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New York City Opera in peril

There is a group on facebook of colleagues past and present from New York City Opera, where we discuss, sometimes quite heatedly, the current tragedy that is the possible collapse of a great American Institution; the New York City Opera. Even though I have no "dog in the fight," that is, I have not been hired by the current administration, nor am I part of the chorus or orchestra currently in union negotiations, I am terribly interested in the proceedings for many reasons. The first is that I am a member of AGMA, the union representing the singers and directors that is currently locked out of rehearsals. The second is just my general love and commitment to the company after all it has done for me and my career, as well as the carreers of many artists just like me. The third is that I strongly believe that having a second opera company in a cultural center like New York City, one that doesn't have the biggest budgets in the country and the biggest stars, but has a very high profile nonethelss, provides an incredibly valuable artistic contribution to a city, and as an example, to a nation, which is already suffering terribly from cultural antipathy and an almost unhealthy fixation with things like Kardashians and Snookis. 

The first reason listed above, the fact that I am a member of AGMA, is one of the things causing a bit of controversy among certain current and former members of the company. Many people may not be aware that both the singers of the chorus and the solo singers are represented by the same union. It makes sense, since we are all singers, and we therefore have many of the same needs in a union - adequate breaks, safety, scheduled days off, etc. But of course the tricky part is that under the current City Opera model, solo singers are freelancers, while chorus singers are employees, and so the union can effectively negotiate things like guaranteed weeks of work, health insurance, and unemployment benefits for only one group of its constituents. It actually only becomes tricky when there is a possible strike at a company like City Opera, which employs both freelancers and employee union members (many companies hire the chorus on a freelance basis) because the soloists are required to strike with the chorus because they are members of the union, even though the nature of the soloists jobs is not necessarily one of the items on the negotiating table. Soloists often feel they are unfairly thrown into the fight although they have no items of their own being fought for, while some chorus members feel that because the union represents us all, soloists are being selfish if they suggest that they do not belong on the same side of the picket line as the choristers (and in this case the orchestra, although they have their own separate union). It is a sticky situation, and one that can lead to disagreements and frustation among people who would normally never find themselves in opposition to one another. If there is a strike, the performances will likely have to be cancelled anyway, so I imagine it will be a moot point. It does, however, continue to ruffle some feathers and hurt some feelings on both sides. 

There have been some people suggesting that although the fate of City Opera is terrible, it is inevitable, and that the chorus and orchestra should realize that some work is better than no work, and that this reduced model is the only way City Opera can remain open. However, others suggest that the financial shortfall has been a result of gross mismanagement on the part of the current administration and the Board, and that the direction the current administration wishes to take New York City Opera does not reflect the way the company was intended to be run by its founders, and by the generations of impresarios that have lead the company since (as reflected by the letter of non support written by Julius Rudel, as well as the petitions signed by many former company lumanaries). 

I obviously have not been privy to the numbers that the Board and the administration have been looking at which have caused them first to vacate the newly renovated Lincoln Center, and then decide that the system of artist employees should be abolished, so I certainly cannot state with authority that there must have been another alternative. I am however of the opinion that if you want to be an Opera producer, trying to shrink a company and change the business model to something smaller is not necessarily the only way to "save" the company. New York City Opera, although possessing a much smaller budget than the Met, was still always thought of as a "Grand" opera company, partly because of its location at Lincoln Center and the size of the theater, but also partly because of the number and variety of productions each season, which would have been impossible without a full time chorus and orchestra. And why do we need another Grand Opera company, when the Met, right next door, does everything so well, and with so much money - and even provides access to less expensive ticket alternatives?

For me, the answer is because Grand Opera, when produced on a grand scale but not necessarily with a grand budget, provides a different and yet equally valuable artistic experience for both the artistic community and the audience. A sparser production may thrust a performer more easily and clearly into the spotlight, and a young cast which is thrown onto the stage for the first time without the benefit of an orchestral dress rehearsal has a spontaneous energy and enthusiasm which is hard to match in other situations. When a company becomes itinerent and employee-less, there are still certainly possibilities for great art to occur, but it is simply of another variety than the one we have grown accustomed to in these past 60 plus years, and why some people argue that the new way of running the company that is envisioned by the current administration should not be called New York City Opera. 

I wish I could imagine a solution to come up the the shortfall of cash missing from the budget that would allow City Opera to remain at Lincoln Center, and produce 13 productions, and pay the orchestra and chorus their hard earned salaries. If I won the lottery, that is definitely what I would do with the money. However, I also acknowledge the fact that whether we like it or not, Opera in this country is produced by people who have money to produce it, and they are in charge. If we don't like that model, our choices are to move to Europe (where there are still healthy government subidies of the arts), start our own artist run company where everyone donates their services, or find another line of work. That's not to say that artists who have been employed for years and years by a company and now find their compensation cut down by 90% shouldn't do everything in their power to insist that they don't lose their livliehoods. It just leaves us with that question that we continue to be unable to answer with complete authority - how do we create more of an interest in the arts, enough so that we can continue to afford to do it? The money is out there, but we have to continually, and creatively, find a way to funnel some more of it in our direction. We have to keep working to maintain the grandness, so that the final outcome for gathering an audience doesn't become hiring Kim Kardashian and Snooki as Susanna and the Countess. 

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Reader Comments (6)

Well said. Thanks!! No easy way out of this...but it will no longer be the "New York City Opera" the we and it's public knew.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanO

Really well thought out and written. Unfortunately these are the realities. Opera is a business. The directors made mistakes and blaming them wont help cauuse the damage is done. We can only hope that with the situation in europe, especially in Italy and Spain, that the governmennt subsidies you mention don't dry up. Meantime...keep buying those lottery tickets!

January 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralocksley

wonderful post, very insightful :)

January 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Minx

A thoughtful summation. I never doubted that a city of New York's cultural breadth, intellectual curiosity, and great wealth could sustain a second major opera company: I didn't count on the board and management at City Opera in past years, who have seemed to understand less about what was at stake, or how to run a company, than virtually anybody else in town.

In its heyday, the company could present young artists like you, in challenging, "grownup" repertoire and serious productions, yet shielded somewhat from the pressures of the Met, just across the plaza. You benefited from the experience -- and you deserved the opportunity -- just as the audience benefited from hearing you (you sang the first opera my godchildren ever heard, you know) and we deserved the opportunity to know more about you, and to seek out the opportunities to hear you again, at NYCO or anywhere you happened to go.

That model worked, and it's important to all of us. That's why I believe there will be a successor to City Opera -- though I doubt that City Opera itself will be that successor.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam V. Madison

The NYCO budget is reduced from $31 million a year to $13 million. Maybe the compensation of the Director should be reduced by the same proportion. Or better yet, fire him and the entire board for their gross mismanagement.

January 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarlo

Ms. Kardashian is often misunderstood.
She says so herself.

"You make mistakes, but I don't have any regrets. I'm the kind of person who takes responsibility for it and deals with it. I learn from everything I do. I work very hard, I have so many things going on in my life. Get to know me and see who I am."
-- Kim Kardashian

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Miliokas

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