American Dream, American Tragedy: The Demise of the New York City Opera

Tuesday, October 01, 2013 - 05:00 PM

During the long, tragic downward spiral of the New York City Opera, I chose to keep my powder dry in articles on this page. Like so many people, I was deeply alarmed, and aggrieved, at what seemed like the company’s inevitable collapse, which was announced on September 26 following a decision by the board to declare bankruptcy. Reporters and commentators were chronicling the death throes of this valuable, beloved New York cultural institution and there was no need for me to do that kind of coverage.

On September 27, as I watched the company’s performance of Anna Nicole (music by Mark-Anthony Turnage, libretto by Richard Thomas) I could not help but be struck by certain ironies. Although some people thought this opera to be cheap, tawdry and exploitative, I found a great deal to like. We New Yorkers don’t blush at rude language and its use here did not give offense. Much of the music was sophisticated and it was well-played and sung by the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, the large cast, and conductor Steven Sloane. The title character, like Violetta or Manon, had our sympathy despite her transgressions because she ultimately was a victim rather than a villain.

One thing did catch my attention, though, especially in light of City Opera’s troubles. I think this British opera emphasized the so-called “American Dream” in ways that most Americans do not. We are more attuned to the realities of life, because we have to be. What is known as “reality TV”-- on which Anna Nicole Smith was elevated and then destroyed -- is a chimerical distraction. Real life is both more gratifying and more grim.

The American Dream of once upon a time, say 1943, was more inclusive and anchored in realism. It was the dream of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He envisioned and helped create the New York City Opera as “the People’s Opera,” a company that would present affordable opera (prices ranged from 85¢ to $2.25 at the 1944 first performance of Tosca) within the reach of all New Yorkers. On hand at that performance was Julius Rudel, who was associated with the City Opera for 35 years, twenty-two of those as its leader. He was the foremost interviewee in an article in The New York Times that quoted the feelings City Opera veterans about its demise. Rudel, age 92, expressed amazement that he would outlive the company whose birth he attended seven decades ago. I feel especially sad thinking of him.

New York City Opera was often on a financial roller coaster. For many years, it was the American opera company that presented the second-largest number of performances, after the Met, but its budget was fifth or sixth in size among U.S. companies. In Rudel’s time, City Opera’s emphasis on presenting American operas and artists gave it an identity that generated pride and support, especially from the Ford Foundation. For most of the 1980s, Beverly Sills, the recently-retired diva who headed the company, was the face of American opera and donors felt they were giving money to her. When she retired in 1989, the company had a $3 million surplus. There were ups and downs under her successors, Christopher Keene and Paul Kellogg, the latter having retired in 2007. Since then, the company has staggered.

I did get into some of the details of City Opera’s travails last April in an article called Board Games. In it, I expressed my belief that this company, and many arts organizations, are only as strong as their boards. These are the people who provide much of the funding for a company, hire the chief executive and provide direction and guidelines for how the company should work. In an ideal situation, the chief executive of a company will do administrative leadership and have regular consultation with the nucleus of the board. If the board has hired an ineffective leader--one who is unprepared to run a company because of temperament or lack of knowledge--that is a recipe for disaster. I have seen people with weighty resumes who keep getting hired by institutions based on their past “experience” but clearly are more credentialed than qualified. 

For an opera company, I would want to hire someone fiscally sane who has a deep knowledge of the art form and admiration for people who perform in it. You would be shocked to learn how many companies are headed by administrators who lack these fundamental assets--I am so often amazed when I say something opera-related and see a blank expression on the face of the arts executive. The same applies to many board members. If they don’t understand the art form and what goes into making a production, how can they budget for a season?


Lotfi Mansouri's production of Rossini's 'Barber of Seville,' from 1988.

What Went Wrong?

The recent history of City Opera has been marked by a series of bad decisions and choices by the board, which has had different leaders at different times, and by managers. Let us look at some of the biggest mistakes.

• Loss of Leadership. When Kellogg retired, the board approached Gerard Mortier, an audacious and controversial impresario with long experience in Brussels, Paris and Salzburg. This seemed an exciting but unrealistic prospect for a company that did not have lavish subsidies like those in Europe. He was hired in early 2007 to plan the 2009-2010 season. Mortier informed the board that his budget would be $60 million to fulfill the plans he proposed. He was assured that this would be possible but, within a year, he was told only $36 million would be available. He left, and City Opera was stranded. Mortier should never have been given an assurance that his budget could be met. 

Loss of visibility. City Opera was something of a stepchild in the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, which had been built for dance (and was also home to New York City Ballet). In 1999, the company introduced “sound enhancement,” a euphemism for amplification, after which critics and opera lovers no longer took the company seriously in musical terms. I never felt I could trust what I heard. More than $100 million was offered by the family of David H. Koch, one of the Koch brothers who have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the Tea Party movement. Supposedly, improvements would be made to the State Theater, which would then be renamed the Koch Theater.

In the 2008-2009 season, the City Ballet performed its regular seasons while City Opera essentially went dark, losing a year of income and cutting itself off from its subscribers. One of the conditions for City Opera not performing should have been that the Koch family pay for their entire lost season. Otherwise, it should have refused to accept the terms of the Koch donation. Instead, out of sight became out of mind. The company’s endowment which, at its peak, had been $57 million, had to be raided to keep it going. In not too long a time, $24 million was taken from the endowment. A golden rule in arts management is that, for a company to be healthy, its endowment must be equal to at least one year’s budget. City Opera’s endowment, what with the economic crash in 2008 and repeated raids, has shriveled.

Loss of a Home. With Mortier’s departure and the year of exile, George Steel, who was hired as general manager and artistic director in January 2009, scuttled Mortier’s plans and put together a season with 33 performances of five operas at the Koch Theater. There were hits and misses artistically but the lost audience did not come back. Attendance was only 40 percent. Steel felt that it was no longer fiscally tenable to stay at the Koch Theater and announced that what was left of City Opera would become an itinerant company performing in different New York venues. The reported savings would be about $2 million. While the Brooklyn Academy of Music and City Center, its first home, had resonance and relevance, an opera company that relies on subscribers and a regular audience cannot become a vagabond.

• Loss of Mission. Historically, one of this company’s hallmarks was the development of talented and charismatic singers, many of them American. When its mailing for its 2012-2013 season went out, it included the names of the operas and the people who would design and direct them but made no mention of the singers. I wrote an article sounding the alarm that a threshold had been crossed that should not even have been approached. One commenter on that article wrote, “Why pay for a NYCO ticket if they won’t even tell you who is singing?”

Loss of Confidence in City Opera's Viability.  The management broke its contracts with its orchestra and chorus, which became contractors rather than members of the company. All of its old productions were offered for sale to try to bring in cash. This act of desperation was noted by audiences, other arts organizations, and by potential donors who could provide cash to keep the company going. If the board had any clout in raising funds, it failed. I am guessing that many potential givers would see their donations as throwing good money after bad. 

City Opera announced on September 12 that it would need to raise $7 million by the end of the month and another $13 million by the end of the year in order to do its full season of four operas, Anna Nicole now and three works in 2014. Although Anna Nicole had a deserved success, the company was operating on such a thin margin that (I have it on good authority), there was no understudy for the excellent Sarah Joy Miller in the demanding title role.


What To Do Now?

The first and most important premise is that City Opera should be revived and restored to greatness. With proper funding, an educated board, an able new chief executive, a permanent home, and a restored endowment that produces interest and whose principal cannot be raided, the company can be righted like a capsized ship. It is a tall task, but not impossible, certainly not in a city of such fabulous affluence that is set apart from most others by the depth and diversity of its cultural offerings.

The New York City Opera was the dream of one visionary mayor and can be part of the legacy of another. Michael Bloomberg leaves office at the end of 2013 and it is no secret he has cash on hand. He spent $74 million on his 2001 mayoral campaign, $85 million for re-election in 2005 and $102 million for re-election in 2009. As City Opera began to liquidate its assets, the Mayor said that neither the city government nor he personally would be willing to help.  He should rethink his stance and think in terms of his own legacy and reputation.

Bloomberg – or any angel philanthropist for that matter – should think of City Opera not only as a treasure that is a key part the city’s identity and cultural fabric, but as one of the improvement projects he so loves to undertake. The company needs real structural help and better practices, and that is one of the things a business leader like Bloomberg excels at. This philanthropist could offer the $20 million to keep the season going and then take additional steps.

First, he should require as part of his donation that every member of the City Opera board receive training from foundations and business schools about how to properly serve in their positions.

Second, he can provide seed money to begin rebuilding the endowment. He can call on twenty of the many people who have become super-rich during his tenure to give at least $1 million each to the endowment. The proviso on which these donations would be made is that the principal never be touched and that only interest be used for administrative costs or new productions. As the endowment grows, so will the principal.

Third, City Center should again become City Opera’s permanent home, which it would share with the Encores series and other City Center presentations. As part of its tenancy there, the City Opera will present student matinees that all New York City high schoolers will attend and be funded by another well-heeled donor whose fate is tied up with the City Opera’s. I nominate the Koch Brothers but am open to other suggestions. Perhaps the noble Ford Foundation, so essential to City Opera’s glory years as the crucible of American opera, will step in.

Fourth, on city tax forms, New Yorkers can check a box that would provide an amount, or a percentage, of their return as a donation to a city arts endowment. Its principal will grow interest that can be disbursed as needed to arts organizations large and small. In Italy, taxpayers and charitable givers are able to donate five euros out of every thousand to support La Scala, which is considered a repository not only of the nation’s history but identity. That is what City Opera is to the people of New York.

Fifth, because the arts are a magnet for world-wide tourism to New York, a one percent arts tax can be added to hotel bills. This income would go to the city arts endowment as well.

This would be an excellent parting gesture to the city from a man who has shown himself to be future-minded. He can make the donation in memory of Beverly Sills.

In invite readers to comment, not only on what went wrong with City Opera but, more important, how it can rise and reclaim its place as an essential component in the cultural climate in a city that has always vowed to come back stronger by recognizing that art, culture and education are what we bequeath to the future.


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Comments [43]

Dan From Long Island from central Florida

I literally got teary eyed when I learned of the demise of this incredible cultural institution. My introduction to opera in any form, I'm embarassed to say, was this institutionally horrendous movie starring Pavarotti (Yes, Girogio)but I quickly fell in love with the music and its form. Next reasonable step? Subscribe the to NY City Opera season to learn more and be further entertained. We were subscription holders until our move south. I'll never forget those first few seasons of what they called "Opera Insights" where the conductors and principal singers would come to the basement with us and explain what we were about to see and hear (and sing and play for us too). In later years, I would try to attend one performance a year at the Met but the NY State Theater and MY opera company was where I always felt I belonged.
Mr. Bloomberg could resurrect this amazing institution with the stroke of a pen on the bottom line of a check. It would be shameful for him to ignore the need to keep this incredible cultural institution alive and such a vital part of what it means to be a New Yorker (no matter where I live now). It would cost him less than either of his mayoral campaigns and would enrich the lives of those of us Metro NY'ers almost as much as anything else he accomplished while in office.
Comments? Please email me. I don't have the financial wherewithal to keep our beloved company alive but I'd be delighted to share your thoughts and insights with you if you care to continue this conversation.

Feb. 23 2014 07:03 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Let's not forget that the first general manager and chief conductor of the New York City Opera was LASZLO
HALASZ, appoInted by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Halasz integrated the orchestra with a female black tympanist, Broadway stage directors and set and costume designers and commissioned and performed works by American composers including Leonard Bernstein. I studied my operatic roles, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti, and Meyerbeer with Maestro Halasz for 30 years. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor. Our country's emphasis on approbation and supporting the widest possible audience, allowing for the lack in the school systems for teaching the humanities, art and music, so that the general public knows NOTHING of the great cultural achievements and masterpieces, accounts for the non-interest in opera and classical music by the masses. If an insufficient number of the public buys tickets, NO POTENTIAL FINANCIAL SUSTENANCE will take up the slack.

Nov. 23 2013 11:00 AM

Mr. Plotkin, I think an astute Copy Editor might rename your Blog on The City Opera to be called, " A New York Tragedy " I would wager a dinner at any Italian Restaurant you want in New York City, that if you go out the Greater New York City area and ask 100 people at random what has happened to The New York City Opera, they would have NO idea what you are talking about. Better yet most likely 90% of New Yorkers would not know what you are talking about, so to call the demise of this Opera Company which had to resort to voice enhancement techniques an "American Tragedy" stretches things just a little.
The killing of JFK was an American tragedy, 9/11 was an American Tragedy, the death of any and every American soldier in Afghanistan is an American Tragedy, but the loss of the New York City Opera, I doubt it. Don't you think you over did it just a little Fred? Really come on now. Don't be so important. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 22 2013 03:36 PM
Filippo di Belardino from Manhattan

Thank God for Fred Plotkin who champions the arts with such great investigation, clarity and intelligence.

I hope Bloomberg is listening!

Bravo Fred!

Oct. 14 2013 04:38 PM

I wish I could afford "$6,000 to $8,000 a year on Met productions ... ." I do support the Met, but at the "standing room" level. And at one recent Met performance, I sat (at the invitation of another patron), because there were lots of seats available.

Dialogues of the Carmelites. And I'm very glad I saw/heard it. -- DD~~

Oct. 09 2013 01:50 AM
Anthony T. Mastandreaa from Former New Yorker

I have always found Fred Plotkin's thoughts about opera to be thoughtful, insightful and quite interesting. I may not agree with everything he says, but I know his intentions are always for the greater good. I, myself, spend some $6000 to $8000 a year on Met productions. Just a trifle, considering the big picture, but I feel I do my share, even though I do not agree with some of their recent "Euro-trash" productions. Also have been a member of the Roundabout Theater for 40 years. They, too, are trying to "modernize" by getting away from Chekhov, Ibsen, O'Neill, etc., and going into "trashy' and vulgar productions. C'est la vie!! In a nut-shell, I try to do my share to support the arts. In addition, I firmly support veteran and animal groups. I apologize if I don't fit the liberal stereotype about conservatives.

As a side note, Bernie from UWS, should take a course in remedial composition before he castigates the cultural knowledge of Tea party people. His cool "lingua franca" is absurd. Referring to Tea Party members as "philistines?" Indeed, many of my liberal friends - some well intentioned people - don't know "linguini" from Rossini. And you can take that to the bank!

Oct. 08 2013 03:17 AM
Greg from Washington Heights

While I agree that the slow demise of City Opera came from many years of poor financial practice, I also believe that Beverly Sills created some of the long running financial issues or certainly contributed to them long ago. I cannot disprove the amount of the endowment that is mentioned when Sills retired, but I heard from a musician with many years of activity within the organization that financial responsibility was never her strong suit. According to this source, Miss Sills claimed that the insurance for the storage warehouses for the City Opera Sets and Costumes in New Jersey was prohibitively expensive so when two warehouses burned their entire contents were lost.

Oct. 06 2013 03:40 PM
Sarah E from The Bronx

I cannot tell how sadded I was by the fall of the New York Opera. I went there to hear The Flying Bat(I cannot spell it in the German), and loved the music. it was a great way and cheap to spend a New York Eve. I also heard other great works like different Requiems ,(so it was not just Opera) there. I wish it could have been saved, New York needed a place where the not-so-wellheeled can go to hear this music. The Bronx Musicial does a great job, but it in the Bronx, and a lot of people do not even know any place outside of Manhattan. Hopefully, something new and even better will come out of this lost. Thank You for all the years of great music.
Sarah E.

Oct. 06 2013 01:11 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To Fed from Queens, I know what you are saying and I agree with you. I was simply was being a bit provocative with a commenter whose remarks were rather testy and, at base, quite presumptuous about me. Of course, most Republicans today would have little to share with Fiorello LaGuardia. We can all have our differences without resorting to invective, as that commenter did.

Oct. 06 2013 03:02 AM
Fed from Queens

Mr Plotkin, it's inaccurate to claim, because Fiorello LaGuardia was a Republican, general conclusions about politics and the arts shouldn't be made.

LaGuardia was an authentic RINO, "Republican in Name ONLY". He ran as a Republican as a means to get elected. His policies and philosophy were those of an enlightened liberal, and he was a great supporter of the New Deal and public works programs.

The Republican philosophy, in general, is to let the arts compete without government support on a free enterprise model. It's almost impossible for any of these institutions to survive on this model. As is, many of us can hardly afford the price of admission to even a museum let alone the opera.

Oct. 05 2013 03:15 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To readers who think City Opera should be saved, streamlined and made stronger, you need to write letters to the editor, to your representatives, and so on. I seem to be the only commentator who does not want to automatically drive in the last nails in the coffin and bury NYCO. To Mr. Mastrandrea, two points. First, Fiorello LaGuardia, who initiated the movement to create New York City Opera, was a Republican. I think it is pointless for you or anyone to divide love of the arts on political lines (or, for that matter, to make kneejerk assumptions about my political views, which you don't know--some of the favorite targets of people against the so-called "liberal media" are actually Republicans. Mike Wallace was). Second point: I am not criticizing the Koch brothers for donating money to restore the New York State Theater. Rather, I was criticizing the board of the City Opera for being so foolish to agree to "go dark" for a year while City Ballet continued to perform, keep its audience and donors, and thrive. City Opera never recovered from that. Its board should have secured funding to stay afloat. Instead, they had to raid millions from their endowment.

Oct. 05 2013 12:32 AM
Bernie from UWS

Jeez, how did the Tea Party troll find this comments thread? Yikes. Koch aside, the beauty of the performing arts would be lost on most of those Philistines.

Oct. 04 2013 08:23 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Previous comments notwithstanding, I am most grateful to NYCO and Glimmerglass for bringing John Philip Sousa's "The Glass Blowers" aka "The American Maid" to the stage in the fall of 2002. This was most likely the only opportunity I'll ever have to see a fully staged Sousa work by a professional company and it was outstanding in every regard. The revival of this forgotten work even prompted Sousa's biographer, Dr. Paul E. Bierley and his wife Pauline to drive from Ohio to see it with us - what a magical experience and an unforgettable afternoon.

Oct. 04 2013 07:12 PM
Anthony T. Mastandrea

Why the shot at the Koch brothers and the Tea Party? Are liberals the only people who prefer the arts? Again, a snippy remark by a liberal who thinks he is the last link in cultural development. Anyway, statistics show that conservatives give much more money to charitable institutions than the phonies on the sanctimonious left. Anyway, these are all moot points, as NYC will deteriorate with the lunatic left de Blasio replacing our energetic and no nonsense crime champion, Mayor Bloomberg. Street crime will rise, panhandlers will return and the "washing window men" will rise up again like the Phoenix. No need to worry about financial donations because tourism will take a precipitous drop. Who wants to come to a city where the criminal is right - due to his social and economic status - and the victim, sometimes wealthier, always in the wrong?

Oct. 04 2013 07:11 PM
Ilene Shifrin from New York City

Some very good suggestions, Mr. Plotkin. I'm heartbroken about what has happened. I've been a City Opera subscriber and donor for decades. I loved the opportunity to see operas that are not done at more traditional houses like the Met, and I loved seeing up and coming singers. Not only are we losing an opera company, but many wonderful singers are losing a great company to show the world what they can do. I hope with some good management, City Opera can return. A permanent home at City Center is a good idea. City Center's recent renovations have made it an accessible, comfortable venue for the arts.

Oct. 04 2013 06:32 PM
Robin Taylor Roth from Berkeley Heights, NJ

I think it's a tragedy that the City Opera has to shut down. A city the size of New York should be able to support a company that has the courage and vision to produce new operas and lesser known operas, as NYCO has done.

I remember with pleasure operas like "Esther" in 1993, "Kinkakuji" in 1995, "Mathis der Maler" in 1995, "Daphne" in 2004, and other Baroque operas, which would never have been mounted by The Met.

City Opera has always been run with a limited budget. This has forced producers, designers, and directors to be very creative. The resulting minimalist productions have often been outstanding.

One of the most important roles City Opera has played is in nurturing young singers, and launching the careers of many who became household names, such as Renee Fleming and Frederica von Stade.

When City Opera closes, New York will lose a treasure.

Oct. 04 2013 05:53 PM

If the City Opera is restarted, I really think it should find a new home in tha City. I have not resided in New York City for twenty some years although I attend six or seven Met Opera concerts per year so I am not in a position to suggest a new venue. However restarting it in Lincoln Center would be a major problem in my mind. The Metropolitan Opera has always overshadowed the New York City Opera and prehaps it was doomed from the start bein placed right adjacent to one of the major world class Opera Houses, The Met. In my mind it would be like placing a small mom/pop general store directly next to a Wal Mart, in the long run it could not compete. The key of course to the stability of any opera company is the fund raising abilities of their Board, General Manager, and Development Director and his or her staff. Perhaps Brookly would be a good venue, it is a thriving Borough or upper Manhattan if there is a suitable area there. There may even be some empty movie houses in Harlem which is now thriving, but if the City Opera ever did re start going back to Lincoln Center in the shadow of the Met would bring continued disaster. A thought from an outsider, ex New Yorker. Will see you all at the Met Oct 17 thru 23.

Oct. 03 2013 05:07 PM
Dongsok Shin from New York, NY

I think Fred's article is excellent. But I think Bloomberg should not support NYCO (as he has announced he won't). I think it is because (as a successful business person) he recognizes the Board and Administration of NYCO, as presently constituted, cannot handle the responsibility. As others have mentioned above, it is throwing money out the window. Opera, perhaps more than most arts, is an expensive proposition that has rarely ever supported itself. It is illuminating to read how badly Handel's opera companies were run; they were not at all self sustaining. When you match that up with a General Manager who, let's face it, knew nothing about how to run NYCO, and botched up the business of running the company in SO many ways (and I am talking about everything except for the productions that were, for the most part, artistically successful), and a Board that seemed unable to do any responsible fund-raising--here is the result. Perhaps a new NYCO can be created, run by people who know what they are doing. I don't think NYCO can otherwise be resurrected. I certainly would never dream of giving George Steel a dollar, based on what he's done to NYCO.

Oct. 03 2013 01:48 PM
mark anderson from Harlem

Great article--full of pertinent facts. I only hope your diagnosis and proposed remedy will light a fire under some visionary donors.

Oct. 03 2013 09:42 AM

Ahem, *presumed* {{hanging head in shame}}.

Oct. 03 2013 03:02 AM

@ Lois from Brooklyn

I'm not *really* trying to start a kerfuffle, but the presuned audience for opera, in general, is not going to be in tune with Kickstarter and its approach to fundraising for NYCO.

The opera audience, in general, is not the Kickstarter audience.

Oct. 03 2013 02:57 AM

Dear Mr. Plotkin, you are a gentleman and schlor. Thank you

Oct. 02 2013 04:17 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To Cello Student: You raise a lot more points and issues than I have time to address right now. I do know my Verdi and his approach to money, but the fact that he was shrewd in business was almost unique to him and based in part on an early life of privation. I am glad you have felt so engaged by this topic.

Oct. 02 2013 04:10 PM

I hate to continue, but Mr. Plotkin, for one who assumes to know so much about Opera especially Italiam Opera let us not forget the BUSINESS side of Verdi. IN a book review for " Verdi, A Life In The Theater" L.A. Times 1/10/1988 I quote "Verdi became a shrude businessman, critizing one theatre for pushing gala prices too high, another for paying too little, and demanding from a near bankrupt company his fee be put in escrow"
Business is just that business and there is big business in tax exempt organizations also. Been there, done it, not just by writing about it.

Oct. 02 2013 02:29 PM

I forgot to mention to you Mr. Plotkin, that for eleven years I was the executive Director of a Washington D.C. 501-c-3 charity, before moving on into the for profit world of K Street. We raised many millions of dollars a year from face to face solicitations and grants and not one of our Board members, many who were partners in the top D.C. law firms ever suggested that we look to tax dollars for support. To paraphraze a popular move, I will end this by saying Buit it and they will come, if not close it down.
I honestly think I could teach you and some arts directors in New York whose companies have folded a great deal about running a tax exempt orginazation.

Oct. 02 2013 01:34 PM

Fred Plotkin - a very insightful piece. I feel it is extremely helpful that you detailed the sequence of events which eventually led NYCO to it's evident demise.

- Those who understand the delicate balance between the artistic and management perspectives and their relative responsibilities appreciate the opportunity to witness someone from a relatively unbiased point of view (ie. with no "dog in the fight")articulating what can go wrong when that balance is out of whack. I certainly do!

- Those who are capable of learning from what you have written will come away with a greater understanding of those challenges and a wider perspective than one informed by hostility for taxpayer support of the arts or the typically adversarial view that those on the musical side for example shouldn't be asking to be paid for their hobby, essentially.

- Those who are immune to reason will nitpick at your suggested solutions, rather than appreciate that someone is actually brainstorming about solutions rather than simply pointing the finger. While not every suggestion is entirely practical, they are good starting points. We see suggested solutions in this business far too rarely - your article and ideas are a breath of fresh air, and I think it a great shame that NYCO could or would not avail themselves of your or similar counsel before making the rash decision to pack up and go home.

Oct. 02 2013 01:28 PM

Mr. Plotkin, when Executive Directors of Major Opera Companies get salaries in the millions of dollars and are paid like Mr. James Levine, in excess of 2 million dollars per year while unable to perform or show up at the Opera House for nearly two years, these tax exempt organizations are run much like big business and pay salaries designed to compensate their executive staffs at a level equal to for profit businesses. Mr. Levine has done a great deal to help the Met, I will not disagree, but most highly paid professionals have their own private insurance policies that will compensate them when unable to work due to illness or injury, it is not up to the public to support anyone of such financial means who is out of work for any time frame. Perhaps the small community groups that struggle to perform are the true non profits, but take a look at the endowments of the Met, The San Francisco Opera etc and although they may have certain tax exemptions they do not need to take additional dollars from visitors to New York City. When the average Manhattan Hotel, without bedbugs costs in excess of $300.00 per night, and 4 mile taxi rides are about $20.00 dollars and food although maybe the best in the U.S. is highly priced, just see what happens to visitors if hotel taxes continue to increase. Lets look at the average visitor who comes to New York City for a week, they are paying over $2000.00 for their hotel stay for six or seven days, the tax on that alone is nearly $400.00 already, or equal to a nights stay plus food, just where do you want to draw the line. 501 c-3 and c-4 groups may be tax exempt, but that does not give them the power to increase taxes on those of us who are not exempt from paying taxes. I do not know how much you travel,I travel a great deal and can tell you there are no U.S. cities I have visited that have hotel taxes as high as New York City.
It is up to members of the Board of Directors and the Development staffs they hire and supervise professionals to solicit the needed funds throug grants and private donations, stop putting a monkey with a tin can seekin spare change from tourists at the registration stations of New York hotels.

Oct. 02 2013 12:37 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To Cellostudent: Glad for your interest in this topic. Broadway shows and sports teams are enterprises intended to make money. Opera companies, symphony orchestras, dance companies, art museums are not-for-profit institutions governed by different rules and laws and artistic considerations. You don't stage most operas to make money, although works such as Tosca, La Traviata and La Boheme sell a lot of tickets. You present operas because they are works of art that challenge, enrich and inspire any audience member who encounters them. I encourage you to further your study not only of the cello but of how the performing arts work, how they are funded and about the intellectual and spiritual value they provide. Listen to the Elgar cello concerto or the Bach cello suites and then tell me that we should not support institutions that help bring this music live to audiences.

Oct. 02 2013 12:15 PM

Mr. Plotkin, sorry I was incorrect when posting the already existing New York City Hotel tax. I just checked my reservation for Oct. 17 through Oct 21 in New York City and the tax is 14.75% PLUS a specific New York City Tax of an additional 3.5% meaning that a visitor to New York City has to pay a total tax of 18.25%, why not just make it 50% and have it earmarked for retired performers also, when I said we are not yet France or Italy looking at the tax for a visit to New York City to attend The Met, we might as well be.

Oct. 02 2013 11:52 AM
Bill from Sunny NYC

Fred, it goes far deeper than your article, Kellogg for instance took NYCO donors to Glimmerglass, they were stupid to hire a guy who had to fund raise for 2 opera companies. (Glimmerglass is still quite healthy) Those donors did not come back, or split their donations. Second, never hire someone without experience and name them GM and Artistic Director, horrible mistake. Finally, don't hire a GM who is not a fund raiser. Steel never raised funds in a significant way in his life. My Grandmother raised all the funds at the Miller when he was there. He took the Dallas job with which he had no experience and it took them a few months to figure it out, but told him to take a hike. NYCO could have been saved if they had an experienced head who knew the audience and could market the heck out of it, but Steel was not the man for the job.

Oct. 02 2013 11:50 AM

I read Mr. Plotkins reply, I can only ask, why should visitors to New York in an manner support the arts in the City. Broadway plays survive and fold on ticket sales, so do sports teams. When attendence was low teams moved from New York. While many visitors who go to New York do go to Broadway Shows or Arts venues, the vast majority I would say are in the City on business. Regardles of what the purpose of the trip to New York, visitors should not be asked to contribute to the New York City arts community. I will remind Mr. Plotkin, we are not France, we are not Italy and our commerce and financial systems are very different. As I said earlier Braodway shows porosper or fold based on their quality and box office sales, why should the City Opera, or any other arts entity be different, and then of course there is th age old question what is art, is a glass container filled with urine and a crusifex art, some may think so but many would differe

Oct. 02 2013 11:01 AM
Steven Feis from NYC


3. The scale of "Anna Nicole." I attended. This was a remarkably lavish production given the state of the company's finances. Operas can often be effective with relatively simple staging; in fact, more elaborate sets and such often detract from the music and drama. (Consider the Met's controversial machine for the Ring Cycle as compared with older productions.) NYCO could have easily simplified their set while accomplishing 90%+ of the artistry they accomplished. Furthermore, if you're going to use sound enhancement (which, I agree, is completely unacceptable), you might as well cut the size of your orchestra and use audio techniques to compensate. In other words, the reality is that this production could have been significantly simplified, and, given the state of finances, it clearly should have been. This could have allowed the continuation of the season.

4. Similarly to the above: why cancel the entire season if any money at all is left (which it could have been, given that the Kickstarter campaign alone raised $300k - - but because they set their Kickstarter goal as $1M, they got $0)? As an example: give some simple concerts with singers (even conservatory students, if necessary) performing art songs with a piano, and invite former donors. Give a 15-minute presentation on *specifically* how you will use contributions to resurrect the organization. Bring NYCO representatives who can intelligently talk about these points to mingle with attendees. Alternatively, instead of producing "Anna Nicole" as planned, produce three smaller-scale productions, so that potential donors see some indication of foresight. An inability to execute the envisioned season should not necessitate a cancellation of the season outright - and an organization that's broke should have more modest fundraising goals than $20M, so that these goals can actually be met. Their last-ditch fundraising felt like a "hail mary" rather than a realistic maneuver.

Oct. 02 2013 10:53 AM
Steven Feis from NYC

As usual, Fred, your insights are poignant, and your directness about all this is much appreciated.

I find this situation highly distressing, especially because I feel it could have been avoided, and I'd like to share several thoughts:

1. Leadership. It is a mystery to me why leaders of organizations such as this virtually never have deep training in business. As you pointed out, NYCO is (well, was...) an organization with a sizable budget that depends deeply upon effective administration and multi-faceted leadership. Why are such companies so often run by people who have not demonstrated abilities to handle such challenges? Partially this is a cultural thing: artists become administrators, under the thinking that their first-hand exposure as performers must qualify them to lead. Surely such knowledge of the field is necessary, but it's not sufficient. Would you hire a NFL player to run the NFL?

2. Profitability. It's not easy to determine what constitutes a musical and what constitutes an opera. (I write this as someone with pretty deep training in musicology - the reality is that people disagree on this, and it's a non-dichotomous discussion of nuances.) I would argue that Anna Nicole demonstrated elements of both, and I think that it could easily appeal to those who attend musicals in a way that many operas cannot (by virtue of it being in English, the topic itself, the style of the libretto, etc.). Musicals are produced on Broadway with the hope of profitability: (many) funds are given as investment capital rather than as philanthropic donations. Is there some way that such a model could be applied to situations such as this? Certainly Bloomberg and others have the financial means to support NYCO for all eternity, but introducing some sort of financial incentive for them (at least not a 100% loss on their contribution less tax benefits) would be compelling. People won't throw money at a ship that they see sinking with no viable plan for rescue.

2a. NYCO should have publicized their detailed plan of how $20M would save the company in the long-term. If I were going to invest any significant amount of money in NYCO, even as a donation, I would want to see short-term plans for changing the leadership of the company, marketing strategies, cash flow models, etc. (Note: this is true even if I wouldn't want my money back or a cash return on my investment; it's because I would be giving money based upon the credibility of the organization, and unfortunately NYCO does not have such credibility now.) I see no such information that is publicly available.

[continued in next comment]

Oct. 02 2013 10:52 AM
Michael from Manhattan

Spot on as to why things went downhill. The donations shriveling up especially. It would have been good money after bad.

Oct. 02 2013 09:36 AM
Cara De Silva from New York City

Thank you for that very powerful and wise and informed piece. Even as my stomach roiled reading it--I am a native New Yorker who cannot imagine City Opera's demise--I appreciated so much all that I learned about what led to this. In fact, I preferred your story to that in the Times. I am also grateful that you outlined ways in which this important and historic company could be saved. I don't know why Mayor Bloomberg, himself so very much a New Yorker and a man of culture and fabulous wealth, should refuse this once wonderful company aid. May it all turn around, as you suggest it could.

Oct. 02 2013 01:18 AM
June LeBell from Sarasota, FL

Fred, as always, you are spot on. Thank you for this insightful commentary, history and solution. Remember, this nearly happened a few times before to NYCO. Years ago, it almost went under but great folks...great singers...including Norman Treigle, David Lloyd and Phyllis Curtin, stepped in and suggested a new Director/Leader be hired: Julius Rudel. My condolences to him. I can only imagine the roiling going on in Beverly's grave!

Oct. 02 2013 01:10 AM
Lois from Brooklyn, NY

I thank Mr. Plotkin for his thoughtful comments, and I'm thankful that he has not given up entirely on New York City Opera. I am also amazed that no wealthy person has come forward with, for instance, the full $1 million for the now-expired Kickstarter effort.

Some of the negative commenters ignored the fact that one of Mr. Plotkin's recommendations was a voluntary contribution with one's taxes, by checking a box.

I was surprised that the Kickstarter program only raised a hypothetical $300,000, but I guess all of us have been giving more than we can afford to NYCO for several years now and our pockets are empty.

I wish that some hero or heroine would come forward. I do think that there are plenty of young people who still enjoy opera, too,

Oct. 02 2013 01:09 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

-----------------------------> [Continued from comment below: I do agree with alocksley that there are few broadly recognizable people stumping for the arts. To that I would add that most media organizations in which younger editors and managers are in charge do not understand the importance of having an ongoing discussion of what I might call the classic art forms. There are the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and a few other magazines and publications. NPR is outstanding in its efforts to cover all kinds of art forms. WQXR is an institution that holds forth and diversifies its coverage and presentations. In the case of NPR, WNYC and WQXR, this is possible because of support from devoted listeners. And, of course, I may not be broadly recognizable, but you will always have me---I believe in banging the drum for opera, calling attention to the great, the good and the unknown who work in this profession because they love it. And, on occasion, I think it is important hold to the fire those feet that trample on the efforts of the operatic great and good.

Oct. 01 2013 11:59 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To cellostudent and alocksley: I invite you to carefully re-read my fourth and fifth points. I did NOT call for a 1% hotel tax to support the New York City Opera. I called for a 1% tax to go into a city arts endowment to support arts institutions of all sizes, of which City Opera might be one of the recipients. Such a notion is hardly unique to New York City. You can look at countries such as the UK in which national lotteries have gone to support opera companies. Can you imagine a MegaMillions or Powerball specifically earmarked for opera? Just one? I can! Further, to alocksley: I am a big baseball fan and a follower of other team sports. I would never call for public support for any teams for two reasons. One is that these teams are profit-making institutions with fabulously paid athletes. No opera singer's compensation comes close to what a baseball or football player earns. The second reason is that taxpayers already pay through the nose to support sports teams when variances are given on taxes and other obligations so that new stadiums can be built. As far as I am concerned, let the teams build their own stadiums. Keep city and state tax money for education, mass transit, social services, public health and the arts. And further, alocksley, I don't believe I know you so I don't know how much exposure you have had to boards of arts companies (or whether you read my article called Board Games). While there are some well-meaning board people at arts organizations, I have met many who join boards for social and business contacts and use their wealth to gain access. But they are wholly unprepared to have influence and decision-making at the arts institutions they have joined. I am, in fact, routinely amazed how unaware and uncaring they are. In pursuing their own improvement, some of them inflict harm, actively or through neglect, on the arts company. I have seen it many times and it certainly was the case, sad to say, at the New York City Opera. Julius Rudel addressed this eloquently in his book and he would know better than most of us. So, yes, many board members do need to learn how to perform their tasks. I know experienced and effective board people who offer this kind of training and they do a great service for the arts, medicine, universities and other non-profits that rely on boards. [Continued in next comment------------------------------------->

Oct. 01 2013 11:58 PM
David from Flushing

In 2030, we might might be saying these same things about the late Met Opera. They are not normally selling out and their median audience age is in the 70s.

There are many opera companies that have disappeared in recent years, but they were small and "regional" in nature---not ones to attract the attention of spoiled New Yorkers. Now the problem has struck home.

I recall one writer saying that in the "old days," one could walk across the Yale campus on a Saturday afternoon and never be out of earshot of the Met Opera broadcast. Needless to say, that is no longer the case. Classical music in general has failed to attract the new generation for the past 40-50 years even when there was a "Voice of Firestone" on TV, classical music radio stations, and traditional music education in the schools.

Saving the NYCO reminds me of the lament heard in my youth of "when are they going to bring back the big bands?" Indeed, this expression became synonymous with beating a dead horse. Unfortunately, what people want has changed and there is no going back.

The suggestion for a tax is very unrealistic given that the state legislature would also have to approve it. If put to a vote, the people would probably prefer a free boom-boom concert in the park to opera.

Oct. 01 2013 09:36 PM
alocksley from NYC

While Mr. Plotkin accurately summarizes many of the reasons why NYCO has failed, his remedies are typical of the short sighted, self interested New Yorker. An arts tax would have to go not only to NYCO but to other institutions in the City; such a tax would most likely drive visitors to stay in the suburbs or not come at all. How about if NYC raised his income tax, or his property tax, by 5% to pay for a struggling sports team for which he has no interest? Why ask someone else to pay for your entertainment?
As to the idea of educating the board, this again is a rather misguided perception. Music is a business, as I'm sure we all know. If people are willing to give money to an institution and in return to have a say in its operation, you're really going to try to send them to school??
The issues you point out are all valid but you've also left out the fact that opera does not get the visibility that it got say 20 years ago. We don't have broadly recognizable figures stumping for opera nor do they get the exposure that used to come with celebrity of that type. With Sills, for example, the landscape was different, the time was different. We have to accept that fact and unfortunately I don't see a way to reverse it.

Oct. 01 2013 07:58 PM

How cavalier of the author to suggest an additional hotel tax to support the City Opera if and when it is resurrected.
For people like myself who travel hundreds of miles to New York City to attend the Metropolitan Opera, we are already stuck with a 14% hotel tax, plus additional surcharges.
Very few visitors who come to the City do so to attend ANY opera no less The New York City Opera.
Living in rural Virginia I have seen first had what has happened to The Washington National Opera,and the Baltimore Opera, which happily has be resurrected as The Baltimore Lyric Opera, when quality of performances drops. So does audience loyalty.
For an Opera company to survive it must attract audiences. No one will spend even $50 or $75 per ticket to see an inferior performance when Family Circle seats at the Met are between $35 and $50, and even the Met is not selling out the majority of performances.
If the City Opera is truly a New York City landmark then New Yorker's should pay the fare to re-start it. When one travels to New York City, most visitors have to pay in excess of $20.00 for a 4 mile cab ride, and as much as $100 to get from JFK to Manhattan.
Keep taxing visitors by adding to hotel bills and you will see what will happen to tourism.
This is a New York City Opera Company and its restructuring if any should come from the wallets and check books of New Yorkers not those already spending $300.00 to $400 per night in a Manhattan hotel.
Please solve your own problems.

Oct. 01 2013 07:21 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

In discussing the demise of NYCO,I have described the "perfect storm" of fiscal mismanagement,squandered endowment funds,and "soft" pledges which were never paid to the company.An interesting proposal was made by Norman Lebrecht in his "Slipped Disc" blog.He suggested that a coalition of smaller companies could fill the void.I would recommend this to our readers to see what my response was,and where the discussion I began eventually led.It is worth noting that several of Fred's points cropped up in that interchange of ideas.

Oct. 01 2013 06:20 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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