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

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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.