It Ain’t Over Till the Orchestra Sings?

Catherine Malfitano addresses protesters outside the Guggenheim.

The New York City Opera chorus and orchestra broke out in song outside the Guggenheim Museum today to protest artistic director George Steel’s simultaneous announcement that the company will leave Lincoln Center, a decision that likely will cost them their jobs.

We shall not, we shall not be moved,” sang the musicians, led by John O’Connor on guitar. “Our home is Lincoln Center, we shall not be moved.

Despite the operatic rendition of the classic protest song, it seems City Opera shall, in fact, be moved.  Facing bankruptcy and struggling to pay the exorbitant costs of its Lincoln Center address, the opera’s leadership believes it can no longer afford a permanent home and plans for the company to rotate from opera house to opera house, assembling a new ensemble for each performance.

“In light of a challenging economic climate, New York City Opera created and is executing a very difficult, but strategic new model that reverses a decade-long trend of debilitating deficits,” a spokeswoman told The Observer over email.

But the Opera’s staff, with the help of the American Guild of Musical Artists and the Local 802 union, refuses to make this season’s curtain call its last.

The protest’s Facebook event page instructed attendees to dress in “formal concert attire,” and many–obedient to the union organizers, if not to the opera’s leadership–remained clad in tuxedoes, their hair matted with sweat, through the hour-long demonstration in today’s heat wave.

Renowned soprano Catherine Malfitano, who began her career at City Opera, took the podium. With the enunciation of a pro and the same drama she has used to portray Salome and Tosca, she cried out: “To perform without the chorus is unthinkable, but to perform with a pick-up chorus is insane!” The crowd, waving posters behind her, cheered uproariously. “Brava! Bravissimma!” they shouted.

Reading a statement by former director Julius Rudel, whose Op-Ed in the New York Times helped to bring momentum to the opera workers’ cause, her voice rose in a steady crescendo. “‘If the current management believes they have the vision of what an opera company should be, then let them play elsewhere, but they have no right to hijack the legacy, the traditions, and the name of the New York City Opera Company, which has meant so much to so many,'” she intoned. “‘I call on the knowledgeable members of the board of directors to stand firm and reject what amounts to the death sentence of our New York City Opera.'”

James Odom, the President of the American Guild of Musical Artists, was met with a chorus of “here, here” when he pointed a finger at City Opera’s leadership. “It is shameful that they want a premier arts institution to turn itself into a traveling college volunteer production company,” he said. “I do not know how they can stand and face people.”

Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, and State Senator Tom Duane also spoke against the decision. (Mr. Duane spent the majority of his speech villifying the Koch Brothers for donating to Lincoln Center and not keeping City Opera afloat. He urged those who care about the opera to join him in boycotting Koch Industry’s Brawny paper towels, despite the temptation of “that hot ’70s guy on the packaging.”)

But City Opera employees took a graver tone.  “Our jobs are at stake,” Frank Bruiser, a chorus member a City Opera since 1977, told The Observer.

“Most people think this is an economic problem, but the real problem is a whole series of incredible blunders,” added Bruiser’s colleague, baritone Neil Eddinger. “George Steel, who has no prior experience with opera, is trying to shrink the company to his comfort level, which is experimental theater and non-professional pieces.”

As the crowd dissipated and the podium was carted away, Ms. Malfitano said, “If we don’t have solidarity, this is never going to work–we need to all come together and solve this.” It Ain’t Over Till the Orchestra Sings?