Feature

The Fat Lady Sings

The New York City Opera Closes Its Doors for Good

The New York City Opera, the 70-year-old company originally stationed at Lincoln Center, declared bankruptcy on Oct. 1 after failing to reach its fundraising goal of $7 million, devastating the city’s classical music community. But why should you even care? Why, as an apathetic, young New Yorker with tickets to MGMT and a beckoning Netflix queue of Portlandia, season 3, should you be bothered that this old music establishment just kicked the bucket? Isn’t opera that thing elderly people listen to with the fat lady and the Viking helmet thing? So this New York City Opera company tanked. Big deal.

NYCO has been around since the 1940s and moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, where for more than 50 years it neighbored artistic behemoths like the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the New York City Ballet. Selling tickets at consistently affordable prices while its competitor, the Metropolitan Opera, charged rates such as $375 for a Saturday matinee, City Opera developed a niche as the Met’s cheaper, less pretentious younger sister, putting on bold productions with a focus on the avant-garde.

“New York City Opera was all about taking risks,” NYCO Concertmaster Yevgenia Strenger says. “That’s what was so attractive about it.”

To the very end, NYCO maintained its reputation for staging wild productions, beginning its 2012-2013 season with Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face, a controversial, ferociously modern opera involving everything from onstage nudity to a “musical blow job” (don’t ask). Meanwhile, the conservative Met, with its world-renowned singers and colossal donation income, continues to stage the same cycles of Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner operas every year—reliable sources of ticket revenue.

Known as “the people’s opera,” NYCO actually made opera feel cool and not like some stuffy pastime for people who look like the Monopoly guy. “The City Opera had a very loyal following,” Strenger says. “There were older people, there were younger people, there were in-between people ... there were lots of subscribers who were looking forward to each season.”

But NYCO was the musician’s opera, too, an important stepping-stone for up-and-coming stars. It helped start off the careers of vocal sensations such as Beverly Sills, Samuel Ramey, and Plácido Domingo, among others.

With NYCO, opera stood a chance against the looming marginalization of classical music. City Opera had always been a force for good against the fat-lady-Viking-helmet stereotype, but now that NYCO’s gone belly-up, there’s no one in New York to defend opera against that simplistic mischaracterization.

NYCO joins the Minnesota, Syracuse, New Mexico, and Honolulu symphony orchestras as yet another gateway into professional classical music that has disappeared. This means that aspiring musicians, singers, and classical instrumentalists alike are going to find a cruel, jobless world out there: a job market where you’re either principal tuba of the New York Phil or Tubby the Tuba in Tubby the Tuba on Ice.

The demise of City Opera is more than just a tragedy for New York opera enthusiasts and aspiring musicians; NYCO may just be classical music’s Lehman Brothers—both a benchmark event for how bad things have gotten and a catalyst for worse to come.

So we’ve got permanent marginalization of an entire musical genre, a dismally barren musical jobs market, and the potential downfall of an entire musical industry. Yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty big deal.

So how did City Opera get into this mess? Stewart Rose, principal horn at the New York City Opera Orchestra since 1989, says that NYCO had financial issues long before he even joined the organization. “It’s never been smooth sailing for City Opera,” Rose says. “They’ve never been a company that’s had an easy time with money.”

Despite these pre-existing financial issues, most of the blame for NYCO’s demise can and should be attributed to Artistic Director and General Manager George Steel, a person I’ve heard referred to as “Steel the Terrible,” “Slave-Master Steel,” and “Steel, the Founder of City Opera’s Evil Empire.” The extent to which Steel messed up is quite remarkable: He was somehow capable of simultaneously alienating NYCO’s patrons, mismanaging NYCO’s finances, damaging the company’s prestige, and screwing over the musicians all at once. But this wasn’t the company’s first impression of him.

“When we first met him, he was saying, ‘Oh, I love this opera company. This is the opera company I grew up with. All I want to do is see you guys back in business doing what you do,’” Principal Flutist Bart Feller says. “And that was all we wanted to hear! That somebody was just going to bring some continuity to the whole thing and re-establish us. And of course that didn’t turn out to be particularly true at all.”

First of all, Steel went overboard with programming contemporary music, and as a result he scared away older patrons. “His changes to the programming were unbelievably dramatic,” Feller says. “He brought us no Mozart first season, no Puccini, none of the audience standards and favorites they had come to rely on us for. And so people started to stay away like crazy.” But it’s not only that Steel programmed too much contemporary music—he programmed it badly. According to Rose, NYCO used to maintain a good balance between contemporary works and classical favorites: “They would only do four or five performances of every new work. They wouldn’t do weeks of it or 15 shows or anything like that. They were able to somehow judge what they were able to sell in advance.” Once Steel came along, that all stopped. “I don’t think Steel had a clue what that balance was about,” Rose adds. “He put on A Quiet Place, the Bernstein show, in the New York State Theater for maybe 20-some odd performances, as opposed to putting on five of those and 15 standard repertory pieces.”

Steel demonstrated a complete disconnect with his subscribers. “The subscribers were older and more conservative than he’d ever given it thought, but that’s also his job!” Feller adds. “His job is to look at the focus groups and find out who the subscribers are.”

When finances deteriorated, Steel forced NYCO to leave Lincoln Center and become a nomadic freelancer, staging productions at various small theaters around the city—big mistake. With City Opera no longer stationed at the musical hub of the country, the organization lost most of its earlier prestige. City Opera wasn’t associated with the fancy-pants Met anymore, so the company’s revenue dive-bombed. “There’s always better business when there’s more than one store on the block,” Strenger says. “One thing keeps the other one going.”

Some have argued that Steel had no choice but to make NYCO leave Lincoln Center. But with better management, Steel may have been able to prevent the company from getting into financial straits in the first place. Even if Steel hadn’t been responsible for getting NYCO in its dire financial situation, he could have drastically shortened the season and still kept the company at its old location. Steel simply didn’t appreciate the importance the prestige of Lincoln Center had for NYCO concertgoers. “Our donors just didn’t want to schlep all over the city to see us,” Feller says.

City Opera continued to lose money left and right by staging expensive, Lincoln-Center-scale productions in tiny, lesser-known theaters. Steel even redid the orchestra’s contracts, giving the musicians the choice of either quitting or suffering a brutal 90 percent cut to their salary. All the while, he stuck to an absurd business model in which 90 percent of the company’s funds would be generated by donations and 10 percent by ticket revenue, when the norm is a 50-50 split. “We all thought, ‘This guy’s nuts!’” Rose remembers. “It was in some sort of fantasyland that he thought he was going be able to raise all this money.”

In September of this year, Steel finally announced that if City Opera didn’t receive $7 million in funding by the end of the month, the company would have to declare bankruptcy and dissolve. Steel’s plan was to raise $1 million through Kickstarter crowd-funding and $6 million through independent donors. Neither came through.

“When we saw that news, that they needed the $7 million by the end of the month, we knew that was the end,” Rose says. “It was clear that they weren’t going to do it. And the Kickstarter and all that, it was almost pathetic ... like collecting with a tin cup or something like that.”

The saddest part about the final stage of NYCO’s decline is that the company had just recently been getting laudatory reviews in the New York Times and the New Yorker for its recent productions of Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole. To the very end of its existence, City Opera put out the same high-quality performances it had from the start.

But maybe things aren’t as apocalyptic as they seem. Even without NYCO to keep opera cool, the Met seems to be trying to bring in younger audiences. On Oct. 17, the Met hosted an event at Le Poisson Rouge, the very hippest in New York new-music venues, anticipating the Oct. 21 U.S. premiere of Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys. Two Boys is equivalent to City Opera’s Powder Her Face, a contemporary work of provocative content (it’s about Internet chat rooms and online predators) sure to generate interest among younger potential patrons. And at Le Poisson, Muhly was a witty, energetic host. The venue’s dim jazz-club lighting gave the stage a glowing red hue, and the musicians told some jokes to the audience. The atmosphere was surprisingly... cool. The Met seems to be finally getting what City Opera always understood: the importance of merging the highbrow with the lowbrow.

The demise of The People’s Opera is a tragedy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of opera as a culturally relevant art form in New York. The Met doesn’t have City Opera’s naked men and musical blow jobs, but it’s heartening to know the fat lady isn’t singing just yet. Or if she is, at least she isn’t wearing a Viking helmet. 

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bjw2119 posted on

Worth noting that Steel was previously the director of Miller Theater at Columbia...

CC'14 posted on

Really great article. Starting the piece by addressing the question, "Why should I care?", was key. I don't know very much about opera in general, let alone the current state of specific companies in NYC, but now I feel a little more informed, so thank you!