The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts supports embedded arts research through critical exchange

Saving New York City Opera: An Open Letter to Mayor Bloomberg

NEW YORK — As bleak news continues to pour out of the New York City Opera, it is painfully obvious that only extraordinary action will allow the company as we know it to continue existing. Perhaps the person best positioned to trigger such action is the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. Accordingly, the following is directed to him.

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:

In the 1940s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia played an essential role in creating the New York City Opera. He found it a home and helped establish its reputation as the “people’s opera.”

Now the New York City Opera is on the path to ruin. Without your intervention, without new, competent management, the company is doomed to failure, and Mayor La Guardia’s pledge to New Yorkers will be rendered hollow.

The dreary record of current and recent mismanagement includes

• Engaging a famous European impresario as general manager on unrealistic terms, with devastating consequences when he exercised contractual rights not to assume the job.

• Renovating the theater in a long process during which the company had no performance venue yet still had contractual obligations to union members. The company’s roster of singers was effectively disbanded.

• Shrinking the endowment from $55 million to $9 million.

• Announcing last month that the City Opera would leave Lincoln Center. Leaving the overly large venue formerly known as the New York State Theater for a smaller, more opera-appropriate space has long been a dream of many New York opera fans — but never under the dismal circumstances of a destitute company uncertain of where its next home will be.
• Hiring as general manager George Steel, a man with negligible operatic experience, except for three months heading the Dallas Opera immediately prior to his appointment. Under Steel, who was paid over $400,000 in salary and benefits in 2009, the number of performances by the company has been drastically curtailed.

There are people out there who actually know how to run opera companies. Steel is not one of them. His offbeat programming has won some critical favor, as with the triple bill called “Monodramas.” But—come on!—how many people really want to sit through 45 minutes of Morton Feldman? Small wonder box office receipts have been dismal.

The City Opera is too important for New York to lose. And one need not look back to the days of Beverly Sills to find an artistically vibrant company. As recently as the 2006-07 season, under Paul Kellogg’s leadership, the company was in good shape and gave six performances a week.

This reminds us that the City Opera’s current difficulties stem not from a proven inability to function economically—though running it has never been easy—but from missteps by management.

A few days ago Bloomberg, the news company that bears your name, urged that Joseph Volpe take over the City Opera. The former Metropolitan Opera general manager is exactly the kind of strong personality needed.

I am not asking for a bailout by the City, although some financial support may well be inevitable. What is required is for you to get involved. First, Volpe or someone of comparable stature needs to be engaged. With such a leader in the wings plus a strong commitment by you, the health of the company – and of its image to donors — would improve markedly.

Also with your help, it would be possible to identify a select group of major donors who, coupled with assistance from the City, could see the company through this difficult time until it gets back on its feet. People currently in power must be persuaded to go quietly.

Lincoln Center, too, should take a major role in saving the City Opera from failing, perhaps with a takeover analogous to the Kennedy Center’s takeover of the Washington National Opera.

Without such radical changes, the City Opera as we know it is doomed. New Yorkers will not back a loser.

Last week the company announced that it would let go of 11 of its 48 administrative employees. But it would be getting rid of the wrong people. Those in power, including Steel, are the ones who should go, plus board members unwilling to provide truly substantial financial support under a new leader.

New York’s artistic reputation is at stake. For the good of the city, I urge you to follow Major La Guardia’s model of active involvement.

Yours sincerely
George Loomis,

June 7, 2011

Posted in: News