OpEd: The Future of New York City Opera?

NYCO Opera Renaissance

December 7, 2014 4:00pm est
By Eric Sweeney

I must start this post by coming clean: I worked at NYCO from June 2013 until the bitter end of the company a week after the closing of Anna Nicole.  Therefore, I feel very passionate about the company and want it to resurrect itself in some new fashion that is sustainable and that will continue to bring opera to the people of New York City and the World for decades to come. Furthermore, I am technically a creditors in the case (along with the entire office staff) as I was promised a small severance–amounting to less than one paycheck–that was denied to all full-time employees by the court in the initial hearings of October 2013. Having said that, the latest development in this never-ending bankruptcy trial is not promising.

The biggest news in the NYCO case came this week and is beginning to make its rounds among the classical world.  The New York Times has a piece that covers the latest development.   I will let you read that quickly to get the basics.

I did some digging (actually I just searched “NYCO Renaissance” on google) and found a leaked–i would guess a very purposeful leak–of NYCO Renaissance’s proposal to the NYCO board.  Look at it here via Parterre.com as well as their website. There are so many holes and pipe dreams in the proposal, it is hard to understand why anyone could take it seriously.  To go through the whole thing would be far too time consuming, so I am just going to take a couple points from the website as well as the proposal.

Let’s start with leadership: Michael Capasso is the former General Director of Dicapo Opera.  Have you seen any Dicapo performances recently?  No? That’s because they closed–albeit after 33 years.  According to Mr. Capasso’s letter on the website of the shuttered Dicapo Opera, “As you know, Dicapo never achieved the type of financial stability that I so desperately sought for the company.” Additionally, there were several artists never paid for their work with Dicapo. This does not sound like the solid and entrepreneurial leadership necessary to rebuild New York City Opera.

On their website, NYCO Renaissance has raised over $2 million in pledges.  Firstly, pledges does not equate to cash-in-hand.  Part of the rapid decline of NYCO was the rescinding of major pledges that were promised to the company.  Additionally, as sad as it sounds, not much can be done with the budget, let alone “36 performances in 2014-2015 [this has been revised to 2015-2016 on their website], four large-scale operas at Lincoln Center as well as two smaller-scale at the Dicapo Theater.”  NYCO asked for $7 million to complete their 2013-2014 season as well as $13 million to play the following season.  In other words, there is a long way to go before NYCO Renaissance is able to perform such a large and complete season.

NYCO Renaissance clarifies that the “return” to Lincoln Center is actually performing at the Rose Theater and Jazz at Lincoln Center.  It is a space I personally love and I think it will offer a fantastic intimate environment for Opera.  I’m not familiar with the backstage and wing space, but hopefully it will give ample space to present the grand opera that they are hoping to produce.

The board proposal suggests starting its first season with a $5 million budget and increasing annually by $5 million culminating in an annual budget of $25 million by the fifth year.  This is an extremely tall order and also extremely unlikely.  I pity the Development Director who is given a “lean and entrepreneurial” staff (a phrase that is never fully explored or broken down) and asked to increase their donations at such a rate per year.  Don’t forget that this does not mean just raising $5 million a year, but a full budget of $5 million, $10 million, $15 million, $20 million, and finally $25 million in Years 1-5.  It seems that if this could be done, it would have already been done.

The proposal offers a budget breakdown which i have reviewed, though not with a fine-tooth comb by any means. Even in my cursory examination of the budgets, I found several peculiarities. Given that I have looked at multiple NYCO budgets as well as worked extensively with contracts for various Broadway and LORT contracts, the creators of this budget are either extremely hopeful that they will get top talent to work at the budgeted rates, or extremely uninformed.  It also seems they have left out several fees such as a Set Designer or Costume Designer on their production budgets.  Will these all be concert performances? For your personal edification, the union minimum in a LORT A+ theater such as the Vivian Beumont at Lincoln Center (a comparable house) for a set or costume designer is just shy of $10k each. This is not insider knowledge, but numbers and information that is readily available to anyone who goes to the union’s website.

Perhaps we can look at their proposed Free Admission Spring Gala budget for reassurance. Unfortunately, they have left out all of the orchestra and chorus costs.  It is unclear whether they do not know what it takes to produce a concert or they are trying to “cook the books” already. At any rate, I hope a member of this “lean and entrepreneurial” office staff understands the full scope of producing opera better than whoever put together these budgets.

Please don’t think that I am completely cynical regarding NYCO.  I loved my time at the company and want it to be resurrected so that New York is once again able to attend daring and innovative production of classics, undiscovered, and new opera.  In fact, their mission statement is something that I stand strongly behind.  Their proposed seasons are exciting and have operas that I would gladly buy tickets to see.  If only they had a more solid understanding of what it takes to produce an opera at the scale they are positing, I would be more hopeful and excited by this latest decision.

EDIT 12.7.14 4:30pm

One major lesson I learned while at NYCO from George Steel is to not simply throw mud at an idea, but to offer alternative solutions.  I feel like I neglected this in the article above.

Given the reported alternatives to NYCO Renaissance, I feel the best solution would be to give all the New York City Opera intellectual property and endowment funding to Brooklyn Academy of Music.  BAM has a fantastic track record of presenting and producing fantastic work that is both high quality, challenging, innovative, and satisfying.  I’m not sure how the new BAM-NYCO would function.  Perhaps BAM would produce two or three operas under the name of New York City Opera during their season.  Perhaps a summer opera festival? In my mind, BAM is the clear choice for a NYCO with a true influence on the artistic scene in New York City.

emsweeney

2 Comments

  1. I’m so happy to see someone try to bring back City Opera. Couple of things on your article, which is a good dissection of the plan. I actually was at a Dicapo performance in November on Long Island. There most assuredly was a performance by Dicapo Opera: http://tillescenter.org/event/giacomo-puccinis-la-boheme/

    I’ve been told that City Opera raised about $3m from its Board each year – that’s not too different from what NYCO Ren has raised. When you add in foundation support (also several million), government, individuals, a benefit or two, and what I imagine will be more supporters once things get going, their need to raise, what is it, 3 or 4 million to put on season one doesn’t seem so difficult.

    I say give these guys a shot. Someone needs to try, don’t you think?

    Oh, and maybe George Steel, who was earning more per performance than Derek Jeter, should have ponied up a little to help NYCO before it went under.

    • OperaFanNYC, thanks for your comment.

      If you look, the Dicapo Opera performance you saw was part of their touring program, and I can’t speak to how it was financed. Their mainstage season, however, was indeed cancelled.

      I think you are right in saying that foundation support as well as individual contributions are very important. I think they will be able to raise the money for the first and likely the second season. Beyond this, however, i’m not sure they will be able to raise an additional $5million a year to finally reach an aggregate of $25 million.

      I’m not sure many people realize that EVERY opera will have to be built from scratch as the complete productions (sets, props, costumes) of the NYCO repertoire were sold off a couple years ago. Building a new production costs much more than what they are projecting. I worry that their budgeting is so off that they don’t realize how much they will actually need to raise.

      I do wish them well and hope to see some excellent productions from them. They have some interesting choices for upcoming seasons.

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