The Fat Lady Sings: In Dire Financial Straits, City Opera Bids Farewell to Lincoln Center

The Fat Lady Sings: In Dire Financial Straits, City Opera Bids Farewell to Lincoln Center

After marathon meetings on Thursday and Friday, City Opera's board announced on Friday that it is leaving its home at Lincoln Center and will mount performances in various locations around the city next fall. It is a dramatic move, especially since no tenant has ever left the arts complex before. While the decision is intended to strengthen the company financially, it could also represent a loss of status for the now-nomadic organization, which was dubbed "the people's opera" by then-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

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City Opera officials said that leaving Lincoln Center would save $4.5 million in annual costs, the New York Times reports. The decision marks a stunning change of course, since the company's home at the New York State Theater just recently underwent extensive renovations and was renamed in 2008 for David H. Koch (arts patron and Tea Party funder) following his $100 million gift. Under previous general manger Gerard Mortier, City Opera and the New York City Ballet jointly oversaw the $107 million renovation, and the opera even canceled its 2008-2009 season during construction. (The acoustics had long been deemed sub-par by opera aficionados — which stands to reason, since the stage was originally designed to muffle dancers' footfalls at the behest of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.) City Opera does not pay rent on the Koch Theater but does pay operating costs, including front-of-the-house operations and security, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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City Opera is dealing with a $5 million deficit, half of which board chair Charles R. Wall has pledged to pay, and an endowment that has shrunk from $55 million to $9 million, following the recession. George Steel, the company's general manager and artistic director, declined to give the amount of the new budget, although he specified that it would be "significantly smaller" than this year's budget of $22 million, according to the Times, which adds that it is not clear what legal steps will be necessary to formally bid adieu to Lincoln Center.

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Other questions also remain — such as what will be performed, and where. "My plan is to establish a home base for the company at a single venue and branch out," Steel told the Times. "We have a very good idea where we will do these productions." He declined to be more specific, and has not yet announced the works to be performed next fall (even though opera houses typically program their schedules years in advance). He did indicate that the fall program will resemble the reduced schedule of the past two seasons, with five operas and three concerts.

Labor issues also loom large in City Opera's future. Alan Gordon, the executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the opera's singers, dancers, chorus, and stage mangers, told the Wall Street Journal that the company plans to pay many of its performers on a freelance basis, a decision that the union plans to fight. City Opera's contracts with the union expired in April, and Gordon told the Journal that it would not negotiate with the company until finding out who will be employed, for how long, and the size of the budget. According to the Associated Press, Gordon said on Saturday that the union intends to file charges of unfair labor practices, and possibly even seek an injunction to prevent the company from continuing to use the name New York City Opera. 

Bloomberg reports that the union leader has also made the unusual decision to weigh in on programming and marketing decisions, writing a letter to management complaining that "George Steel's artistic vision may be brilliant, but it doesn't fill the seats." Bloomberg went on to note that the company sells only 40 percent of its tickets on a good night. In his letter, Gordon griped that "Séance on a Wet Afternoon," the first opera by "Wicked" composer Stephen Schwartz, was undersold, saying that management did not adequately advertise the performance to the theater community. "We are dismayed when we ask the general director what is being done to get the word out about the show, and his only suggestion is that we use social networking sites to tell our friends to come see the show," Gordon wrote. 

A more expected source for artistic suggestions, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, bashed " Séance on a Wet Afternoon" for different reasons, calling it a "hapless" work that ended the season "dismally." But he praised two City Opera productions during Steel's tenure, Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Bernstein's "A Quiet Place," placing them "among the most exhilarating productions I have seen over the last two seasons in New York and around the world." As for the move, Tommasini is "all for City Opera's leaving Lincoln Center," judging that the 2,600-seat Koch Theater is "just too big" for the company's theatrically innovative productions. For decades, City Opera has wanted to escape from the Met's shadow in Lincoln Center, Tommasini points out, "and if desperation has compelled this move, which seems a little rash, that does not lessen its potential benefits."