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The Ballad of NYCO

Next month, New York City Opera presents its first operas since announcing its departure from Lincoln Center, the company's home for more than forty years. It's a move that was once unthinkable — but it may be NYCO's only hope for survival. FRED COHN traces the long, complicated and still-evolving saga of an American cultural institution's reinvention.

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The New York State Theater, 1964
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George Steel
© René Perez 2012
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Paul Kellogg
© Marty Umans 2012

It seemed like it would always be there. From the time I first became aware of the opera world, New York City Opera loomed large — Fiorello LaGuardia's "people's opera"; the home of Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle; the upholder of theatrical values and audacious programming. Lincoln Center's New York State Theater was never a congenial venue for opera. Still, from the time I arrived in New York in the mid-'70s, the company has been responsible for some of my fondest operatic memories — a beautiful Pelléas conducted by Julius Rudel; a riveting Street Sceneled by John Mauceri and starring the young Catherine Malfitano; Samuel Ramey in Attila; a transcendent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Xerxes. Along the way, there were any number of hastily prepared, roughly executed performances, but that was part of the mix: even at its peak moments, City Opera had a homegrown character that was intrinsically American and very much part of the cultural fabric of the city itself. 

No longer. Under the directorship of George Steel, City Opera has left its Lincoln Center home, now called the David H. Koch Theater. Next month the company is scheduled to perform La Traviata and Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the first two of four productions, at theaters scattered throughout the city, that make up its entire 2011–12 season. Most alarmingly, City Opera is no longer a real opera company, in any recognizable sense of the word. If Steel's plan goes through, the company will have no permanent orchestra or chorus and no singers under weekly contract. George Manahan, City Opera's longtime music director, is no longer with the company; his position was eliminated last summer. The changes have rendered New York City Opera, at best, a shadow of its former self. "It has unfortunately turned into a booking house, rather than a company," says mezzo Joyce Castle, a veteran member of the company who joined City Opera's board in 2004 and resigned this summer in dismay. 

Steel has drawn flak from all quarters for his decision: the unions registered a vote of "no confidence" in his leadership and picketed his season-announcement press conference; former company members, including Malfitano, Ramey, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, signed a protest letter. Rudel, the company's revered former general director and the man who shepherded its move to Lincoln Center from its original home, New York City Center, delivered a rebuke on the op-ed page of The New York Times. "I was pretty shocked when the decision was made," says Ramey. "Leaving such a prestigious location, just to go around to smaller theaters, downgrades the company in general."

But the exit from Lincoln Center has in no way come from out of the blue. The past ten years of City Opera's history have made its current fate all but inevitable. It's an epic saga of economic hardship, mismanagement and just plain bad luck. 

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Curtain call for Alberto Ginastera's Don Rodrigo, 1966, with Jeannine Crader, the composer, Rudel, Plácido Domingo and Spiro Malas
© Beth Bergman 2012

Money problems have dogged City Opera throughout its history. "There was always a shoestring aspect to it — in some ways, it's what made it exciting," says soprano Lisa Saffer, a company regular in the 1990s. Even the early days of Beverly Sills's intendancy as general director — now regarded as a halcyon period — were marked by economic uncertainty. In Sills's first years, the company racked up a $3-million deficit. A 1983 strike torpedoed her first planned summer season, and two years later a warehouse fire destroyed the company's costumes. Sometimes, in order simply to meet payroll, Sills would have to fly off to cajole donors.

City Opera was the site of Sills's greatest triumphs, including the 1966 Giulio Cesare that made her an operatic superstar. In 1979, her singing career near its end, she took over from Rudel as general director. (Originally, the two were supposed to share leadership, but after a conflict with the board, Rudel beat a hasty retreat, leaving his onetime protégée at the helm.) She was very famous, very sociable and very, very hardworking — all qualities she used to City Opera's benefit. She took complete charge of the operation, signing off on details down to the hiring of comprimarios for the touring National Company. She engendered terrific loyalty from her company. "She was absolutely charming, and definitely the boss," says Manahan, who started his City Opera career under Sills.

Sills instituted a number of changes during her tenure, not all of which paid off. As a way of avoiding direct competition with the Met, she moved the company's spring season to summer, with tepid box-office results. A series of Broadway musical productions achieved mixed critical and financial success, at best. But one of her innovations was a definite hit: in 1983, City Opera became the first U.S. company to use projected titles; today, their absence in a major opera house is unimaginable.

Even more important, Sills was a prodigious fund-raiser who worked her blue-chip social connections for everything they were worth. "She knew who had money and knew who would give it," says Kevin Russell, director of special events under Sills. "And she had no problem asking anybody for it." When she retired from her post in 1989, she left behind a cushy $3-million surplus.  

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Malfitano and Alan Titus in Street Scene, 1978
© Beth Bergman 2012

She also bequeathed a daunting problem: nobody else could hope to duplicate her fund-raising success. Sills was the very face of American opera; the donors who coughed up for New York City Opera were giving money to her. "She was the image of the company — and she knew it," says Joseph S. Gasperec, then a stage manager, now the company's assistant technical director.  

Conductor Christopher Keene, her successor, had little interest in fund-raising — or in administration, for that matter. "He was a brilliant musician and conductor, but he was not the right person for that job," says Jane M. Gullong, who started as development director under Keene. His tenure was marked by some audacious programming and artistic successes,including the city's first staged performances of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron and Bernd Zimmermann's Die Soldaten. But it was also a time of disarray and financial reversals. By 1992, City Opera was $2.9 million in the red again. Over Keene's vociferous protests, the board appointed an executive director, Mark Weinstein; the two men never got along. In 1993, in the midst of the company's celebrations of its fiftieth anniversary, Keene was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic to be treated for alcoholism. He died of AIDS in 1995. 

The board was well prepared for Keene's death; in fact, it had already begun to explore the idea of hiring Paul Kellogg, head of the much-admired Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York. Before taking the job, Kellogg analyzed the company's operations with Sherwin M. Goldman, a theatrical producer and Glimmerglass board member. They could immediately see the financial weakness of City Opera's position. "It was being treated like the Met by the unions but didn't have the resources — the backers and the box office — to warrant that," Goldman says. 

"For decades, City Opera was the second-largest American company in number of performances, and between fifth and sixth in budget size," says Kellogg, who declined a face-to-face interview for this article, preferring to respond to questions via e-mail. "You can understand the problem."

But Kellogg and Goldman realized that by linking City Opera and Glimmerglass, they could create synergies for both companies. City Opera would provide Glimmerglass with (in Goldman's phrase) "an opening to the sea" — New York exposure for its productions and singers; in turn, the company would get a steady stream of new mountings, developed upstate with largely nonunion personnel and under far less time pressure than if produced from scratch at Lincoln Center. The alliance between the companies started in 1996, when Kellogg took over as City Opera's general and artistic director, with Goldman as his executive producer. 

The arrangement sometimes resulted in successes, such as a gripping Francesca Zambello Iphigénie en Tauride, with Christine Goerke as its heroine. But often the productions, designed for Glimmerglass's 914-seat home, looked stranded in the huge State Theater. Even more dubious, from an aesthetic viewpoint, was the 1999 introduction of amplification — an attempt to compensate for the theater's notoriously recalcitrant acoustics. Critics hated the miking; few subsequent reviews failed to mention it. "Paul's decision to concentrate on the acoustical enhancement was a distraction that turned the audience off," says Gullong. "If you tell them that there's something wrong with the house, they'll believe you."

Faced with the State Theater's limitations as a performing space, along with its enormous expense, the company started exploring ways to move from Lincoln Center. The idea was hardly a new one: as far back as 1991, NYCO had scouted out the decaying New Amsterdam Theatre on Forty-second Street, later commandeered by Disney and The Lion King. In 2002, the company began serious negotiations to build a new home at the World Trade Center site, but these fell through: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg raised objections to the plan, telling the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation that he was concerned about finding a new tenant for the city-owned State Theater. John C. Whitehead, the founding chairman of the LMDC, said at the time that city officials also expressed worry about the possibility of the company's failing at Ground Zero, leaving the city with the burden of maintaining its building. Eventually, the design for the Freedom Tower left too small a footprint for an opera house. City Opera later explored the idea of building a new house on the site of the headquarters of the Red Cross, on Amsterdam Avenue just behind Lincoln Center, but the company was never able to reach a deal with the property developers. 

Up through its 2000–01 season, City Opera had operated as a "50/50" company, deriving its revenue equally from ticket sales and fund-raising. But the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed all that. Performing-arts institutions all over the city saw a dip in attendance; City Opera's turned out to be permanent. "Other companies, generally speaking, found a way to recuperate from 9/11," says Robin Thompson, then the company's artistic administrator. "The City Opera never did." "You want to know whose fault it was?" says Gullong, assessing the company's subsequent tribulations. "You have to ask every person who stopped going."

With revenues shrinking, the company was forced to cut back on rehearsal schedules. Standard-rep revivals would sometimes be mounted with only a piano dress rehearsal. "Sometimes we had to work without a net," says Manahan. "We'd have a Butterfly or a Bohème with a young cast, doing it for the first time. The musical staff was amazing at getting them prepared. The orchestra knew the pieces so well, it wasn't like we needed five reading rehearsals. It wasn't ideal, but whatever we had to do, we got it done."

On one financial front, though, City Opera was in better shape than ever before. By 2003, the company was sitting on an endowment of $57 million — a record high. The fund seemed like insurance against hard times ahead. But it didn't last for long.

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NYCO premiere of Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, 1991
© Carol Rosegg 2012

In the late '90s, Gullong, scouting for potential board members, had been eyeing the investment bank Goldman Sachs, which had a history of involvement with cultural institutions. She heard about Susan L. Baker — a banker who had worked with Kidder Peabody and Lehman Brothers, as well as Goldman Sachs; the wife of a Goldman Sachs partner, Michael Lynch; and, most important, an avid music-lover. Baker had deep financial resources; she also projected an air of business acumen. She joined the board in 1999, donating no less than a half-million dollars a year, and took over as chairman at the beginning of 2004.

A board of directors generally sets the direction for a cultural institution and hires key personnel, then lets the administration handle day-to-day operations. Baker seemed to conceive a different role for herself. She made herself a frequent presence in the company's offices, and she started giving orders. "She wanted to run the company, and she intended to run it," says Sherwin Goldman. (Baker, like all other current NYCO board members approached about this article, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Taking a cue from the business world, Baker brought in Boston Consulting Group to study the company's operations and its shaky financial status. The work was expensive and time-consuming but yielded few results. "Nobody had the answer — and they didn't either," says Gullong.

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Goerke as Gluck's Iphigénie, 1997
© Carol Rosegg 2012

Inevitably, Baker's move for control rankled the company's administrators. Goldman says his own relationship with Baker fell permanently apart when she reversed his specific instructions to an employee. "She made clear she would countermand anything I did if she wanted to," Goldman says. "I couldn't stay there with that arrangement." Goldman left the executive-producer post to work on moving City Opera to a new home, and Gullong took over as executive director. She had been well respected in her development job, but now she was widely perceived as Baker's puppet. 

In the face of Baker's ascendancy, Kellogg was powerless. "You have to be ruthless to be the general director of an opera company," says Robin Thompson. "It's a big, dirty, ugly, union-dominated job. Paul is not a ruthless person — he's a gentleman." Kellogg announced his resignation in late 2005, and even though he officially left in June 2007, he was clearly a lame duck throughout the period. As company insiders saw it, he increasingly began to retreat, unwilling and even unable to assert control; in the words of one observer, he became "nonfunctional." Thompson ended up taking on most of his duties.

The leadership crisis took its toll on company morale. "Once Kellogg withdrew, we had no leadership," says Tom Kelly, then the company's production stage manager. "Nobody had a clear idea of the person that they worked for — or the feeling that there was someone on our side."

The board hired the headhunting agency Korn/Ferry to search for a new general manager. The firm's efforts came to naught. ("They hadn't a clue," Thompson says.) But Baker felt she'd found the answer in 2006 when, at a dinner at the French consulate, she found herself sitting next to Gerard Mortier, the glamorous and innovative Belgian-born intendant of first the Salzburg Festival and then the Paris Opera, where he was just a few seasons away from the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five. Trusting her gut, Baker pursued him. Early in 2007, City Opera announced Mortier as its new general manager and artistic director. "Susan came from a world in which risk won rewards, and she took a risk," says Gullong. 

The impresario and his new opera company were an odd match. In Paris and at the Salzburg Festival, Mortier had been used to lavish, government-funded budgets; City Opera had always worked with limited resources. Moreover, he was best known for presenting modern opera, as well as reworkings of the standard rep — the kind conservative American operagoers typically call "Eurotrash," far more radical than anything ever seen at the State Theater. 

Mortier quickly decided to abandon the search for a new home and stay instead at the State Theater, which would be modernized and acoustically renovated; eventually a $100-million gift to the theater from oil-and-gas billionaire David H. Koch helped fund the project. But the overhaul had to happen entirely on City Opera's time; New York City Ballet, the theater's cotenant, wasn't going to give up a minute of its own season. 

With the company's leadership in flux, the 2008–09 season had already become something of a stepchild. Mortier had been hired to plan the 2009–10 season, not the season before; even though Thompson had drafted out a season, including a new production of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatrathe plans never got to the approval stage, and no contracts went out to singers. Once the decision was made to leave the house dark during the renovations, the season for all intents and purposes disappeared: it eventually consisted only of two unstaged Carnegie Hall performances of the Barber piece and a handful of orchestral concerts in the outer boroughs. The missing season caused a loss in revenue and momentum from which the company has never recovered.

Mortier ran City Opera from afar: his Paris contract would run until September 2009. But he mapped out an ambitious 2009–10 New York season made up exclusively of twentieth-century works, including a production of Olivier Messiaen's epic St. François d'Assise in the Park Avenue Armory. The plans depended on a $60-million budget, spelled out in his contract, that was well above anything the company had ever spent even in financially stable periods. He met with the entire company in the State Theater lobby to announce the season, giving a speech that led the rank-and-file to think that he was contemptuous of the standard repertory — City Opera's bread and butter. "I went home and told my wife, 'That guy's never coming here,'" says Kelly. 

Baker had been banking on the allure of Mortier's name, figuring that it would attract a new level of philanthropy. "It was an extreme case of magical thinking," says Heidi Waleson, who covered NYCO for the Wall Street Journal. The extra donor cash never materialized: the board presented Mortier with a budget of a mere $36 million for his first season. He quit in November 2008, picking up a $335,000 "severance" payment and leaving the company once again rudderless. 

Mortier's resignation came at the height of 2008's financial crisis. The downturn in the stock market had already walloped City Opera's endowment. Now the company was forced to deplete it further, withdrawing $17.5 million in the fall to cover deficits from 2007–08 and to make up for the ticket revenue that would be lost during its dark season, when the company was still stuck with its seasonal guarantees to the orchestra, chorus and stagehands. In April 2009, in order simply to keep operating, the company raided the endowment of an additional $6.6 million. The withdrawals were characterized as "loans," but City Opera has yet to find the funds to repay them. As of July 2011, the endowment stood at a mere $4.8 million.

In the wake of the Mortier debacle, Baker still serves on the board, but she ceded the chairmanship to Charles R. Wall, a former Philip Morris exec, in 2010. "Susan's belief was that City Opera could be a great company — not second-rate, not Met Lite," says Gullong. "But she needed to lead the board to do more fund-raising." Others take a less charitable view. Alan Gordon, who leads the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), representing City Opera's dispossessed soloists, choristers, dancers and production staff in negotiations that were still ongoing at press time, says in a typically bold statement, "They ought to hang Susan Baker in front of the State Theater."

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Amy Burton, Hunt and Susannah Waters in Stephen Wadsworth's staging of Xerxes, 1997
© Carol Rosegg 2012

Industry insiders agree that few company directors were ever handed a mess to compare with the one Steel inherited. "Somebody gives you a leaky bag and tells you to run 500 meters with it — that's what he's doing," says artist manager Robert Lombardo, who has represented many singers who have appeared with the company over the years. 

Steel was not the obvious choice for the job. After Mortier ducked out, the board had canvassed the company's senior staff members about a replacement, and their overwhelming favorite was Francesca Zambello, an opera insider who had personal ties with many company members. Some felt blindsided when, in January 2009, Steel's appointment was announced. Just fourteen weeks earlier, he had taken the reins at Dallas Opera; from most reports, his short tenure there had not been a happy one. He had gone there from Columbia University's Miller Theatre, which he had turned into a Mecca for offbeat programming. Before Dallas, though, he had never been part of the opera world. Still, Steel leapt at the chance to run City Opera. "The call came unexpectedly and urgently, and it was a call I had to and wanted to answer," he says. 

Assessing the ailing company's finances, he jettisoned a "turnaround plan" that the board had devised and started scaling down company operations. "The primary problem was that it was based on a fifty-percent increase in fund-raising revenue," Steel says. "So try doing that! The board had some ideas of where that money would come from, but they did not prove to be sources that were readily tapped." 

Mortier's entire 2009–10 slate had been scrapped, and Steel had just months to assemble a new season — one that would be feasible under current financial conditions. He worked quickly, announcing a season less than three months after he took over. It consisted of just five operas and thirty-three performances, far fewer than in previous years; the 2010–11 season was similarly scaled down. In these two Lincoln Center seasons, Steel had hoped to build an audience — and build fund-raising momentum — through innovative programming and marketing. 

A Christopher Alden Don Giovanni during Steel's first season proved a surprising critical success. For the most part, though, Steel concentrated on unusual repertory — Hugo Weisgall's Esther, the local premiere of Bernstein's A Quiet Placea triple bill of modernist monodramas. Most failed to find an audience, neither attracting City Opera's traditional supporters nor developing an operagoing habit among a younger, hipper crowd. The company's ad campaigns, intended to be provocative, were instead often impenetrable. Séance on a Wet Afternoon, a new work by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz, was a bid for mainstream success; it even played on a modified Broadway schedule, with ten performances over two weeks. But the critics panned the piece, and the audience stayed away in droves. Ticket sales for the 2010–11 season hovered near a dismal 40 percent of capacity. 

With resources all but wiped out, Steel felt he had little choice but to move the company from Lincoln Center. Its new configuration relieves it of both the enormous running costs of the Koch Theater and the unions' minimums. The new season consists of just sixteen performances — four each of a Christopher Alden-directed Così Fan Tutte at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater; Telemann's Orpheus at the Museo del Barrio; and, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, La Traviata (a Glimmerglass transplant)and Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna, which was originally commissioned, then rejected, by the Met. Steel says the season will cost $13 million — a figure far below the $31 million spent last year. "The company had to find a financial model that matched its potential revenue," he says. "This is a gigantic event: to find a lighter, fleeter way — a sustainable way — of doing business." In its scaled-down form, City Opera is relying heavily on donations; given the paucity of actual performances, only about ten percent of the company's planned revenues will come from ticket sales.

The current state of the company leaves many of its veterans feeling hurt, even betrayed. Jane Shaulis, a company stalwart in the '70s and '80s, laments, "Costume fittings — where is that going to happen? The wig collection — where is it going to go?"

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Lauren Flanigan in concert for Antony and
Cleopatra
, 2009

© Carol Rosegg 2012

Steel has remained remarkably steady and optimistic throughout the controversy. He argues that by performing in venues throughout the city the company is returning to its historical roots. "We're finding new audiences, retaking the city block by block," he says. "That is the ultimate mission of New York City Opera — to go out and find new audiences and bring them something exciting, theatrical and new, not be a citadel on a hill and make them come to us." 

But when Steel's back-to-basics argument is presented to Julius Rudel, he replies, "Nonsense! If Mr. Steel has an idea to found a new company for offbeat repertory, and he can find the funds and support, I encourage him. But don't pretend it is New York City Opera." 

These are hard times for classical-music institutions across the country. The Brahmins who once pulled out their checkbooks to fund orchestras and opera companies have been replaced by hedge-fund moguls less likely to view funding for the arts as a moral imperative. 

But history has hit New York City Opera especially hard. The company has lost its special place in American opera. "Some things were unique to City Opera — American singers, American directors, a theatrical approach," says Robin Thompson. "That was their niche. Now everybody does it." 

No institution has more thoroughly commandeered City Opera's identity than its formidable ex-neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera. The Met now programs Moses und Aron, The Makropulos Case and Anna Bolena — works that were formerly exclusive City Opera property. Its popularly priced tickets upstairs, and rush tickets downstairs, have given it an approachability that was once City Opera's domain. Its seat titles are even more user-friendly than City Opera's supertitles. With its HD broadcasts bringing opera to neighborhoods across the country, the Met can make a persuasive claim for being the "people's opera" of the twenty-first century. 

Operagoing New Yorkers like myself can only hope for the success of Steel's City Opera. But Rudel is right: the itinerant operation that Steel proposes isn't even remotely a version of the company that we knew for so many decades. New York used to support two full-fledged opera companies. Now it doesn't — and we are immeasurably poorer for it. spacer 

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6