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New York City Opera Musicians Protest Company's Plans to Move

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After weeks of relative public silence, the orchestra and chorus musicians of New York City Opera have launched a campaign to protest the company's plans to move out of Lincoln Center and scale back its performance schedule.

A group of approximately 100 musicians turned out in black concert dress for a demonstration on the steps of Lincoln Center on Thursday morning. The musicians held up signs and handed out fliers denouncing the company's artistic director and general manager George Steel.

The picket illustrated the rising stakes for the workers and the financially troubled opera company, whose 2010-11 season productions played to below 40 percent capacity. In April, the company announced that it could no longer afford to stay in its home at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater. Earlier this month, 11 employees were laid off in an effort to trim a $5 million dollar deficit.

The protest was organized by the Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists. It came as the musicians launched an online campaign, consisting of a web site, Facebook page and a petition.

“We’re hoping to bring attention to the public to what’s going on here at the People’s Opera,” Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802. “We’ve had very limited communication with the management there with regard to what their plans are for the next season other than they want to leave Lincoln Center."

A representative from City Opera declined to comment.

Last week, some details about next season leaked out after a meeting with Local 802 and AGMA members. Among them, it will present five operas and several concerts, including four from the 18th and 19th centuries and one contemporary work, possibly the opera by the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, which the company had previously announced. No stages or singers were announced, although City Center in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Academy of Music have been rumored as potential halls.

“We do not object to playing in different venues around New York City,” said Gail Kruvand, assistant principal bass and the orchestra's representative on the board. “We must have a permanent home. We can’t be an itinerant opera company and maintain our stature and world renown.”

The orchestra’s contract expired on May 31 but the terms remain in effect, Gagliardi said. Local 802 and AGMA met with Steel two weeks ago at which point it was established that management would present proposals for contract negotiations to both AGMA and Local 802. “We have yet to see anything from them,” said Gagliardi. “What they presented to us without venues and without knowing what the programming would be is not a basis for negotiation.”

City Opera's troubles come against a backdrop of widespread deficits in the performing arts, with orchestras facing deficits, bankruptcies and closings.

As part of the Thursday morning protest a brass quintet played tunes from Aida, Carmen, and La Boheme while drivers speeding down Columbus Avenue honked in response.