Why City Opera May Bite the Dust, and What That Means for New York

quietplace0026 Why City Opera May Bite the Dust, and What That Means for New YorkLooking back, it should have been clear in October how New York City Opera’s year was going to end.

The company opened its season then with the New York premiere of A Quiet Place, the strange, flawed, fascinating final opera by Leonard Bernstein, one of the city’s favorite sons. The opera is close to the heart of City Opera’s artistic director, George Steel, and it felt, in the lead-up, like an “event.” The company treated it as such: in Christopher Alden’s thoughtful production the work received the best possible presentation, and the orchestra sounded great under the young conductor Jayce Ogren. The reviews—it was covered everywhere—were good.

No one came.

And no one really came to the rest of the season, either. City Opera struggled again and again to half-fill the 2,600-seat Koch Theater, its home at Lincoln Center. A Strauss rarity, Intermezzo, was charming in the fall, as was Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore in the spring. Elisir even featured an exciting debut from the tenor David Lomeli, the kind of up-and-coming artist City Opera used to support, and eventually turn over to the world’s major houses. But no luck.

A trio of 20th-century monodramas, inventively directed by Michael Counts, was a critical success, but didn’t have much traction. More devastatingly, neither did Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Seemingly engineered to attract fans of Mr. Schwartz’s Wicked and Pippin, it was scheduled for a 10-performance run (26,000 seats!). It was panned as a vanity project and failed at the box office. Fiorello LaGuardia famously called City Opera the “People’s Opera,” but this season it was far from popular.

It is one thing when an opera company struggles while packing the house. Ticket sales account for less than half of most revenue streams, so even selling out doesn’t guarantee a balanced budget: the economics of opera are ridiculous. I was told recently by an artist manager that the best opera house heads are the ones who “lose money responsibly.”

What selling out does mean is that people are interested in seeing a company’s work. And donors like supporting performances that people want to attend. Simply put: when no one comes to see your performances, it becomes difficult to convince rich people to give millions of dollars to so you can make more of them.

Unable to sustain itself financially, City Opera’s board has determined that its only option is to abandon the Koch Theater in favor of floating between different halls. In the next week or so, City Opera will announce its 2011-12 season. It will present a few operas in a few venues, some larger and some smaller. This will be done on a very tight budget, and the organization will squeeze by. The real question is the 2012-13 season, and the company’s long-term future. Barring a major fund-raising effort—and why and how would $50 million or $100 million be raised for a foundering company?—it seems unlikely that City Opera will survive.

Should we care? Certainly—and first of all, because a great many people stand to lose their jobs. (Many already have.) But also because it seems reasonable for a city that presumes itself one of the world’s cultural centers to have two opera companies. Then again, a city is a living, changing ecosystem. Companies come and companies go. City Opera may not be in a position to remain the “other” company.

City Opera’s Trajectory over the past five years has been depressing especially when compared to that of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met got a new general director who in short order guided it out of decades of ossification: freshening the marketing, bringing in (some) more modern productions, partnering with the Museum of Modern Art when William Kentridge’s retrospective overlapped with his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose.

Even if certain of the Met’s stolid ways remained unchanged, things felt different. The Met has made opera feel closer than it has in years to the center of the city’s cultural life. Through student and rush tickets, it’s possible to pay $20 or $25 for an orchestra seat. Its Live in HD broadcasts have filled a niche for many; making it to Lincoln Center for an opera feels a little less of an imperative.

Theatrical vibrancy; young, attractive singers; affordable prices: the Met has savvily made itself known for the very things that were once City Opera’s exclusive province. And while the Met was making these advances, City Opera was embroiled in a misadventure with one potential general manager and closed entirely for a season The financial crisis provided the fuel for the perfect storm, and the company, once the nimble underdog, has been unable to emerge from years of mismanagement and lack of responsible financial planning. Now City Opera is the sclerotic one, with oddly dense graphic design and little sense of purpose except—in a comically brief season—to be all things to all people.

“This city has supported two opera companies and a scattering of smaller outfits for generations, and there is no fundamental reason why it can’t continue to do so,” Justin Davidson wrote optimistically in New York magazine, espousing the potential virtues of flexibility.

There may not be a fundamental reason, but there are a lot of logistical ones. The goal should—must, I think—be a permanent home in a smaller theater. The question is whether such a space exists, and whether it’s financially plausible. (The Hammerstein on 34th Street near Eighth Avenue, an old opera house, would be perfect if we’re dreaming big.)

This is as delicate a moment as any in a cultural institution’s history. George Steel, who has never had to cultivate donors on this scale, will have to call on all of his considerable talent, charisma and vision to convince people to take a chance, something most people are unwilling to do with large quantities of their money during a recession. (Mr. Steel is still stuck with much of the board responsible for the mismanagement. Ex-chairman Susan Baker, I’m looking at you.)

But Mr. Steel’s best may not be enough. The company could sell out 500-seat theaters and get raves in every paper and still not convince people to give it the kind of support that could ensure its future. In that case, New York, like Minneapolis, will be a one-opera town.