NY City Opera’s New Model Sputters Before It Starts

Hot on the heels of massive concessions won in spite of widespread and intense artist pushback, the New York City Opera (NYCO) is failing to achieve the sustainability it claimed would follow the controversial model that general manager and artistic director George Steel described as “paying people only for the work that they do.”

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-086Steel’s full quote, from a 2012 NYCO press statement and subsequently published by WQXR, was the crux of the NYCO’s strategic plan for a stable, sustainable operating model

“As we have said countless times, for New York City Opera to survive, we must transition to the model that most opera companies use: paying people only for the work that they do,” said George Steel, City Opera’s general manager and artistic director in a statement. “We went to extraordinary lengths to enrich the offer well beyond this basic model by putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and insurance on the table while the unions put up artificial roadblocks and refused to budge.”

As it turns out, the plan produced less than desirable results and the institution released statements over the weekend announcing that if they fail to raise $7 million by the end of September and an additional $13 million by the end of 2013, the organization will likely collapse and cancel the remaining season.

The NYCO offered no concrete reasons why the company failed to capitalize its new artistic vision and business model but some of the opera’s artists are laying the blame squarely on Steel. The 9/8/2013 edition of The New York Times reports that the NYCO’s musicians were calling for the board to remove Steel.

Gail Kruvand, the chairwoman of the orchestra committee, said that the move from Lincoln Center had alienated patrons and audience members alike and noted that the company was presenting fewer performances than at any time in its history. She said that the orchestra committee was calling for the resignation of Mr. Steel and for the board to begin searching for a successor.

Kruvand expanded on those sentiments in a quote for the 9/9/2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

“George Steel has had 2½ years of leading the City Opera in this direction, out of Lincoln Center, and clearly this hasn’t worked,” said Gail Kruvand. “It’s time for him to step down and the board to search immediately for his successor.”

However, it appears that for the time being, the NYCO board has no plans to dismiss Steel as the organization’s board chair issued a statement saying “George [Steel] has, and always has had, the complete support of the board, as he should have. He’s done a heroic job.”

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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16 thoughts on “NY City Opera’s New Model Sputters Before It Starts

  1. I believe the downgrading of City Opera was fordained long before Steel came onboard. First came the long flirtation with Gerard Mortier after the departure of Paul Kellogg which collapsed when the Board could only offer half of what was foolishly promised for productions. Wasted time and an embarrassing loss of credibility. Then there came the decision to suspend performances during the renovation and acoustical upgrades of the New York State (now Koch) Theater while still paying performers and staff.

    So when Steel arrived from his brief flirtation with the Dallas Opera, after a successful tenure leading the Miller Theater at Columbia University, he was really faced with triage on a production company hemorrhaging money and talent. He was tasked with essentially creating a start-up company while dealing with entrenched stakeholders reluctant to accept a “new normal”. George must really love New York to have returned from the relative financial security of Dallas to take on this mess.

    Was survival ever assured in downsizing the company? No. But was there ever a realistic financial alternative? Probably not. Reworking lyrics of a very old song from New York’s Gilded Age: “[George] is more to be pitied than censured.”

  2. The chairwoman of the orchestra committee showed her ignorance when she pointed to the move out of Lincoln Center as a reason for the dire straits: the rent to stay at Lincoln Center was a huge burden on the company. Cutting productions to save money had to be done; would it have made sense, then, to stay at Lincoln Center and pay year-round premium rent just for 2-3 productions?

    All the developments that cemented NYCO’s current difficulty came years before Steel’s time: decision to raid endowment, to shut down for a year in order to take on the renovation of the Theater on its own, the ill-fated move to hire Mortier…..where was ‘the chairwoman of the orchestra committee” and her calls for resignation of NYCO top brass when all those foolish moves were going down?

  3. Ask members of the Dallas Opera board, management….or the musicians in the pit what they think about George Steel. 😉 (like a cool breeze; here today, gone tomorrow)

  4. George, unlike his NYCO employees, has had nothing but financial success when it comes to his salary. Mr. Steel makes more now than his predecessor (Kellogg) did when NYCO was producing 116 performances every year at Lincoln Center.

  5. Appointed in August, arrived in October, did almost nothing, left in January. So Dallas has every reason to feel underwhelmed by the “cool breeze” and his departure was not exactly lamented. However, I don’t know that he ever conducted in Dallas so I am not quite sure what is meant by the comment regarding the musicians in the pit. I am aware that one of the many concerns during his tenure was that he hardly showed up for rehearsals. Is this what is being referenced here?

    Anyway I thought we were discussing NYCOpera…

  6. Thanks to that article’s pointing out that NYCO is on Kickstarter, I donated to NYCO.

    What a dumb, dumb article, even for Gawker. Usually Gawker plies its craft on Kimye and other forgettable topics, so I don’t get too riled up. But to suggest that there is only a finite number of dollars going around in philanthropy, that one dollar given to NYCO is one dollar taken away from malaria research….clearly this writer knows nothing about how philanthropy works….and probably doesn’t care.

  7. Butch: clearly he didn’t want to stay in Dallas. And it’s no wonder people in Dallas don’t care much for him because of his sudden departure. But that’s rather irrelevant to the NYCO discussion.

  8. Talking about Dallas is absolutely relevant. That was the only experience Steel had with running an opera of any size let alone a major company like NYCO.
    For two years he’s been saying the budget is balanced and everything is moving great in his “model”. Now he’s short 20 million and needs 7 million by the end of the month or the company shuts down. Where did that come from?

  9. Interesting. I do not know Steel’s remuneration package. But then turn-around artists often receive more than their predecessors, because the work is unpleasant. I hope in the end that he is worth the price he negotiated. I try not to get too worked up about what other people have or what they make (see tenth commandment)….well, …with the possible exception of A-Rod 🙂

  10. “Turn-around artists?” Puhleeze! The only turn-around evident here is the nose-dive directly into the ground. My friends in both the (former) NYCO and the Met saw this coming years ago, blaming the board’s double-stupidity for Mortier and Steel. Clamoring for an acoustical redo of the State Theater without getting co-tenant NYCB to pay anything or give up part of ITS season certainly didn’t add brilliance to the board’s résumé.

  11. The NYCB had no problem with the acoustics of the State Theater, which reportedly had been designed to muffle the sounds of dancers on the stage, so it’s not surprising that the NYCB did not contribute. It’s also worth noting that a number of opera performers including Beverly Sills and Julius Rudel considered the concerns about acoustics overblown.

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