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New York City Opera’s Uncertain Fate

For 68 years, the New York City Opera has been known as a world-class cultural institution, but after a dark season in 2009, low ticket sales and poor fundraising, the opera seems to be in shambles. Backstage reported in May that City Opera had plans to leave its home of 46 years,  the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, and produce a shorter season after being faced with a $5 million budget shortfall. According to The New York Times, these initiatives might not be enough to save it.

Financially, the opera is in over its head. Its net assets have dropped by over 80 percent in the past seven years, and deficits have been growing since 2003. Eliminating its 2009 season to work on renovations removed all ticket sales, which had been approximately $14 million annually, and put City Opera even further in the hole. The opera then tried to make up the gap by using $23.5 million from its endowment to cover expenses.

In addition to financial woes, many are arguing that last year’s season of productions had a hand in helping tank City Opera. An eclectic mix of works - including an updated Donizettie, a Leonard Bernstein New York premiere, a new work by “Wicked” composer, Stephen Schwartz, a lesser-known Strauss and three contemporary one acts - failed to attract an audience and disappointed regular opera-goers.

Currently, the opera’s $31 million budget is spent on salaries (most set by union contracts), scenery, costumes, props, marketing and fundraising. With donations at $18 million, City Opera is quite short of the $22 million that had been budgeted. Fourteen of the 48 administrative jobs have been cut, and their plan is to reduce the operating budged from $31 million to $13 million.

Now the question remains: Can this newly shrunken, homeless City Opera remain a viable opera scene? City Opera’s general manager and artistic director, George Steel, is remaining positive, claiming that escaping Lincoln Center will bring financial and creative flexibility. Others are not so certain. Former City Opera stars are upset, and Backstage reported Tuesday that the American Guild of Musical Artists is seeking a federal court injunction to stop the opera from leaving Lincoln Center. Without support from those on the inside, it is likely the opera will orchestrate itself into oblivion.

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