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More Tough Times for New York City Opera

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New York City Opera finds itself in financial trouble again, postponing announcement of its next season until it completes a full review of its finances and irons out a balanced budget.

The company currently faces a $5 million deficit. City Opera’s new chairman, Charles R. Wall, has donated $2.5 million of his own money to help stem the deficit. Wall took the chairman position of City Opera in January 2011, following a 2001-2008 run as a member of the company's board.

Under the guidance of general manager and artistic director George Steel, City Opera has sought to differentiate itself from the Metropolitan Opera as well as the smaller, upstart opera companies in New York by presenting a diverse collection of lesser-known works.

“George has had an enormous challenge in trying to reduce the size of the budget and therefore the level of activity that they’re doing and still keeping the artistic ambitions high,” commented New York Magazine classical music critic Justin Davidson. “If the company is perceived as doing things on the cheap or doing things that are not that interesting, then they’re whole reason for existence goes out the window.”

This season at City Opera brought Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and Strauss’s Intermezzo, neither of which packed the house. For spring 2011, the company prepared L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti, Monodramas, one-acts by John Zorn, Morton Feldman and Schoenberg and Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Stephen Schwartz. New York City Opera has struggled with both financial uncertainty and leadership hurdles in recent years following the sudden appointment and then departure of Gerard Mortier to the general manager position in 2008. Steel arrived shortly thereafter.

Ticket sales are not the salve to sooth City Opera’s financial needs, Steel noted. “The way to plug that hole is not from selling tickets. You want to sell tickets, and create audience excitement, but mostly that’s how the donations come in. All these things are circular. People are not going to give money to a company that is either too safe or too far out.”

City Opera’s neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera, announced its coming season earlier this year. The Met will present seven new productions, including a complete Ring cycle, in the 2011-2012 season.

“The Met is squeezing City Opera in a way that it didn’t used to,” Davidson said. “They’re honing in on productions that are more adventurous.

City Opera officials were not immediately available for comment, but one staff member who wished to remain anonymous said the financial review will not compromise the company’s artistic vision for the future.

But money is on the mind at City Opera. The company is currently advertising for only one position on its website: a fundraising gig. “The Development Officer will be responsible for maintaining and soliciting a portfolio of 75 to 100 donors and prospects contributing $10,000 and more annually, and will work with Board leadership to grow the major giving program,” the advertisement read.