George Steel Named as New York City Opera's General Manager and Artistic Director

Appointment Follows Steel's Three-Month Tenure as General Director of Dallas Opera

George Steel
George Steel
© Whitney Lawson 2008
George R. Steel, who this past October began his tenure as general director of Dallas Opera, has been named as the new general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera, the company announced today. Steel is expected to assume his responsibilities as the company's new chief on February 1, 2009, and has, presumably, left Dallas Opera without a general director mid-season.

The appointment, which had been a point of speculation that Steel himself had sought to check for months, ostensibly puts an end to a two-year debacle during which time the embattled City Opera essentially found itself without a day-to-day general administrator to run the company. Gerard Mortier, whose tenure at the Opéra National de Paris ends this year, was announced in February 2007 as the City Opera's new general manager and artistic director, at which time he proposed a highly touted artistic agenda that would have found City Opera presenting challenging twentieth-century works and innovating stagings of repertory staples alongside new operas and rarities. In October, Mortier withdrew from his agreement with the company's board to lead the opera, and accused the board of failing to provide him with the $60 million budget that he claimed his contract had stipulated should be available for City Opera's 2009-10 season.

News of Steel's announcement left unclear the fate of Dallas Opera, which seemed to score something of a coup this summer in recruiting him from his previous position as the executive director of Columbia University's Miller Theater. Dallas Opera is scheduled to move into its new home, the recently completed Winspear Opera House, in the fall of this year.

Steel, 42, has particular expertise as a conductor, having founded the Vox Vocal Ensemble in 1995 and the Gotham City Orchestra in 1998. While the Miller Theater became a presenter of innovative and eclectic programming during Steel's execute directorship - including stagings of a number of modern chamber operas, such as Elliott Carter's What Next? and the U.S. stage premiere of Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway - prior to his three-month tenure as the general director at Dallas Opera, he had no experience at the helm of an opera house, nor did he find himself in the position of having to fundraise the large amounts of money that usually keep such enterprises afloat.

"George Steel is both a brilliant artistic producer and a highly effective institution-builder," Susan Baker, City Opera's board chairman, said in a release issued by the company today. "He is also someone with a deep commitment to the historic mission of New York City Opera, in both its adventurous programming and its dynamic educational initiatives and audience outreach. We are confident that his strong, visionary leadership will take City Opera to a new level of artistic achievement and popular success."

"It is an enormous honor, and an enormous responsibility, to be asked to participate in building the future of New York City Opera," said Steel, who told the New York Times that he made the difficult decision to assume leadership at City Opera, at the apparent expense of Dallas Opera, over the past holiday season. "My goal is to help 'the People's Opera' renew its indispensable mission as an important producer of early opera, a proponent of American singers and new works, a force for rediscovering vital but lesser-known works, and an originator of visionary productions of classic repertoire." Explaining his deflection from Dallas, Steel told the Times that the chance to lead City Opera amounted to the "opportunity of a lifetime." Speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Steel said: "It has been wrenching to consider leaving the job in Dallas, which is an amazing company poised on the threshold of extraordinary things. I have every confidence that the company will continue from strength to strength and find a terrific leader to take them into the next chapter."

As far as an intended artistic agenda for New York City Opera, Steel reportedly mentioned the works of Handel, Rameau and Gluck as being of interest, as well as world premieres, other nineteenth century works and, specifically, Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place and Stravinsky's television opera, The Flood. "My plans are to dive headfirst into the work and solve both short-term and long-term problems at the same time," the New York Times quoted him as saying.

City Opera's board reportedly approved Steel's appointment late on Wednesday. The company's concert presentations of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, which are to take place at Carnegie Hall tomorrow and Friday, amount to the only exhibition of a complete opera that City Opera will present this season, having taken Mortier's advice to entirely eschew a mainstage season while its home, the David H. Koch Theater, undergoes substantial renovations. Likewise, Mortier's abrupt departure left the company with little in the way of firm plans for its 2009-10 season. Speaking with the Times, Susan Baker said that City Opera would offer less than ten productions next season - half that of what the company presented in more robust times - citing both renovations to the Koch Theater as well as sizable fiscal challenges in an uncertain economic climate.

According to the Times, Baker also said that the company's endowment now stands nearly forty percent below what it had once been, at approximately $20 million to 25 million; likewise she described the City Opera's operating budget for next season as in the range of "30-ish" millions of dollars, nearly $12 million less than what has been spent in recent seasons. During its current dark season, the company has also been responsible for compensating its chorus and orchestra, at a cost of at least $4.7 million, in addition to administrative overhead. In October, the company was forced to furlough staffers for two days because it feared that it would not have the liquidity to pay their salaries.

More information can be found at the New York City Opera, the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, and the OPERA NEWS Archives (here, here, here, here, here and here).

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