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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

City Opera: The Downward Spiral

Protests Outside, Dissemination Inside Mark NYCO Season Announcement at the Guggenheim
Local 802 and AGMA protest outside the Guggenheim Museum this morning.
Photo by the author.
The eyes of the opera world turned to the Guggenheim Museum today, site of the New York City Opera's much-delayed press conference announcing the company's 2011-2012 season.

Normally, a City Opera season announcement would be a fairly routine affair, conducted either at the former New York State Theater or a conference room somewhere on the Lincoln Center campus. But this season, which has seen the 68-year-old opera company uproot itself from its home at Lincoln Center, is anything but routine.
Close-up of one of the protestors' signs outside the Guggenheim museum today.
Photo by the author.
Outside the white concrete Nautilus shell of the museum, a protest was gathered, featuring tuxedo-clad members of Local 802, the musicians' union representing the NYCO orchestra members, and AGMA, who count the company's choristers among their constituents. The protest was led by soprano-turned-opera-director Catherine Malfitano. The singer, an alum of the City Opera, has been spearheading the protest against NYCO general manager George Steel.

"I am here to express outrage at the expulsion of the New York City Opera from Lincoln Center," Ms. Malfitano said. She went on to read a statement from former NYCO music director Juluus Rudel, expressing "dismay at the systematic dismemberment of the New York City Opera." "To perform opera with a pick-up orchestra is insane," she added.

The musicans have good reason be upset. Under the contract being offered by City Opera management (as reported by Daniel Wakin in the New York Times), the company will pay their singers and choristers a mere fraction of their former salaries, with no more guaranteed weeks. This has led to suspicions on part of both unions that the entire move is an elaborate piece of "union-busting" by the opera company. Both unions have expressed a vote of "no confidence" in Mr. Steel's leadership.

Last week, Ms. Malfitano wrote a much-publicized letter to the City Opera protesting the decision to vacate Lincoln Center. That letter was signed by industry luminaries.  Placído Domingo, José Carreras and director Harold Prince all signed. All are veterans of the troubled opera company.

Catherine Malfitano at today's protest.
The Local 802 banner is to her right.
Photo by the author
Inside the chilly Guggenheim lecture hall, City Opera general manager George Steel outlined the company's 2011-2012 season, which apparently will not start until February of next year. No mention was made of the NYCO plans to perform a 19th century opera in concert in October, although that show may be announced at a later date.

Next year, those who follow City Opera's trail of musical breadcrumbs through Brooklyn and Manhattan will catch performances of the Jonathan Miller production of La Traviata at BAM. No word yet on whether the company will use the Harvey Theater or the more opera-suited space of the Howard Gilman Opera House.

La Traviata (which is also on the Met's slate for next year in a revival of the Willy Decker production starring international superstar Natalie Dessay) will be performed "in repertory" with the U.S. premiere of Rufus Wainwright's first opera, Prima Donna. Mr. Steel was quick to drop Elton John's name into the conference as an endorsement of Mr. Wainwright's abilities.

Next up: Cosí fan tutte at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, located within spitting distance of the company's old home at 20 Lincoln Center. The season concludes with Orpheus by Georg Philipp Telemann, at the Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue. All of these are small theaters. Mr. Steel tried to turn this into a selling point, mentioning that he expects a "scarcity" of tickets for next year.

In other news, Mr. Steel was quick to mention the City Opera's new partnership to perform free Shakespeare-based operas in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater. The first of these will be in August or September of 2012. Tickets will be free.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.