Is $5 Million the End of the World -- Or an Opera Company?

Friday, April 08, 2011 - 12:12 PM

For many, it seems a maddeningly disconcerting that New York City Opera should now postpone its announcement of the 2011-12 season in order to reconcile its financial woes, chief among them a $5 million deficit. But maybe that’s not the worst thing.

Under general manager and artistic director George Steel, New York City Opera seemed to be moving out of uncertainty and into a clearly defined future. The arts world seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief when the company, beset by administrative and financial troubles, regained its footing in the newly-renovated (and rechristened) David H. Koch Theater last fall, presenting two solid productions that seemed to encapsulate the company’s mission: Offering non-standard works (Hugo Weisgall’s Esther) and innovative productions of warhorses filled with the next generation of Norman Treigles and Beverly Sillses (Don Giovanni, envisioned by iconoclast Christopher Alden).

It was a welcome sight after a dark 2007-08 season that consisted of a few scattered concerts and an unexpected search for a new leader after its intended director, Gerard Mortier, resigned before officially taking the position.

So for many, it seems a troubling  that the company should now postpone its announcement of the 2011-12 season in order to reconcile its financial woes, chief among them a $5 million deficit. But maybe that’s not the worst thing.

Newly appointed NYCO chairman Charles R. Wall explained to the New York Times yesterday that one of his goals is to get the company “on a sound financial footing,” indicating that the next season will not be announced until the board signs off on “a balanced budget for fiscal year 2012.” Additionally, Wall put his money where his mouth is by donating $2.5 million to plug up the deficit.

While the New York Times article seems uncertain about the company’s future, the Wall Street Journal offers a much more positive spin. There, Steel is quoted as saying the board’s financial review is “great news.” Steel goes on to tell the Journal that Wall’s take on the matter is that, in light of the recent critical hit productions, such a review will build “a plan for financial success to match the artistic success.”

George Steel Such is the thinking that most American arts organizations need: Without ministries of culture to subsidize the operations, most U.S. nonprofits fall into a unique crevasse, operating at once as business and charity. Unlike a company such as the Komische Oper in Berlin, which can offer an esoteric lineup (Der Vetter aus Dingsda, La Périchole, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and controversial productions (a sadomasochistic take on Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio), producers like New York City Opera can’t afford such risks without something to balance them out. It’s also a push to appease the donors and ticket-buying public, who on average factor into the sixty-something category.

Steel’s inaugural season with City Opera had a solid balance of new and old, countering a major revival like Esther with the crowd-pleasing Madama Butterfly. This season, however, opened with an odd-duck pairing of Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo. The former work was described by Zachary Woolfe at The New York Observer as “one of those strange evenings that's disappointing but unmissable.” An intriguing commentary, but not one that is going to guarantee a sold-out house. In fact, the surest bet for the company this year was Jonathan Miller’s production of The Elixir of Love. Charming though it may be, when you’re banking on Jonathan Miller as your most mainstream work, you’re playing with fire.

While Steel says that a prospective change in venues is “not a big part of [his] thinking,” Wall doesn’t believe that “Lincoln Center has a lock” on the company going forward. With more experimental offerings like A Quiet Place or the critically-successful-but-not-entirely-financially-viable Monodramas, this could be a solid tactic (the Dallas Opera, where I’m currently stationed for another article, is taking this precise course to offer operas that wouldn’t necessarily work in a 2,000-seat house).

And though $5 million is nothing to sneeze at, it’s not an uncommon number around Lincoln Center these days. New York City Ballet (City Opera’s roommate at the Koch Theater) predicted a $5.5 million deficit at the close of its 2008-09 season. In January of 2010, the Philharmonic reported a $4.6 million deficit for its previous season. Taken together with City Opera’s shortfall, this doesn’t even come close to matching the Met’s $47 million deficit. Change may be imminent and there are some very real problems. But the sky doesn’t seem to be falling just yet.

Does City Opera need saving? What, if so, do you think should be done? Leave your answers in the comments below.


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Comments [5]

P. Jones from NYC

Love the NYC Opera, but why is the answer always govt help? Maybe some philistines don't want to pay for the opera out of their tax dollars. Why should we force them? Man up opera lovers and pay for what you enjoy.

Apr. 10 2011 11:53 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

I can appreciate the dilemma facing the NYCO with an economy faltering and a diminished audience due to a nearly complete lack of non-commercial support from TV, radio, and the school systems. Also, the sparsity of outstanding teachers for the vocal students.
If the government is shut down, our country will lose much more than our cultural institutions. Public broadcasting and the universities along with most of what we need as civilized citizens of the world will be lost to us for who knows how long. it is important to have, especially in singing, the best of instruction. The Scandinavian countries do realize that fact. As the Met Opera continues to become more and more relevant and extends its reach, we may hope for a new Renaissance of opera lovers and performers.

The great and greater performers of Europe came to teach here, in New York.

Maestro Laszlo Halasz made the NYCO function with profit, introducing women and ethnics into the orchestra and principal singer ranks. HALASZ succeeded also in difficult times, including set designers and stage directors from Broadway. For that time, an extraordinary venture.

Apr. 08 2011 10:07 PM
Ken Thompson from New York

I am not at all surprised that New York City Opera's subscription audience has fallen off. The company's new management holds up Christopher Alden's heinous production of "Don Giovanni" as the exemplar of City Opera's new direction. That production is the one of the absolute worst I have ever experienced in my 45 years of opera going. (Anthony Tommasini gave Alden's production his enthusiastic blessing in the New York Times apparently to support the company, which was floundering for survival (and to appear "hip", too, I'll warrant). Alden's concept of having the opera performed in the community center of a Greenwich Village church during a group therapy session for insane sex addicts had nothing to do with the opera written by Mozart and Da Ponte. That production was so wrong-headed as to be infuriating and insulting to anyone who knows the opera. I have not attended anything at City Opera since that debacle, and frankly I am very dubious about ever wasting my time and money to see one of their new productions ever again. I am not alone in these feelings.

New York City Opera has a great history and a proud tradition, and that legacy was not created by pandering to the tastes of airheads and junkies who have never seen an opera before.

Apr. 08 2011 08:58 PM

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. New York City Opera should become essentially a Volksoper in the style of the Vienna Volksoper. Think of a season that consists of Broadway staples that can play in a big theater, like the Rogers and Hammerstein shows or the Gilbert and Sullivan shows, or even Sweeny Todd, combined with some opera staples like their wonderful Don Giovanni or Elixer, add in a dash of under-performed operetta (and maybe even some Zarzuela for the country's growing Spanish speaking population), and you've got a winner. Once their financial footing is sturdy, they can re-institute some more avant-garde productions into the season, as well as continuing their new music efforts through the VOX Project.

Apr. 08 2011 03:24 PM
Carrie from New York

I think we should build a new opera that seats 800 to 1000. This City needs it. If the City could build two baseball arenas in the same year, it's about time we had a decent, viable opera house that isn't like a barn, but augments the sound of music! And microphones would not be needed, and the intimacy would bring new insites to operas. These mega-seated theaters leave me cold. Perhaps it could house the New York City Opera, but why not also house new up-coming little companies.

Apr. 08 2011 02:56 PM

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