On Incentives

"Never penalize those who work for us for mistakes or reward them for being right about markets. It will go to their heads, is counterproductive and, in any event, material compensation will not correlate with their ability to predict the future next time."

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Writings & Speeches

Informal Remarks to Washington Opera

When I was asked a few days ago to make some comments about why I increased my contribution as a trustee to the opera, I must confess I was reluctant to talk to you for three reasons:

  1. Many of you here and many of those not here have given much more of their time and much more of their financial resources than I have.
  2. It seemed immodest—a bit narcissistic—to be singled out to talk to you.
  3. It is, for me, awkward and not easy to ask friends for financial support—even for most worthy causes.

Nonetheless, I have overcome my self-consciousness somewhat by asking myself a straightforward question.  Why do I support this opera?  Let me talk to you directly and openly.  First, for me, opera simply is one of the few activities which is immortal.  For those of us who cannot paint, sculpt, or write, there is not much that we will do which will be remembered a hundred years from now—if anything.  What we have done will probably be forgotten.  But opera will be remembered and celebrated, but only if it is supported; otherwise it will disappear.

The second reason, for me, is simply about those soaring melodies, emotional productions, superb singing which is right on the edge.  By that I mean—opera can relieve the stresses to which all of us are subject in our lives and remove the daggers in the heart.  But, as you know, it takes a great deal of resources and skill to produce those chills, the smiles, those giggles at hearing Rossini, the tears and the tranquility which for many of us no other art form can do.  But it’s a thin line; it is right on the edge.  It is hard to get to that point.  This opera company simply does it.  But it’s very easy to lose that impact.  A mediocre production, a so–so singer, an inadequate director can easily and quickly cause a performance to lose its edge.  And that is exactly what happens when you can’t attract the very best because you don’t have the financial resources.  The chills will be gone under those circumstances, and it takes a long time to recover.  And all of us will be the lesser for it.

Third—our own personal reaction to performances of this company is not overstated.  My wife and I see perhaps 30 or 40 operas a year, maybe more.  This weekend we went to Philadelphia for some recitals and operas.  We have been to Baltimore, Covent Garden, Munich, The Metropolitan in New York, Barcelona, Madrid, The Opera Bastille and La Fenice – this year.  The truth is that while our company may not be able to do the massive productions like the Met or Covent Garden can do because of their stage, we can and do produce the chills, tears, and tranquility with the best of them.  My friends in those cities express awe and compliments about our reputation in recent years.

Finally, if not us, who then—some stranger in Omaha, Nebraska or in Arkansas?  I mentioned that this past weekend I was in Philadelphia.  The newspapers were filled with the fact that a tremendous painting owned by the Jefferson Hospital, The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins—a painting of early surgery in Philadelphia—was contracted to be sold to Wal-mart and to be taken to a new museum in a small town in Arkansas – the home of Wal-Mart.  The loss of the painting is likened to taking the soul out of the city.  A copy of the painting or an inferior version of it just won’t do it. 

So too, we owe it to ourselves to maintain this opera company, here, at its achieved high level, not an inferior version.  Many have contributed in different ways their resources, time, skills, career and profession for us.  They make costumes and sets; they sing and direct.  It’s their whole life.  In a real sense, we owe them our support for making our lives easier and more fulfilling.  Everyone has given something.  And Placido has done his part.  He has agreed not to bring back Il Guarany to the repertoire.

Anything we do can make a difference. The 17th century English poet, Robert Herrick, put it this way:

“She by the river sat, and sitting there,
She wept, and made it deeper by a tear.”