For better or worse, everyone is expecting Gerard Mortier, the grand poobah-designate of New York City Opera, to transform the company, which is precisely what everyone expected from his predecessor Paul Kellogg, and from his predecessor Christopher Keene. Kellogg is now the old guard - not, I suspect a role he would have cast himself in, and not one he's particularly well suited for. When he took over a decade ago, he moved with Gelb-like efficiency to put his stamp on a company that had been slammed by the AIDS-related deaths of Keene and many other members. City Opera was demoralized, financially and artistically shaky, and on many nights the house was depressingly empty (a trend abetted by Keene's penchant for programming operas that many people enthusiastically avoided).
Kellogg took the following steps, which almost nobody objected to: He doubled the number of new productions and started gradually replacing dated stagings of standard repertoire, most successfully with Mark Lamos' exquisite "Madama Butterfly." He moved all weekday performances back to 7:30. He brought in several productions each year that had been developed at the other house he ran, Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY. He started systematically presenting Handel operas and other baroque works, including Stephen Wadsworth's never-to-be-forgotten staging of "Xerxes" with Lorraine Hunt (no Lieberson, then) and, in his New York City stage debut, David Daniels. Besides Daniels, Kellogg also introduced Lauren Flanigan, Amy Burton, Mark Delavan and Anthony Dean Griffey to New York audiences.
Kellogg did not make City Opera much of a force in creating new operas, but he did recommit the company to American and 20th century work. And after commissioning the atrocious triptych of one-acters collectively called "Central Park," he wisely decided not to trust his own taste in contemporary opera. Instead, he imported certified crowd-pleasers: Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," Mark Adamo's "Little Women," Rachel Portman's "Little Prince," Tobias Picker's "Emmeline." He inaugurated VOX, the annual full-orchestra reading of new operas, some of which have gone on to full-fledged productions.
Such a catalog of good decisions makes the eyes glaze over, I know, which is why Kellogg will likely be better remembered for two more exciting initiatives, one a failure that some applauded, the other an accomplishment that many detest. The first is his relentless and unfulfilled desire to be the company's Moses, leading City Opera out of Lincoln Center and into a hall of its own. The second is the temporary solution to the acoustical problems of the company's current home: electronic enhancement, which Kellogg has always insisted is not a euphemism for amplification. Tony Tommasini, for one, has never bought it. I'm agnostic about both things. The pursuit of another house turned out to have been an enormous waste of time, especially since Mortier plans to let it drop, but there was no way of knowing that ahead of time. And I've never had the sense that the electronics in the New York State Theater have made much audible difference at all, though I'm aware that varies a lot depending on where you're sitting.
Here's my wish for Mortier: that by the time he cedes to the company's next savior, he has not only stirred up traditionalists' scorn, inspired some colorful headlines and presided over a couple of magnificent moments, but that he has also compiled something approaching Kellogg's more boring but beneficent record.