acting in secret to try to remove Mark. This resulted in floods of e-mails, both in support of Mark and against him, and bitter debate that led to a few resignations from the board and some irate letters from donors or former donors. Mark claimed that the actions arose spontaneously, without instigation from him.

The grounds for termination, according to Alan Albert, a former president of the board and the current president-elect, were "violations of obligations arising under Peter Mark’s employment agreement and the Virginia Opera Association’s employment policies." It would be inappropriate, he said, to comment further.

“The executive committee,” he added, “has attempted for ten months to negotiate with Peter Mark for a positive and constructive transition in artistic leadership that would be coupled with an appropriate recognition of his long service to the Virginia Opera. And it is unfortunate that those efforts did not succeed.”

In a press statement issued from his home in California today, Mark said, "This termination is not justified either on moral or legal grounds – or by common sense. It is not in the best interests of Virginia Opera and its audiences. The termination breaches my employment agreement with the Opera which provides for my employment as Artistic Director, Music Director, and Principal Conductor through May 31, 2012. If it is not promptly reversed then my attorneys will take the appropriate legal actions. I should hope that that would not be necessary."

By Anne Midgette  | November 18, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Washington, news, opera  
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