George Steel, the general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera, announced the company's 2011-12 season this afternoon in a press conference at the Guggenheim Museum. Outside, representatives of the AGMA union, orchestra players, and singers, Catherine Malfitano among them, denounced Steel's plans and declared him unfit to manage the company. You can see a few moments from the protest in this NY1 report. Brian Wise has an even-handed story for WQXR.
What is there to say? It's a grim situation. I, too, have had doubts about Steel's ability to lead; last season was discouraging, in terms of programming, ticket sales, marketing, and public relations. At the press conference, Steel often seemed to be dancing around issues rather than confronting them directly. The existence of an excoriating protest letter signed by dozens of leading opera singers, Plácido Domingo among them, should have been acknowledged at the outset and not during the question period, when a journalist brought it up. On the other hand, the 2011-12 season seems, on paper, fairly sound. I'm not one of those who believe that the company cannot exist outside Lincoln Center, and Steel might well be able to build a following in the new venues he has apparently lined up. (The marketing will require a drastic makeover.) The prospect of hearing Telemann's Orpheus at the Museo del Barrio is enticing. There's an excellent plan for free performances of Shakespeare operas in league with Shakespeare in the Park. Yet to restore its identity the company will need to have a real home. Among other things, it will need a place to rehearse. Perhaps, if the two productions at BAM next season are a success, the relationship will deepen.
All this is somewhat theoretical, given the current and seemingly worsening conflict with the union. The company is offering a drastically reduced contract, effectively making the orchestra and chorus into pick-up groups. The budget is plunging to $13 million. Those on the union side show no signs of accepting the proposal, and their rhetoric is getting more aggressive. One of Dan Wakin's recent Times stories quotes an AGMA leaflet saying that NYC Opera is fated to become “an itinerant, traveling, part-time company of subway station singers.” Will any performer who signs with the company — Rod Gilfry, say, who is slated to appear in Così fan tutte — now be subject to such name-calling? Will the city venues with whom Steel has announced partnerships still take his calls when the unions go to war? How much money can you raise when the most famous opera singer on the planet is against you? I hope there is still time for a compromise to be worked out, but today's events didn't leave me feeling wildly optimistic.