Monday, July 11, 2011

NY City Opera: The new "season" & a protest by 120 stars from the opera world. UPDATED

City Opera is bleeding.
Being as astute as you are, my Chickpeas - I'm sure you've all seen the announcements and subsequent media coverage of the NY City Opera "season" announcement. If not, here's a little recap from The New York Times:
Opera fans have been waiting for months to hear the company’s plans for next season, especially since its general manager and artistic director, George Steel, announced in May that City Opera would abandon its Lincoln Center home for undisclosed locations in New York. He said the move would save money and help the company survive financially, although many former singers and other opera-world figures denounced the decision...

... On Wednesday, some details were provided by a company official and a company member, both speaking on condition of anonymity because they were under orders not to disclose the information.
La Traviata and Prima Donna will be performed at the opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Prima Donna has already been performed in Manchester, England, and in Toronto. One of the people said La Traviata was being rented from the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The festival’s managing director, Linda Jackson, said City Opera had asked about the production — which is by Jonathan Miller — but no contract had been signed.

The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College will play host to
Così Fan Tutte, in a production directed by Christopher Alden, who directed Don Giovanni for the City Opera two seasons ago. Operas have been performed before at the Lynch Theater, which right now is the scene of a run of
Peter Brook’s adaptation of
The Magic Flute for the Lincoln Center Festival.

Finally, a Baroque opera — by Telemann, according to a company member — will be performed at the 600-seat theater at the Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street. City Opera officials declined to comment.
Well, ok - City Opera "officials" did decline to comment - but, a former official certainly made his opinion known.

As you no doubt read here, former Maestro and General Director of City Opera - Julius Rudel - has been outspoken about his thoughts on where the company is headed:
I cannot sit by and watch as the legacy that was built by a company, if not a family, of talented, dedicated people is cast aside...

... Once before, in 1956, City Opera faced the threat of bankruptcy, but instead of retrenching and cutting, the board boldly moved forward, securing the financing we needed to stabilize the company and then grow. The current board must reconsider its decision and demonstrate the commitment and vision its predecessors had.

If the board and management of City Opera cannot finance, produce and support full seasons of new works and standard operas in interesting productions with first-rate casts as we once did, they should be replaced, so that 68 years from now no one will wonder what ever became of City Opera.
As George Steel was readying his "season" announcement, it seems that he contacted Maestro Rudel to try to get him on board with the plans. (Evidently, Mr. Steel doesn't realize that reading A Liberal's Libretto would have saved him a lot of time.)

Again, from The New York Times:
On Wednesday, Mr. Rudel said Mr. Steel had called and asked him to appear at the season announcement and endorse his plans.

“After I recovered, I said, ‘Have you read my piece?,’ ” Mr. Rudel said. “I don’t know that he answered. I said I could never do that, because it’s all wrong. It’s all false. He said, ‘You’ll see, we have wonderful things coming up.’ I said, ‘I cannot possibly endorse this. For me it’s the end of the opera company.’ ”

Mr. Rudel then quoted Mr. Steel as saying that his absence would hurt the company’s recovery effort. “That was his attempt to get me there, putting a little guilt on my shoulders,” Mr. Rudel said. “I certainly don’t feel guilty.”
It didn't stop there, Ladies and Gents. Oh, no it did not.

Soprano Catherine Malfitano
Soprano and stage director Catherine Malfitano, who made her NY City Opera debut as Mimi in 1974, has penned a letter to City Opera in protest of the current plan. Not only did she pen the thing - she got 120 singers, directors, composers etc. to sign it with her. People like June Anderson, Jane Bunnell, Tito Capobianco, José Carreras, Frank Corsaro, Phyllis Curtin, Justino Díaz, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo, Carlisle Floyd, Jake Heggie, John Mauceri, Sherrill Milnes, Jan Opalach, Samuel Ramey, Regina Resnik, Hal Prince and Frederica von Stade.
The letter, which was released to The New York Times on Thursday, calls on the company’s board and management to reconsider the move from its longtime home at the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater). “To lose City Opera as a vital part of the Lincoln Center family would be felt as a personal loss to each and every one of us as well as to this great city,” the letter says, “and we find it unnecessary and unacceptable.”

The letter accuses the management of “the dismembering of City Opera, piece by piece, person by person.” In an interview Ms. Malfitano said the reference was to the loss of key officials in recent years as well as the sharp cutback in orchestra and chorus involvement in a shrunken season.

“An opera company is a team, a cohesive family of soloists, chorus, orchestra and backstage and administrative personnel, which brings with it a shared point of view, a richness of context, ensemble values and a nest for nurturing young artists,” the letter says. “If City Opera is transformed into a small ad hoc presenting organization forced to deploy pickup orchestras, choruses and soloists, it can never again achieve these things and therefore cannot retain its identity or its impact.” ...

... “A thorough and honest examination of the company’s leadership and artistic profile is what is called for,” the letter says. The signatories offer to give advice to the board: “We know opera, and we want to help.” ...

... Ms. Malfitano said she felt encouraged to circulate the letter after a recent Op-Ed article in The Times by Julius Rudel ... who took issue with the company’s plans. She also cited the singer Joyce Castle, who had resigned from City Opera’s board in protest and who also signed the letter.
George Steel declined to comment on the letter, as did Charles Wall, the board's Chairman. But, company spokeswoman, Maggie McKeon, issued a brief statement:
“Our decision to leave Lincoln Center was not entered into lightly,” she said. “Rather, it was born of very real financial necessity.” Ms. McKeon said the company’s new model “not only reverses a decade-long trend of debilitating deficits, but — equally important — provides tremendous artistic opportunity and a clear artistic vision for moving forward.”
"Like sands through the hour-glass ..."


And just when you thought the plot couldn't get any juicier...

According to our dear friend La Cieca at, the following email was sent by AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) to it's members:
Subject: NYCO

To: NYCO Chorus & Production Staff

As you know, there is a joint AGMA/802 press conference/rally across the street from the Guggenheim Museum at noon tomorrow, just prior to George Steel’s formal announcement of his proposed schedule. His lawyers have now sent us NYCO’s ‘proposals’ for the AGMA contract, and I have included a list of them below. Although they are destructive in the extreme, we continue to pursue action to save NYCO in all available forums, and it is obviously important for as many of you as is possible to attend tomorrow’s press conference.


* Eliminate all health insurance.
* Eliminate ‘contract year’.
* Eliminate all employment guarantees.
* Eliminate weekly artists.
* All employment to be on a per-performance basis.
* Eliminate re-engagement rights.
* Eliminate tenure.
* Eliminate minimum staffing provisions.
* Eliminate paid time off.
* Eliminate vacation pay.
* Eliminate travel time.
* Eliminate all references to New York State Theater.
* Eliminate releases and leaves of absence.
* Freeze severance pay. Payable only to people who resign now.
* Allow non-AGMA singers, not covered by contract.
* Eliminate dancers from contract.
* Eliminate production staff numbers and guarantees.
Clearly, Chiclets ... if I were George Steel - or a member of the Board of Directors, for that matter - and this were an opera, I think I'd begin to feel a little bit like this lady right here:


Lucy said...

That is a truly outrageous list of demands. I have a serious if naive question: do the signatories of that letter have the collective financial clout to keep NYCO at Lincoln Center, or at least keep it behaving like a decent employer to its musicians?

I know throwing money at a failing institution would be of dubious wisdom, but from an admittedly uninformed audience perspective, it seems to me that City Opera actually has been offering a decent program, albeit a poorly-packaged and -marketed one. Am I totally off the mark here?

James Newman said...

Yes - it would seem that their offerings have been decent but, the shows were catered / marketed to the Musical Theater/Broadway audiences rather than the die-hard operatic base. So the base, which is where the big money is, just decided not to show up. Revenues are way down and now, in the opinion of some, they're making an even poorer choice by become a "Wandering Minstrels" group.

To your point about the financial clout of the letter's signatories - I think that while they could clearly throw money at the problem, they're going straight to what they believe the root of the problem is ... the inexperienced management and the board of directors.

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