Tempest in Woodstock: "What the heck is this opera house all about?" | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Tempest in Woodstock: "What the heck is this opera house all about?"

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The Woodstock Opera House overlooks a tree-lined cobblestone square in the center of McHenry County's most scenic city. Built in 1890 in the steamboat Gothic style, the handsome landmark was originally conceived as a multipurpose city hall. Over the years, as municipal offices were relocated, the building gradually turned into a center for the town's cultural aspirations: its 400-seat theater has played host to the likes of the Patti Rosa Players, a very young Orson Welles, and the Woodstock Players, whose summer-stock alumni include Shelley Berman, Paul Newman, and Geraldine Page. Lately, however, the opera house has been serving up unorthodox fare: a civic skirmish that highlights the ambivalent attitude toward cultural ambitions and urban encroachment that persists in Small Town, USA.

"It has been a very trying experience for all of us," says a longtime resident who wishes to remain anonymous. "We are not used to this kind of behavior and media exposure." Depending on whom you ask in Woodstock, Eva Bornstein, the 40-year-old erstwhile executive director of the opera house, either resigned or was fired from her position in February. Her dismissal has sparked Rashomon-like charges and countercharges. Detractors call her a snob; her partisans call her a misunderstood progressive. Underneath the bickering and name-calling is a deeper, still-simmering issue: how should the town's most prominent public-arts building be used?

Native son Orson Welles once called Woodstock "the grand capital of mid-Victorianism in the midwest." The fact that the quote appears in the city's tourist brochures is telling. Settled in the early 1800s as a farming community and established as a municipality in 1852, Woodstock takes pride in its blend of rural simplicity and urban sophistication. While insular and old-fashioned to a certain extent--as any town of 12,000 must be--it tolerates, even cherishes a degree of eccentricity. It was here that Eugene Debs converted to socialism, that Chester Gould spun out Dick Tracy's adventures. Today Woodstock finds itself more than a quaint tourist attraction in the middle of farmland but at the end of a corridor of burgeoning suburbs that extends from Chicago. As McHenry's county seat, it must redefine itself. And the century-old opera house has become a symbol of this transformation.

Yet for almost two decades the fate of the opera house was uncertain. "In the 60s the building deteriorated badly," explains John Scharres, the opera house's acting director and unofficial historian. "There were plans to demolish it for a multistory parking structure. But the townspeople had the good sense to make the commitment to restore it." More than a half million dollars went into the restoration--another half million was spent eventually--and the meticulously refurbished building opened its doors in 1977 as a performing-arts center. It has since won praise and popularity for its charming Victorian interior and its warm, intimate acoustics. Last year 240 events were presented, from lectures to concerts to plays.

Around the time it was restored, the Woodstock city council recognized the need for a professional administrator. By all accounts, the first appointee, Doug Rankin, was a respected manager who got along with most users of the facilities. Despite a limited budget and the initial resentment of other city departments, he deftly worked out a low-profile programming strategy that struck a delicate balance between local amateur productions and professional acts. In 1987, after ten years on the job, Rankin resigned to return to his native California.

Shortly afterward the city council hired a Chicago consultant to conduct a nationwide search for a successor. When Eva Bornstein applied, she wasn't particulary thrilled about the prospect of working in a midwestern town. She says she's a graduate of York University in Toronto, though she seems to have told people in Woodstock only that she went to the same university as the pope. She spent the first decade of her career as an arts administrator at three theaters in succession on the campus of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, and says she was quite happy being a cultural arbiter for a sophisticated academic community. Classical music was, and still is, her favorite cause. "I came from a cultured European background," she says in a lilting Polish accent. "I once roomed with the granddaughter of Mahler." She also married a conductor with whom she founded a summer festival in London devoted to Mozart's music. Had it not been for her husband, she would have preferred to move up to a prestigious position in New York or a comparably cosmopolitan city. "My professional training and experience prepared me for that type of situation," she explains. "I'm very selective." However, Charles Bornstein was tapped for the top post of the Rockford Symphony in 1987. Not willing to be separated from him, she reluctantly looked at what nearby Woodstock had to offer.

The relationship between her and the Woodstock community began on a sour note--even before she accepted the $40,000-a-year position, Bornstein recalls. "They asked me to come in for a series of interviews. It was a grueling process. I was inspected by all the user groups. It was clear to me that there was no artistic vision at all, with everybody in town offering opinions. Some board groups wanted to keep the opera house as a museum--but you can't attract people without presenting events. Other groups wanted to focus on local talents. Of course I knew that in the U.S. the entire community has to be involved in such things. But once you have some objectives and hire someone to meet the goals, you should not interfere. I definitely did not feel I needed an advisory commission telling me what to do." But an advisory commission was what she got. Representatives of the various theater companies, dance troupes, and presenters that rent the opera house for their events met regularly to help determine the budget and programming. "It was a tricky political situation, with all these user groups lobbying for their own needs. I wasn't given any clear directions, and I got the feeling that people in Woodstock didn't like outsiders, especially someone with an accent."

To her credit, even her detractors concede, Bornstein did persuade the city council to meet some of her conditions. "We brought Eva in to expand the opera house's diverse programming," says Woodstock city manager Dennis Anderson. The opera house's budget was increased significantly--which allowed her to add to the staff and to book well-known performers. One of her first initiatives was to transplant the Mozart Festival to Woodstock, with her husband in charge once again. Another new attraction was a performing-arts series sponsored by the opera house featuring internationally celebrated musicians and performers.

It was obvious from the start that Bornstein disdained certain kinds of music as well as community-based volunteer efforts. Deno Buralli Jr., a part-time impresario who's presented bluegrass and jazz acts at the opera house since 1984, says, "When she first came in, she didn't care for my type of music at all. But later, when it served her purpose, she swiped some of my acts. I must say she added more variety to the menu here. Unfortunately she got off to a bad start. She didn't understand the taste of the local people, the need to involve them in her programming. We're talking about a small town here." Kathie Comella--a member of the Woodstock Musical Theatre Company, which mounts three shows every year, drawing almost 3,000 people--agrees. "Eva wasn't sympathetic to community theater. There were no warm feelings between her and our group. I got the sense that she didn't care much for people in Woodstock." Or, according to many disgruntled opera-house users, she cared too much for the Mozart Festival. While other groups had to pay rent and other fees, the festival got special waivers.

Reflecting now on the charges of favoritism and elitism, Bornstein maintains, "My professional level is high--I'm not used to dealing with volunteers. The Woodstock Musical Theatre Company was most vocal about too much attention from the press on professional theaters and entertainments. I could get the Tribune and National Public Radio to cover the Mozart Festival because it had top-notch musicians. But there was no way I could get them to write about amateur groups, so these groups became very unhappy. No, you cannot compromise with artistic integrity. You must be honest with yourself. As a professional, I have responsibilities to the artists, to the citizens. I don't care where I work or how much money I make. But I do want to be treated with respect and not be asked to compromise standards."

Among those who appreciated Bornstein's tenure at the opera house is Gina Belt, a local director and a member of the Townsquare Players, Woodstock's other amateur theater troupe. "Eva had a wonderful open-door policy. She was receptive to suggestions, and she was very knowledgeable about grants and artists. She brought in exciting out-of-town acts like the Vienna Boys' Choir and the Chinese acrobats. She always went for new and inventive programming. In a big city she might not have met resistance from the resident groups. But she was probably too progressive for Woodstock, which, you might have guessed, has a strong vocal provincialism--even though she did put the opera house and Woodstock on the cultural map. There has always been an undercurrent of resentment against her. I think it has something to do with the fact she's an aggressive female European."

Bornstein might have survived longer in Woodstock had her personality not become an overriding issue. The consensus of the community is that she was no diplomat, that her temperament compared unfavorably with the finesse of her predecessor or the directness of her interim successor. For some, her European flair quickly turned into grating snobbery. And her colleagues often found her unpleasant to work with. "There was always tension in that place--and I was just an outsider who visited once in a while," says Deno Buralli. "Doug [Rankin] was definitely more organized, and got along with everybody." John Scharres, who holds an MA in theater from the University of Illinois and who had served as the opera house's technical director since 1977, was not impressed with Bornstein's performance as a financial administrator. "We were ringing the fire bell every day." And, he adds, "Eva was not good at spin control." Another coworker quips, "We called her the Dragon, both for her attitude and the way she smokes constantly. We were not awed by her, however."

Bornstein attributes some of the behind-the-scenes complaints to jealousy over her appearance in a national car commercial. In the TV spot aired last January, she's seen strolling through the wood-paneled (and possibly haunted) main theater. "I brought a lot of publicity to Woodstock, and no one seems to appreciate it," she says ruefully.

Bornstein's penchant for publicity has led to speculation in media-shy Woodstock that she leaked the circumstances of her departure to the press. Though all the parties involved now insist that she resigned voluntarily, her own statements indicate a less amicable divorce. For a while before a gag order from her attorney, Bornstein sounded angry and bitter. "If I had the support, I might have stayed. I had rapport with the community and audiences at large. But at the board meetings discussions got very heated. I no longer felt I could do my job properly under all this pressure." Now she's in a more philosophical frame of mind. "Woodstock is very much different from New York. It's a low-key, conservative all-American town. The citizens want the opera house to be a community center, a cultural center, and a museum--all at the same time. But in truth they give priority only to local productions. When I presented highbrow productions that attracted people from other communities, some of them said, 'Who needs all these strangers in our town?' And they don't like to spend too much on the upkeep either. So the city manager keeps asking, 'What the heck is this opera house all about?' All I can say is that I have great admiration for professional artists, and they must be given access to many communities. If we don't have culture, we're a bunch of consumers. The Europeans are much better at culture."

Alluding to a "financial settlement with the city by mutual agreement," Bornstein plans to spend at least one more summer in Woodstock running the Mozart Festival. "It's the only indoor chamber festival anywhere--and it has been a sellout from the beginning," she says with enthusiasm. "This time we will repeat the same concerts at the Midway Theatre in Rockford. Another wonderful thing about the festival is that I deal with a private board of directors. Woodstock is over. I must go on with my career, to thrive and persevere with integrity."

This time Bornstein may not have to worry about a commuter marriage. In March her husband's contract with the Rockford Symphony was not renewed; ironically, for reasons similar to those that led to his wife's departure. A profile on Charles Bornstein in the April issue of Rockford magazine tells of a proud, aloof maestro who looked down on volunteer musicians and fought with his board of directors. An acquaintance and fellow conductor believes that Bornstein "resented moving to the boondocks" and that his "abrasive personality and expensive concerts proved to be too much for the board."

When asked to comment on Eva Bornstein, city manager Dennis Anderson, who was her boss, says simply, "Read that article about her husband in Rockford magazine. It reveals so much about him and her. They are very much alike." Then he gamely adds, "I believe there's always conflict inherent in arts programming, in scheduling. But we intend to continue the kind of diverse programming she scheduled. Eva's predecessor was much better at interpersonal skills. She unfortunately only exacerbated the conflict. Right now, we are in no hurry to find a replacement. We've learned our lessons."

For the time being, John Scharres is occupying Woodstock's "hot seat." He's already feeling the heat. A recent article in a suburban edition of the Tribune quoted him as saying that the Bornsteins' Mozart Festival is not the most popular event at the opera house. The misquoted remark immediately led to a meeting between him, Anderson, and Mozart Festival's representatives. "The whole thing has come full circle," he says, bemused. "I was asked to resign. Believe me, I know how precarious an arts administrator's position can be. When the groups who hate your guts outnumber those who like you, you're out of the door. But seriously--to succeed, you don't bullshit local people, you must treat them as equals." Scharres, like most people in Woodstock, is fond and proud of the opera house. "Look at the facilities and think about the people who built them and those who restored them. Call them bumpkins or call them visionaries. You make your own judgment."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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