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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Further Down the Death Spiral

City Opera orchestra, chorus plans strike.
The intrepid City Opera scouts Japanese locations
for a planned 2012 staging of Madama Butterfly. 
Naruto Whirlpools by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Even as socialites and royalty celebrated a "new era" for New York City Opera at a gala fund-raising bash this week,  plans for the 2011-2012 season have been jeopardized. 

Talks have broken down between City Opera's management (led by current General Manager George Steel) and representatives for Musicians' Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists. These two unions represent the orchestra and chorus, the backbone of any opera company. 

Mr. Steel plans to rip out that backbone, and essentially pay artists like freelancers, with minimal salary and almost no health benefits. The cash-strapped opera company abandoned its Lincoln Center home last year, and is planning a "roving" season of just five operas, to be staged in various venues in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The abbreviated season and new, smaller venues, also carry higher ticket prices than the former New York State Theater.

According to a New York Times report by Daniel J. Wakin, the company's current offer to the musicians reduces orchestra salaries from a livable $40,000 a year to a "reduced" rate of $4,000. The offer came after City Opera deliberately let the old contracts expire at the end of April, 2011.

In an e-mail obtained by and published by, Mr. Steel reported that negotiations were "at an impasse." You can read the whole e-mail here.

Also stripped in the new contract offer: health benefits. Earlier this fall, Local 806 representatives offered to play "for free" if they were allowed to keep their old health benefits. That offer was rejected by Mr. Steel last month.

Other recent sacrifices made by City Opera include the axing of music director George Manahan and the slashing of the Vox program, a workshop which allowed young composers working on new operas to get an airing.

The planned strike will probably not affect the company until January, when rehearsals start for the City Opera's planned performances in February. Those performances, planned for the Brooklyn Academy of Music include an imported Glimmerglass Opera staging of La Traviata and the New York premiere of Rufus Wainwright's new opera Prima Donna. For a full preview of the City Opera's truncated season, click this link.

In other news, the City Opera board recently voted to extend Mr. Steel's contract for three years. According to the Times, Mr. Steel's recent tax returns list his salary at $407,000/year. He did not get a raise.

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