Chairman, Inflatable Rat Absent As Artists Protest Opera Plans

George Steel
New York City Opera artistic director George Steel. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

July 13 (Bloomberg) -- The only prop absent yesterday from the protests against the New York City Opera’s announcement of its 2011-2012 season was an inflatable gray rat.

In front of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue, City Opera musicians, choristers and other artists staged a protest-cum-pep rally panning the company’s plan to vacate its Lincoln Center home and present four operas at three venues around the city.

Not incidentally, the opera also proposes eliminating employment guarantees for musicians, singers, stage managers and assistant stage managers.

“If they had a shred of shame amongst them, the board would resign en masse,” said James Odom, president of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the singers and stage managers.

Minutes later inside the museum, George Steel, the embattled artistic director and general manager, said the company will perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, John Jay College and El Museo del Barrio next season, while beginning a joint initiative with the Public Theater to present operas based on Shakespeare’s plays for free at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, beginning in the fall of 2012.

The plans are based on a $13 million budget, down 57 percent from its $30 million 2009-2010 season.

“We’re leaving the David Koch Center simply put because we can’t afford it any longer,” Steel said of the departure from the Lincoln Center campus, declining to provide specifics.

Chairman Gone

Steel was introduced by board president Mark Newhouse. He declined to answer a reporter’s questions about possible fundraising difficulties that the company might confront.

Charles Wall, chairman of the board and a former vice chairman of Philip Morris International Inc., didn’t attend. Steel said he was out of town.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, sat in the back of the auditorium but was gone following Steel’s 30-minute presentation.

When someone from an opera magazine asked about relocating the company’s administrative offices, Steel in turn asked whether she was inquiring in order to register his subscription’s change-of-address. He finally said that three spaces are under consideration.

Next season’s “new and exciting” line-up includes a borrowed staging of “La traviata” and Rufus Wainwright’s opera “Prima Donna” in February at BAM, Steel said. In March, there will be Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater, and Telemann’s “Orpheus” in El Museo del Barrio in May. Details of the Public Theater collaboration are to be announced.


Last week, more than 100 prominent figures in opera and musical theater, including Placido Domingo and Hal Prince, lent their names to a letter to City Opera’s board. They protested the “dismembering of City Opera, piece by piece, person by person, and if it continues, it can never be undone.”

The letter was organized by Catherine Malfitano, a soprano whose distinguished career began with the company.

“To perform without the chorus is unthinkable,” she said yesterday. “But to perform with a pick-up chorus is non-sensible.”

Disappearing Endowment

BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins said that Steel’s plans are appropriate for the opera, which has seen its endowment plunge to $4.8 million in March from $64.5 million in 2001.

“When you have deficits, it takes everything over and pushes everything else to the side,” she said outside the Guggenheim after the press conference. “The model that they had is no longer financially viable.”

Alan Gordon, executive director of AGMA, countered that the company needs a new leader.

“There has to be a savior, otherwise it will die,” he said. “It might die anyway.”

Unions often use a giant rat to call attention to nonunion labor. AGMA’s contract with the company expired April 29. Gordon said he will seek the rat if City Opera and AGMA haven’t agreed on a new contract by its next performance.

“I don’t know how one goes about getting the rat,” he said. “But we will get it.”

To contact the writer on this story: Philip Boroff in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at