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New York City Opera Plans to Leave Lincoln Center, Cut Staff

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In what amounts to an earthquake in the city's musical landscape, New York City Opera has announced plans to abandon Lincoln Center and perform in one or several smaller venues around New York starting next season. In doing so, the company will leap free of an immensely expensive David H. Koch Theater and attempt to strengthen its financial footing with a leaner budget, company officials said Friday.

The company’s board also agreed on a plan for five operas and three concerts starting in October. Plans are underway to significantly reduce the company’s staff and to eliminate guarantees for its unionized singers, dancers, chorus members and stage managers. It will pay them on a freelance basis instead.

The moves come after a day-and-a-half of tense meetings.

Specific details about which operas will be performed next season, at what venues with which singers are all up in the air. Typically, a new season is announced in March or April but City Opera – which is now swimming in a $5 million sea of debt -- has delayed any such announcement.

Abandoning the David H. Koch Theater will save $4.5 million in yearly costs, company officials told The New York Times. The company's budget for the fiscal year 2010 was $31 million.

The board of directors received a letter yesterday from AGMA, the singers union, demanding that trustees pressure general manager George Steel into more marketable programming. "George Steel's artistic vision may be brilliant, but it doesn't fill the seats," said the letter, alluding to the fact that only about 40 percent of available seats were filled this past season.

“They have the wrong programming,” said Alan S. Gordon, the National Executive Director of AGMA in an interview. “They don’t program popular operas. No one goes to see what they do program. The members would be capable of doing standard operas – Boheme, Butterfly, and Traviata – even with little rehearsal.”

City Opera's contracts with AGMA and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, representing the orchestra, expired on April 29.

“I don’t see how they can survive doing what they’re going to do,” Gordon added. The just-completed season consisted of five main productions -- A Quiet Place, Intermezzo, L'elisir d'amore, Monodramas and Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Only L'elisir d'amore was considered standard repertoire.

A spokesman for New York City Opera did not respond to several requests for comment on Friday.

City Opera has attempted to jump ship in the past. Immediately after 9/11 it sought to get a new theater built at ground zero. In 2006, it came close to a deal to build a 1,800-seat concert hall in the base of a new apartment building planned for the former American Red Cross site near Lincoln Center. The latter did not proceed because of an inability to reach an agreement with the developer that owns the site.

Founded in 1943 and called "The People's Opera" by then-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the company has hosted some of the genre's greatest performers, such as José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Beverly Sills.