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

Email a Friend

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.