End could be near for New York City Opera

Musician lockout latest round in budget battle, death spiral.

NEW YORK, January 9, 2012 – Orchestras and opera companies across the nation continue to either shrink or disappear due to dwindling endowments, donations, and budgetary support—problems often triggered, then exacerbated by the nation’s ongoing Great Recession, which, economists to the contrary, has yet to end. The latest potential performing arts disaster: The highly regarded New York City Opera.

After grappling for years with a funding swan dive, the City Opera initially announced it would be exiting from the Lincoln Center this season and moving to a variety of other venues across New York City. According to the company’s website:

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center.

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center.

“In the 2011-2012 season, New York City Opera embarks on a new era as it leaves its Lincoln Center home to present its season in venues throughout New York City, creating a living presence in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the Upper West Side, Harlem, and Central Park. These world-class theaters are specially-curated for the opera productions they house…bringing the art form directly into the neighborhoods of the city we serve.”

A primary reason for the move: the New York City Opera’s use of the Center’s updated David H. Koch Theater complex—long the company’s formal home—was costing the City Opera some $4.5 million a year. Simply renting the space would cut that cost almost in half, according to the New York Times. Abandoning it potentially saves even more.

Even this cost-cutting measure, however, won’t even come close to closing the company’s huge budget gap. City Opera still must contend with paying its orchestra, chorus, and soloists a contractual union-scale rate. To trim this part of its balance sheet, at least indirectly, the company also pared its ambitious schedule of operas from 16 to 12, much as DC’s own beleaguered Washington National Opera slashed its already minimal season down to only five full operas both last season and this.

In addition, the City Opera has dramatically cut what it’s actually paying the musicians and chorus, understandably leading to a major labor dispute with the musicians’ unions. According to the Associated Press, when negotiations involving the union and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service broke down this past Saturday evening, the company chose to lock out the union’s artists and cancel today’s rehearsals for the upcoming February run of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

The orchestra’s union negotiating committee chair Gail Kruvand insisted that her members “made a good faith effort” to share sacrifices with the company. But, she noted, the company’s rejection of the committee’s latest proposals might very well be “the death knell for one of New York’s cultural treasures.”

The breaking point for the union apparently occurred when the company offer was no longer offering guaranteed “work or pay” to the musicians, according to AP, which also noted that “the musicians’ average annual income would drop from about $40,000 to as little as $5,000 for two productions.”

That said, it is difficult to imagine where the City Opera could ultimately come up with the funds to continue with its present business model. The company’s website is mum on the matter, and neither its blog nor its new release links appear to have been updated since early last fall.

Various news reports estimate the company has been in budget trouble for a decade or more, which actually pre-dates the nation’s current economic morass. Yet in the midst of all these financial woes, the company chose to hire expensive director Gerard Mortier as their new general manager and artistic director with a contract effective commencing with the 2009-2010 season.

Mr. Mortier, a Belgian national, had been used to presenting lavish, often avant-garde productions in Europe without many budgetary constraints, courtesy of the Eurozone’s tradition of hugely subsidizing the performing arts with taxpayer funds.

Unfortunately, on top of Mr. Mortier’s substantial monetary expectations, the company essentially suspended operations during the 2008-2009 season, according to AP, due to extensive remodeling of their Lincoln Center space. Mortier abruptly resigned from his new post before even heading up a single opera season, citing as his rationale his severely reduced budget.

Losing one season along with a new company chief who never really materialized over the course of two years may have contributed to the company’s seeming death spiral.. 

The musicians, and some patrons, place the blame for the company’s current difficulties on embattled current general manager and artistic director George Steel. Such sniping, however, is typical when any company, whether in the arts or the private sector, begins to implode due to unfortunate decisions by past front office regimes. Mr. Steel had been snatched away from the Dallas Opera in 2009 to pick up the pieces Mr. Mortier had left behind. But by the time he arrived, it may have already been too late.

Only in his mid-40s, Mr. Steel, also a conductor, has a relatively thin resume when it comes to running the operations of a major company, something his critics like to point out. However, he served as executive director of the nearby Miller Theater at Columbia University for 11 years and was widely praised for that venue’s innovative musical offerings. 

With little left to work with currently, it’s not clear what Mr. Steel can do to save the City Opera short of the performance and budget cuts he’s arguably been forced to impose. Saving millions by abandoning the Lincoln Center for less expensive venues was a start, renovations to the space notwithstanding. 

But with musicians, performers, and, presumably, a determined number of donors at loggerheads with Mr. Steel, added to NYCO’s already extant funding issues, it appears possible that the company’s budget right-sizing may have come too late.

From operas, to autos, to vanishing Eastman Kodak, the American landscape is changing irrevocably. Our economy, more than ever before, has become ruthlessly Darwinian. Organizations institutionally incapable of innovating or adapting today will not long survive.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communities column,The Prudent Man in Politics.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

Contact Terry Ponick


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