Artists Revolt as City Opera Chief Steel Proposes to Cast Mutes

George Steel
George Steel, general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera. Source: New York City Opera via Bloomberg

Unions representing New York City Opera singers and musicians said yesterday that they have lost confidence in artistic director and general manager George Steel.

They called his plan for next season, which includes an opera featuring two mutes, “a formula for continued failure.”

At the Manhattan office of City Opera’s law firm, Proskauer Rose LLP, Steel offered the union members from Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists a page-and-a-half, 230-word “working schedule” of four operas.

“Opera 2” is a “21st-century American Opera (running time 2:50)” with two lead roles, two featured and two mute roles. It would be the only production with a full orchestra and one of two with no chorus.

Defending the plan before 53 singers, production personnel and musicians, Steel said the unnamed works, to be presented in undisclosed venues, had been chosen to please donors, not the public. He said that calls for traditional operas were “misguided,” according to a statement from the two unions.

Steel, who took over the 68-year-old company in February 2009, recently announced that the troupe could no longer afford to stay in its home at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.

The opera chief left the room after the about two-hour meeting. The union members then took a “no confidence” vote, said Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802.

“I think it’s more symbolic than anything else,” Gagliardi said of the vote. “We’re trying to send a signal.”

‘Pretty Pathetic’

Until yesterday, the union hadn’t publicly criticized Steel. “It’s pretty pathetic what Steel is trying to do to a main-stage opera company,” Gagliardi said.

One singer, not identified in the statement from the unions, said that “Steel should be calling this the Pot Luck Opera.”

Steel, who earned $407,560 in pay and benefits in 2009, was unavailable to comment, Maggie McKeon, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mail.

City Opera Chairman Charles Wall said in a statement that the board “has full and complete confidence in George’s innovative and passionate ability to lead City Opera through this difficult, but exciting time in the company’s history.”

Most of the company’s 2010-2011 productions played to less than 40 percent capacity, according to a financial report prepared for its board of directors and obtained by Bloomberg News. In April, the company projected a negative cash balance of $2.1 million this month. Its endowment was valued at $4.8 million in March, down from the high of $64.5 million in 2001.

In 2009-2010, the orchestra accepted a cut in guaranteed weeks. Players’ annual pay fell that season by a quarter, to $36,850 from $48,575, and they were given fewer rehearsal hours.

“We gave him two years to stabilize the company’s finances,” said Gail Kruvand, assistant principal bass and the orchestra’s representative on the board. “Are we in better shape than two years ago? I don’t think so.”

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