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Drama at N.Y. Opera as Singers Plead for Change, Board Dithers

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Charles R. Wall
Charles R. Wall, chairman of the New York City Opera. Source: New York City Opera via Bloomberg

May 20 (Bloomberg) -- The future of the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center didn’t seem to get much brighter yesterday.

The once popular company next door to the Metropolitan Opera has been racking up deficits and playing lots of performances of shows few people wanted to see.

Box office sales on a good night hover around 40 percent.

Meetings yesterday of the board and chairman Charles R. Wall were meant to clarify the company’s financial status and perhaps announce a fall season.

At six p.m., the company’s press director, Maggie McKeon, could not be reached for comment on the day’s proceedings.

The company’s leaders also confronted an extraordinary event in the company’s history: a letter sent by artists and members of the production staff represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists that asked the board to change course and save the company.

Interesting Idea

In essence, the letter argued that general director George Steel’s odd repertoire choices and poor marketing are destroying the company once adorned by megastar Beverly Sills.

“George Steel’s artistic vision may be brilliant, but it doesn’t fill the seats,” the letter said.

When asked why the company has cut back so drastically, Steel is quoted in the letter saying that “opera is expensive, and every time we do a performance we lose money.”

The notion that an opera house actually is better off not playing operas is a whimsical one the board hopefully entertained at its meeting.

Numbers are dire. This season’s projected deficit of around $5 million is the fourth consecutive shortfall, totaling about $31 million since 2007. The endowment stands at around $10 million, down from $64.5 million a decade ago.

Who wants to give money to a company darkened by doubt?

Raymond F. Steckel, a long-time supporter, decided against contributing anything more. “There’s no point in pouring money down a black hole,” he said in an interview.

Box Office Dud

The letter writers note how depressing it is to perform in near-empty or papered houses. Even “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” by Stephen Schwartz bombed at the box office, though the composer has a show called “Wicked” that’s been playing to full houses for the past seven years.

The letter states: “We hear that our friends in the sizable NYC theatre community did not even know the production was happening. We are dismayed when we ask the General Director what is being done to get the word out about the show, and his only suggestion is that we use social networking sites to tell our friends to come see the show.”

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Zinta Lundborg in New York zlundborg@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Burke at Jburke21@bloomberg.net.

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