NYC Opera Musicians, Singers Want Steel to Go, Company to Stay

New York City Opera Musicians
New York City Opera musicians playing outside Lincoln Center in New York. They are protesting NYCO general manager George Steel's plan to find a new home off the Lincoln Center campus. Photo: Philip Boroff/Bloomberg

In a protest as melodious as it was rueful, New York City Opera musicians and singers took to the sidewalk outside Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to pan General Manager George Steel’s plan to vacate the David H. Koch Theater for an undisclosed location or locations.

“Save the People’s Opera” read the flyers as musicians in black tie performed selections from “Rigoletto,” “Aida” and others on the idyllic early-summer morning.

Steel took over in February 2009 and told reporters in May that the 58-year-old company doesn’t have the money to remain at Lincoln Center. He was not at the protest, where union members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists said the company would do better without him.

“If he’s going to lead us down this path we need a replacement,” Claire Chan, a New York City Opera violinist, said in an interview.

Maggie McKeon, a City Opera spokesman, declined to comment.

Chan also works in the pit of Broadway’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” Fellow NYCO violinist Sarah Pratt wondered about a “Phantom of New York City Opera.” Chan said the quip raises a legitimate issue.

“Who is actually controlling New York City Opera?” she asked. “Is it George or members of the board? The announcement to leave Lincoln Center took us all by surprise.”

Tuba player Steve Johns said the contemporary repertoire previously favored by Steel was a recipe for failure and NYCO needs to include crowd pleasers to survive.

Paging Joseph Volpe

“It’s the most difficult thing to change a head but that’s what we think should be done,” he said. “He’s a very small-scale kind of person. We need someone with vision. Joseph Volpe is an exciting choice but I don’t know if he’s available.”

Volpe retired from the Metropolitan Opera in 2006 after 42 years with the company. In February 2010, he was hired to help the Met bargain with its unions, a process that’s ongoing.

In a meeting last week with the singers and musicians’ unions, Steel proposed five unnamed operas for next season, three of them 18th- and 19th-century “standard repertoire,” according to a schedule they distributed to the media. It calls for dramatically less work for both unions.

The American Guild of Musical Artists, which also represents stage directors, stage managers and a dancer, has sought an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board to block the move and charged NYCO with unfair labor practices because the union wasn’t consulted.

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