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Monday, September 9, 2013

City Opera Faces Doomsday

Company announces emergency September fund-raising drive.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The New York City Opera faces an imminent fiscal crisis.
Image of Mike Myers as Dr. Evil from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
© 1997 New Line Cinema.. Caption by the author.
The New York City Opera dropped a bombshell this morning when it announced that the company is facing the possibility of cancelling most of its 2013-14 season--and plans for 2014 as well.

In a press release received by Superconductor on Monday morning, general manager George Steel announced that the company must raise $20 million in order to continue operations following its September production of Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Of that sum, $7 million is urgently needed.

"Without a significant investment of money, the Company cannot confidently move ahead into the future as it must: stable, growing, and producing the kind of opera for which NYC Opera has become revered around the world," Mr. Steel said. "New York City Opera is a vital part of the City and the nation’s artistic life. We are hoping donors from all over will rally to carry this glorious cultural treasure forward."

The press release includes a link to a Kickstarter campaign which hopes to raise $1 million by the end of the month. As of this writing, they had raised $16,643.

Although the North American premiere of Anna Nicole (which is scheduled for Sept. 17) will go ahead as planned, the Mark Anthony Turnage opera may be the swan song for this once prominent company. The City Opera must raise $7 million by the end of September or it faces cancellation of its spring schedule: productions of Johann Christian Bach's Endimione, Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and an eagerly anticipated Christopher Alden staging of Le Nozze di Figaro.

The City Opera's fiscal crisis dates back to 2007-08 when a combination of factors (the non-leadership of previous general manager Gerard Mortier, the lost ticket revenue caused by renovations to the former New York State Theater and the Wall Street crash) caused a "perfect storm" that crippled the company. The board was forced to raid the company's endowment in order to meet its debts. Since then, the endowment (which provided much of the company's regular operating income) has dwindled.

Seeking financial stability, the company left Lincoln Center in 2011. At the same time, Mr. Steel went to war with the City Opera orchestra and chorus, reducing its musicians to the role of freelancers playing just sixteen shows a year. This lockout almost scuppered plans for the 2011 season, which was saved by a last minute agreement. In another cost-cutting measure, the company auctioned off its storehouse of sets, props and costumes while at the same time launching four new productions in the spring of 2013.

Recent seasons have provided the company with a renewed sense of purpose and some considerable artistic success, repertory choices (Offenbach's La Perichole, Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna have left subscribers scratching their heads. The lack of a permanent home has also confused would-be opera-goers, who scramble between Brooklyn and Manhattan in the course of a "split" season. Additionally, City Opera faces competition from The Metropolitan Opera and up-and-coming Gotham Chamber Opera, which also produces shows in multiple locations each season. 

The New York City Opera was founded in 1943 as "the people's opera" by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. 70 years ago, the company opened with Tosca, Flotow's Martha and  financial crisis will determine if the people of this city really care enough to allow it to continue its existence.
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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.