The Opera and the Symphony
If this is not to your musical tastes, feel free to await your copy of the 2010 Mariner Annual so you have something else to read. But I figure holding our last event at Benaroya gives me a hook to talk about this, and anyway it’s not really about the music. Rather, I want to reflect a little bit on organizational structures and team leadership. If you follow other sports teams in town, you may have heard that this was a really big issue one of them has been sorting out recently. But in order to stay focused on baseball, I don’t want to invite people to talk about the wrong sport, so ironically the way I’m choosing to do that is to talk about something other than sports.
For the performing arts, it’s not hard to make an analogy to team sports in that it often requires assembling a talented cast of performers for a coordinated public exhibition of their skills. We don’t often dwell on the similarities since there’s considerable tension between these worlds, partly because they can come in competition, as entertainment options or for tax dollars. But one of the things arts and sports can have in common is a similar set of structural models. After all, somebody has to be responsible for putting together a team – often within the limitations of a budget – and then be accountable to the audience for the quality of the team’s performance. Both sides have even been known to use titles like “general manager” for this person.
All of this can include the theater, but I’m focusing on the musical arts because I’m more familiar with practices there. I’ll also emphasize the musical side, even though opera has a significant stage component, because opera companies and symphony orchestras provide a handy contrast to illustrate my point. (It also happens that Seattle’s two major institutions here are facing their own leadership transitions in the near future.) Either way, you have a team of players called an orchestra, each more or less specialized to a particular position like in baseball. The players also have varying levels of prominence – a bassoon gets a star turn about as often as a long reliever is your best pitcher – but all the parts contribute to the overall performance. Griffey, who once had concertmaster/diva status as the star performer, has now come back as that goofy percussion player who cracks jokes and keeps people loose. The person who coordinates all this activity
on game day the night of the performance is the manager conductor. Notably in comparison to baseball managers, the conductor generally doesn’t play an instrument (though he may have played professionally earlier in his career), yet much of the attention afterward will be focused on his performance.
For a symphony orchestra, the conductor is the person who controls everything, the maestro, and for people who have issues with that, whether it’s not liking the
offensive philosophy composers he favors or the third baseman lead trumpeter not getting along with him, tough luck. At the opera, though, the conductor is hired for a particular show like the singers, maybe because he’s a Mozart specialist or something, and though he directs the performance, he’s not the ultimate power in the company. The guy (and these are nearly always men) who decides what operas to put on, who the soloists will be, and makes other key decisions is the general director. But for some exceptions, and there are always exceptions, these are typical patterns for the respective leadership structures.
Over its history, baseball has fluctuated between these extremes. It has seen managers who ran the show completely, with the front office limited to administrative functions. That’s the old-school version, and you sort of get the feeling that in his more frustrated moments of wishing he had another bat, Lou Piniella would have preferred being the maestro, with the power to go get what he needed, whatever the cost. On the other hand, you have the approach where a manager is simply someone to execute in-game tactics, based on an organizational philosophy that has been determined for him. Billy Beane and the A’s have gone about the furthest in that direction in today’s environment.
As we get back into spring training and start seeing actual games again, we’ll have more opportunities to think about the leadership and decision-making of Wakamatsu as opposed to Zduriencik. Now, by contrasting these structural models I don’t mean to imply anything specific about how the Mariners have set things up or create a false tension. If anything, by most accounts things have gone well because Zduriencik includes all the key people in the process, so that everyone is on board with the overall philosophy while also understanding their individual roles. I just think it helps to understand the spectrum of possibilities as we evaluate the work being done, particularly since it’s difficult to quantify apart from performances of individual players.