Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

Robert Tannenbaum is leaving his position in Austria to head the new Sacramento Regional Performing Arts Alliance.

New leader of Sacramento philharmonic/opera alliance to bring European viewpoint

Published: Sunday, Apr. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 7, 2013 - 7:31 am

A native New Yorker with extensive experience staging opera, symphonic music and other art forms has been picked to lead the soon-to-be merged organizations of the Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera.

Robert Tannenbaum, 56, will begin his tenure as general director on July 1, when the merger becomes official. The two groups will operate independently under the umbrella name of the Sacramento Regional Performing Arts Alliance.

Tannenbaum will oversee a budget in fiscal year 2013-14 of $1.8 million, which is less than the combined budget of $2.1 million that the two organizations are operating under this year.

He inherits two companies that have seen plenty of financial struggles since the economic downturn in 2008. Both organizations were deeply affected by plunges in subscription ticket sales and corporate donations, which became a strong motivator for a merger. Those pressures led the 31-year-old Sacramento Opera to cancel most of its 2011-12 season and the Sacramento Philharmonic to threaten closure last year.

Tannenbaum was recently picked by a unanimous vote of an eight-member selection committee with representatives from both the philharmonic and the opera.

Much of his recent work experience has been in Europe, mainly in Germany and Austria. Most recently, Tannenbaum was executive director of the cultural division at the Esterházy Foundation in Austria, a post he had held since 2011.

"Most of the problems that we're having here in Sacramento are endemic, in general, to the performing arts in America," Tannenbaum said. "But there are certain things about the Sacramento area that make it a bit more intense."

Tannenbaum said he believes the arts community should lose its apologist stance about financial woes.

"I told the board that this is not our fault," he said. "People who are the custodians of these art forms have this feeling of 'What have I done wrong?' or 'Why is this happening?' "

Tannenbaum brings a decidedly European viewpoint about how a community must support its arts groups.

"We create bond issues to build stadiums and we pay for these stadiums regardless of whether we go to those games or not, or to a Madonna concert there," he said. "Why do we do it? Because that is part of what makes a city viable and vibrant."

Tannenbaum believes nonprofits such as the philharmonic and the opera are not sustainable unless they exist as an almost civic entity.

"These art forms are important to the economic and social health of this city, whether I attend them or not," Tannenbaum said. "This is something that in the European system is the sense of community fiber. … The arts are no different than having a municipal swimming pool."

Born in New York City and raised in the Forest Hills section of Queens, Tannenbaum is a music history graduate of Columbia University. He considered graduate school but instead accepted a one-year grant in 1979 to study stage direction at the forerunner of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. He stayed another three years with the company.

Between 1983 and 1989, Tannenbaum directed several productions of the San Diego Opera, including "Fidelio" and "Aida."

Since then, he has been a manager and opera producer for companies in Germany, while concurrently directing operas. He got his first crack at running a company when he was tapped as general director of the Stadtthater Giessen, a job he held from 1992-96. In that role he managed a theater that presented opera, symphonic music, theater and dance.

At the San Diego Opera, Tannenbaum made a lasting impression as a stage director, said Ian Campbell, who at the time had just taken over as general director of the company.

"What he was then was a very capable stage director with very interesting ideas … and one that was considerate of singers," said Campbell, now in his 30th year leading the company.

"I didn't know him in an administrative capacity other than directing those works, but even then he was very interested in getting involved in the administrative side. … We spent a lot of time talking about management."

Campbell said Tannenbaum's experience in Germany is a great credit to his skills at navigating a tricky arts environment.

"It's very political dealing in an opera house in Germany if you're a resident director," Campbell said. "If you can survive there for a few years – with all that political infighting and intrigue – you should be able to build some diplomatic skills.

"He may have a few diplomatic incidents to deal with here, but from what I know of his work in Europe, he should be the right man for the job in Sacramento," Campbell said.

Indeed, it was Tannenbaum's experience with the artistic as well as management side of the business that made him stand out among a short list of 12 candidates, said Michael Nelson, who is currently overseeing both organizations as board president as they head toward merger.

"He was chosen because of the depth and the breadth of his knowledge," Nelson said. "He has such a wide level of experience across both art forms, and that was really very attractive to us."

Tannenbaum recently signed a two-year contract to lead the merged organizations, said Jane Hill, interim executive director with the philharmonic. Hill did not disclose Tannenbaum's salary, though she described it as "modest."

Tannenbaum will oversee a merged organization offering a 2013-14 season of one major opera, a semi-staged opera and a yet-to-be established number of small children's opera productions.

On the philharmonic side, the presentation slate will include three concerts – with one of those a pops concert.

Tannenbaum said he was drawn to the position in large part because of the weather.

"In Europe, you're sitting in fog from the middle of October to April," he said. "California is where I always wanted to be. It feels like home to me."

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

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