What future for George Steel’s City Opera?

A board meeting today may decide the future of New York City Opera.  Daniel J. Wakin has an update on the company’s fiscal woes in the NYT.  (Tabloids are going for the jugular, screaming that the company is in its last gasps.)

What’s really interesting is the union’s response.  Rumors are flying around of a looming strike, but AGMA sent a letter (leaked to the Wall Street Journal) pledging sacrifices–and slamming artistic director George Steel’s vision for the company.  I can’t find the letter itself, just quotes from the various news stories.

From the WSJ:

“We are very frustrated that NYCO has now become an opera company that does not do opera…

Management repeatedly tells us that audiences are not attending arts performances anymore, but when we sit out on the plaza that feels like home, we watch patrons continue to pour into the other theaters at Lincoln Center…[W]e are confused and troubled by the way management is programming the seasons.”

The musicians make a plea for warhorses such as Carmen, Boheme, and Traviata:

“[W]e could perform any of these on any given night with minimal rehearsal — but these shows don’t make it onto the schedules anymore.”

They say that they’re proud of the recent production of Stephen Schwartz’s Seance on a Wet Afternoonas we noted earlier, no one else seems to agree–but say that the entire season has been poorly marketed (noting in particular the clenched fist with gold rings spelling out “Love” that was used for L’Elisir d’Amore):

“The images chosen for NYCO’s artwork are confusing at best and off-putting at worst, and we do not feel like they accurately represent the work we are doing.”

From the Times:

“George Steel’s artistic vision may be brilliant,” the union officials said, referring to the current general manager and artistic director, “but it doesn’t fill the seats.”“At best,” they continued, “40 percent” of the house is full. The company has declined to give specific attendance numbers.

Really?  When we’ve been there, it’s much fuller than that.  (Rumor has it that management sometimes papers the house–but that’s just a rumor.)

The delegates also criticized the company’s marketing campaign, which it called “misfocused.” Mr. Wall has acknowledged marketing weaknesses.

This by way of the New York Post (how I hate to quote from a Murdoch rag):

“The analogy to Broadway would be, if you program ‘Wicked,’ people would come,” said AGMA executive director Alan Gordon. “But if you program ‘West Side Story’ in Russian, nobody is going to come — and that’s what they’re doing.”

Steel reinvented City Opera along the lines of the vision propounded by many composers and pundits imagining a different future for classical music, one intertwined with the worlds of visual art and popular culture.  It’s not clear that these innovations caused the company’s fiscal state–management and marketing are probably equally responsible–but the innovations will inevitably be blamed.  It’s an old story.

What’s interesting here is that the performers themselves (or at least, their representatives) have adopted this narrative as their own.  The case for reinventing classical music apparently still needs to be made among those who perform it.

Reformers proclaim that innovations in classical music will make it “relevant” (whatever that means) to new, young audiences raised in a world where pop is the cultural universe.  That may be true.  But even if we agree, that doesn’t necessarily mean butts in seats.  The new audience will take time to develop, and that process won’t simply be the dawning of a new, glorious future for classical music; it will be a painful ordeal.

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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