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Article Published: 01 Sep 2020

Leadership Transition

The search for a new general director is never easy. And picking the successor to a leader of more than two decades — in the midst of a national health crisis — is a challenge of its own.

Yet New Orleans Opera came out all the stronger. In July, the company announced the appointment of Clare Burovac as its new general director. Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of OPERA America, called Ranney Mize, chair of the search committee, to learn how his board made its pick.

Ranney Mize and Clare Burovac of New Orleans Opera

MARC A. SCORCA: I bet you never expected to run a search through an international pandemic. I’m sure you feel lucky, at least, that the process began before the quarantine orders. Tell me, how did you get started?

RANNEY MIZE: Our search committee consisted of the six officers plus six additional members of the board. One of the first questions we asked ourselves was: Should we spend money on a professional consultant or can we determine for ourselves who is a good candidate?

After going through the process, I can confidently say that hiring an outside consultant was essential. And that’s for a couple of reasons: First, the consultant knows the opera world better than probably any board member in any opera company. Second, they can do background checks and vetting calls with people they already know. And finally, they’re experienced with the whole process — from placing the ads to obtaining reference letters.

How did you decide what you were looking for?
The search committee decided fairly early in the process that we would use our strategic plan as a guide for the kind of general director we were looking for. For example, if we were going to expand our audience and bring more value to the community, we would need to continue our chamber opera series and expand our education programs. So the search committee looked for candidates who had experience with doing lesser-known works, not just the warhorses, and doing them in venues other than the main opera house.

"We would use our strategic plan as a guide for the kind of general director we were looking for."

Robert Lyall has been the long-serving general director of the New Orleans Opera. Was it a challenge for you and your colleagues to define who his successor would be?
Robert has been in the field for over 50 years, and he’s been with the New Orleans Opera for 23. We were used to the perspective that someone with that longevity would bring, which is somewhat different from the views that our candidates brought. We had a fair amount of discussion about whether we needed a replacement for Robert — someone with that many years of experience — or whether we needed somebody with a newer vision. We ended up deciding on the newer vision. Again, it was the strategic plan that helped guide that.

I often hear from people who are aspiring to the general director position that boards only want to know whether they can fundraise, or whether they can sell tickets. What qualities was your board looking for?
Of the nine candidates we interviewed, it became apparent that we were going to have to decide on going in one of three directions. Some of the candidates had very strong administrative credentials, including a lot of experience in fundraising and finance, but had never been on the artistic side of a company. We had others who were renowned artists, with name recognition and extensive experience performing at opera companies, but little experience in the office. And then we had a third group who were administrators of prominent opera companies, often bigger than ours. They were not yet general directors, but clearly were experienced in both the artistic production and the business of opera.

We ended up selecting our finalists from that last group, those who knew about the art and the administration. Fundraising was an important criterion, but it wasn’t the only one.

I will say this: There were a lot of questions as to whether the candidates we were looking at actually had enough fundraising experience. What we ended up deciding was that it wasn’t necessary that they had been a director of development, but that they had the kind of personality and style we felt would be effective in raising money in the unique cultural environment of New Orleans.

You said the search committee had about a dozen board members on it. What role did the rest of the board play in the selection process? How did you balance confidentiality and transparency?
We approached the search with full transparency about the process, while maintaining confidentiality about the candidates — until we got to the final three. We engaged the full board in picking our consultant. We engaged them in reviewing the job description that we posted. And we engaged them in meeting the final candidates. Otherwise, we simply kept the rest of the board informed that the interview process was underway.

I worried a lot that the search committee or the board might end up in a stalemate between two candidates. There was a considerable amount of work and discussion within the committee that ended up landing us with Clare Burovac, the candidate we chose. And in the end, the board approved her by unanimous vote. I was glad that a number of board members made the time to interview Clare and the other candidates during their visits.

I talk to boards about calling it a “transition committee” rather than a “search committee,” because your work isn’t done. Have you thought about when Clare arrives in New Orleans: How will you make her feel welcome in the community? How will you open doors for her?
Clare comes from a different world. Portland, Oregon, is not New Orleans, Louisiana. So we have a number of plans in place. I have had several Zoom calls with her already. Dwayne Littauer, who is our new president of the board, is meeting with her via Zoom on a weekly basis. And she’s already participating in the weekly staff meetings of the company. In her current title, “general director designate,” she has hit the ground running.

When she actually gets here, I have prepared a list of about 45 or 50 people whom I think it’s important for her to meet: the officer of the Division of Cultural Economy in the Mayor’s Office who handles performing arts in the City of New Orleans; a member of our City Council; the head of the Downtown Development District; the executive director of the Arts Council. The list goes on and on.

I broke the list down into three categories. Those in government. Those in the performing arts. And those prominent New Orleanians in the business, corporate, and foundation communities. We have a plan for her to meet a whole bunch of people. We’ll help her connect across the city.

And of course, we’ll begin hosting dinner parties and receptions as soon as she gets here, if COVID-19 will allow it.

It sounds like a great plan. And of course, COVID-19 is a huge question mark. Perhaps it will be good that she can get her feet under her before she starts meeting people. Ranney, congratulations on this new chapter for your company.
Thank you, Marc. The pandemic hasn’t stopped us from taking Clare out to some of New Orleans’s great restaurants, with careful social distancing, of course. There’s a lot in store for her — and for us — in the years ahead!

This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Across the Board, a publication of OPERA America for opera company trustees.