New York City Opera: Finally RIP?

Despite Photo: Sarah Joy Miller as 'Anna Nicole'/Stephanie Berger

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2013 – After the fiscal shock of the Great Recession (which for many has yet to end), many performing arts organizations across the country, both large and small, were forced to adopt a fiscal bunker mentality in order to survive. Washington itself was not spared, with the Washington Chamber Symphony quickly going the way of the dodo, while the Washington National Opera suffered a near-death fiscal experience before its just-in-time adoption by the Kennedy Center.

Just up the coast, the venerable New York City Opera was undergoing similar woes, including the 2007-2009 evisceration of its endowment, compounded by the untimely renovation of its Lincoln Center home and capped off by the unfortunate appointment of an attention-getting prima donna to the company’s top post. We reported on this and other negative developments here in 2012:

“…in the midst of all these financial woes, the company chose to hire [the expensive] 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.” 

Mr. Mortier’s successor, current general manager and artistic director George Steel undertook a series of controversial moves to right the ship, briefly achieving some success in stabilizing the company. But, given the twin hits dealt the company by the Lincoln Center renovation and Mr. Mortier’s brief but disastrous entrance and exit, compounded by the fiscal crisis and the company’s history of managing its endowment and finances poorly, Mr. Steel and NYCO have been reduced to the status of a traveling vaudeville show of no fixed address that’s about to sink for the third and final time. 

SEE RELATED: Washington National Opera opens season with ‘Tristan and Isolde’

While NYCO’s current production of “Anna Nicole,” Mark-Anthony Turnage’s and Richard Thomas’ newish opera about the life and sad times of the late sex-symbol and tabloid personality opened September 17 to good reviews, the company’s future still looks to be in the artistic intensive-care unit, as New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has noted.

One writer suggested a return by NYCO to its old City Center home, which has been recently renovated. But it might be too late for that. (Credit: City Center)

“…hovering over this exhilarating co-production with the Brooklyn Academy of Music,” Mr. Tommasini writes, “is the sad realization that ‘Anna Nicole’ could also be the only production of the New York City Opera’s current season, or even possibly the final offering in the history of this valued 70-year-old company.” 

While the company will stage all seven scheduled performances of ‘Anna Nicole’ this month, the company could very well go into suspended animation after the final curtain. 

SEE RELATED: National Symphony Orchestra, Kennedy Center fall season underway

In a detailed article on NYCO’s plight in a recent Wall Street Journal essay, critic Terry Teachout notes that the company “says that it will ‘suspend the balance of its 2013–2014 season’ unless it can raise $7 million by Sept. 30, and will cancel the entire 2014-15 season if it fails to come up with an additional $13 million by year’s end.” 

But if “the rest of this season and all of next are canceled,” observes Mr. Tommasini, “it is hard to imagine how the ‘people’s opera’ could ever re-emerge.” It’s likely that he is right. 

NYCO is now in what Wall Street would call a “death spiral,” the point in the life of a business where its losses and cutbacks become self-sustaining to the point where the company can no longer marshall enough resources or good will to recover, forcing it to file for bankruptcy or shut its doors forever. 

In the case of NYCO and most other performing arts organizations, the attraction and retention of large donors is of vital importance. But large donors are often tough business leaders who insist on above average return on investements (ROA) in order to feed and maintain large egos. They like to be seen as backing winners, and instinctively avoid throwing good money after bad. 

Right now, it looks like NYCO’s dwindling cadre of backers has been quietly taking the rear fire escapes out of the building.

Mr. Steel’s and the company’s threat to can the current and following seasons may be a negotiating tactic geared toward scaring enough contributors into increasing their donations to stave off NYCO’s imminent near-death experience. On the other hand, the threats could very well be genuine. It’s impossible to tell at this moment.

But should NYCO confront its worst nightmare—having to deliver on its threat—what’s essentially a two-season shutdown will not be recoverable.

 We’d hate to think that the storied NYCO may soon cease to be. Yet it’s now a better-than-even chance that if “Anna Nicole” proves to be the company’s last production, NYCO will soon follow that ill-fated starlet into obscurity and oblivion.


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 and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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