NEW YORK – The New York City Opera, a pillar of American culture that for decades has built daring new productions along with the careers of stars like Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming and Beverly Sills, is fighting for its life.
Members of the company's board met Thursday at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to consider the opera's future, and spokeswoman Maggie McKeon said Thursday evening that deliberations were continuing.
No announcements were expected before Friday.
Singers and production staff locked in a tussle over a new contract are threatening to "strike and drive City Opera out of existence," a union leader warned in an e-mail Wednesday to The Associated Press.
But in a letter to the board this week, union members expressed a willingness to make additional sacrifices, said Alan Gordon, executive director of The American Guild of Musical Artists, representing singers, dancers, stage directors and managers.
The company's endowment has dwindled from $55 million to $9 million, according to audits obtained by the AP. And City Opera has put off announcing its 2011-2012 season as it faces a projected deficit of $5 million.
The board chairman last month personally contributed an emergency $2.5 million toward plugging the deficit, company officials said.
Another current board member, Susan Baker, resigned as chairwoman in September after being blamed in the media for decisions that have left opera company on the financial brink. She was succeeded by Charles R. Wall, a former tobacco company attorney who contributed the $2.5 million.
Company officials declined to say how much money they have left, or comment on Gordon's statements.
The board is conducting an exhaustive financial review, with Wall saying that future programming won't be scheduled until the budget is balanced.
In the past three years, one season was totally eliminated and two cut down drastically.
City Opera's contracts with AGMA and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, representing the orchestra, expired on April 29. The two sides are now involved in what Gordon called "very truncated negotiations."
He said that under an old contract, chorus singers were guaranteed 26 weeks of work each year. Now, with possible cuts in salary, working hours and medical coverage looming, they "will have to decide whether to bargain over reduced employment or, instead, strike and drive City Opera out of existence."
Chorus members earned an average of about $36,000 a year, "and every NYCO chorister has to maintain a second job in order to survive," the union boss said.
In the letter to the board, singers and production staff said they were willing "to find new and creative ways to work with smaller budgets and fewer resources than we ever have in the past." But they faulted the company for cutting back on such classic and traditional works as "Carmen" and "La Boheme" that are in their repertoire.
In its latest tax return, for the year ending June 2010, the company posted a $4.7 million operating deficit, with net assets tumbling to about $9.7 million from $58 million in 2007.
City Opera shares space at the David H. Koch Theater with the New York City Ballet as two of the dozen artistic constituents of Lincoln Center, the world's largest arts complex. Next door is the Metropolitan Opera, a grander company established in 1883 and known for its international superstar cast and big-budget productions.
By contrast, City Opera was founded in 1943. Then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called it "The People's Opera" — a jewel in the city's cultural crown that championed American singers who once went to Europe to establish themselves and has always offered more affordable tickets than the Met.
This spring, the company again demonstrated its pioneering spirit — staging its annual Vox festival of contemporary American works at a Manhattan university and a chichi downtown club.
Vox follows a season that included a warhorse of the vocal repertoire, Donizetti's "Elisir d'Amore," as well as a family-friendly production called "Where The Wild Things Are," composed by Oliver Knussen and based on a beloved children's book by Maurice Sendak.
Although this season was critically acclaimed, ticket sales sagged.
Further highlighting the financial woes facing arts organizations, the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra last month filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, making it the first major U.S. orchestra to do so.
Management for the orchestra, among the world's most renowned symphonies and the ensemble behind the soundtrack to Walt Disney's 1940 film "Fantasia," said it was facing a $14.5 million shortfall on a $46 million budget and would run out of cash by June.
The City Opera has been on a roller-coaster ride for several years, facing financial and artistic turmoil that threatened to close it down last season. But the shows went on — albeit only about 30 performances this season and last, compared with the more than 100 staged in previous years.
Like most nonprofit cultural institutions, City Opera depends on the financial backing of wealthy patrons.
The economic crisis that started in 2008 has forced many benefactors to scale back on their donations. But the economy cannot be blamed for everything — especially when companies of about the same size stay solvent, like the Chicago Lyric Opera.
City Opera's latest troubles began in 2007, with the appointment of Belgian director Gerard Mortier as general manager and artistic director, effective as of the 2009-2010 season.
Baker, a former Goldman Sachs executive, headed the board since 2003, around the time deficits started hounding City Opera.
The market crash was a catastrophic last straw. Baker looked for an innovative — but ultimately unsuccessful — way to counterbalance it, hiring the high-profile, avant-garde Mortier to replace the outgoing general manager, Paul Kellogg.
Mortier was used to staging expensive, cutting-edge extravaganzas in Europe, where he ran the Salzburg Festival from 1990-2001 and the Paris Opera from 2004-2009. He insisted that City Opera's theater be renovated, forcing the company to go dark for the 2008-2009 season, with only six unstaged performances elsewhere.
Total revenue dropped to $17 million in 2009, compared with $37 million the previous year, the audits show. And income from ticket sales plunged to about $186,000, down from $12 million.
To cover operating deficits, the company raided its endowment for about $24 million — an action that had to be approved by the New York attorney general's office, which oversees nonprofits. In 2003, the endowment was $55 million, according to the company audits.
Baker did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the AP.
Mortier held his position less than a year, working mostly from Paris; in between, the company covered his pricey first-class flights to New York, records show. He finally resigned on the grounds that the $60 million operating budget he expected had dwindled to $26 million, as registered in a fiscal 2009 audit.
He was replaced by George Steel, an impresario and conductor from the Dallas Opera.
New York City Opera: http://www.nycopera.com