a solo from the chorus
La Cieca received thisÂ letter yesterday. If you have reviews, opinion pieces, appreciations, or (as in this case) a Letter to the Doyenne, please email to firstname.lastname@example.org.Â
Saving New York City Opera?
New York City Opera is currently enmeshed in controversy over contract issues with the American Guild of Musical Artists, AFL-CIO, the union that represents the singers and production staff at NYCO. The outcome has yet to be determined, but the question has been raised whether NYCO can survive the current crisis. Both NYCO and AGMA have issued press releases, letters, and e-mails, taking their fight into the public forum.
It has been interesting to hear comments and read postings on Web sites such as Facebook and Parterre Box â€” many by people not directly involved in either NYCO or AGMA. I wonâ€™t go into all of the various viewpoints and opinions, but one of the recurring sentiments is that NYCO needs to be saved at all costs. I will leave dollar amounts and budget issues to those who are equipped to deal with them, but I wonder if people have contemplated what “at all costs” truly means. What exactly are we trying to save?Â
NYCO, under the newly appointed General Manager and Artistic Director, George Steel, has announced a greatly reduced 2009/2010 season which â€” in spite of the existing legal AGMA contract guaranteeing 26 weeks of work for the chorus â€” calls for only 33 total performances of five operas and one gala concert in a greatly curtailed season. While Esther would use the entire 32 members of the regular chorus plus 20 associate choristers, Don Giovanni, Lâ€™Ãˆtoile, and Madama Butterfly use partial choruses, and Partenope uses no chorus at all.
Peruse any operatic catalog, and you will see the vast majority of operas use chorus. In an e-mail sent to company members on May 5, Mr. Steel praised the work done in the 2009 VOX Festival, but made no mention of using the chorus in next yearâ€™s festival, which could help satisfy the contractual guarantees. The unconscionable choice of next seasonâ€™s productions â€” seemingly selected to underutilize the chorus â€” combined with other recent actions, raises the question as to whether the NYCO administration ever intended to honor the signed legal contract with AGMA.
It is interesting to note that NYCO had been in a similar situation before, when it was also believed the company would not survive. In 1952, box office sales were down, donations were down, the company was in debt and funds were desperately needed. Additionally, the Company had just fought two protracted legal battles: one with New York State over theatre rent issues, and a nasty court case against Laszlo Halasz over his dismissal as Artistic and Music Director.
The newly appointed General Director, Joseph Rosenstock, had only a few short months to pull together a season. He sought to curtail the length of the season, but was prevented from doing so by the AGMA contract, which guaranteed performers fourteen weeks of work. Not only did NYCO honor the AGMA contract, but the 1953 season repertoire included La Cenerentola, Regina, Carmen, Die Fledermaus, La BohÃ¨me, Don Giovanni, Hansel and Gretel, Tosca, La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, The Trial, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, Salome, The Tender Land, Show Boat, and Falstaff.
New York City Opera was founded in 1943 with the aim of being an opera company with performances financially accessible to a wide audience, innovative in its choice of repertory, and a home for American singers and composers. Unlike manufacturing companies, NYCO produces no tangible product such as a car, or a hamburger, or a pharmaceutical. The company exists to perform opera. The artistsâ€”the soloists, the chorus, the orchestral musicians, the dancers, the directors, the stage managers, the costumers, the stagehands â€” are the product. These people are the company.
When one thinks of NYCO, names are what come to mind. Names such as Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Norman Treigle, Phyllis Curtin, Dorothy Kirsten, John Reardon, Frances Bible, Virginia Haskins, Sherrill Milnes, Shirley Verrett, Catherine Malfitano, June Anderson, Rockwell Blake, Carol Vaness, Sam Ramey, Jerry Hadley, Diana Soviero, Richard Leech â€” the list goes on and on. Many received their first significant exposure with City Opera. These singers were hired season after season, often for several productions within a season. The artists came to regard NYCO as their home. Audiences became familiar with them, and grew to love them as part of the NYCO family.
But in recent years, there no longer seem to be “house” soloists. For whatever reasons, NYCO has not reengaged leading performers as frequently as in the past. Present-day roster artists such as Carl Tanner, David Daniels, Mark Delavan, Mary Dunleavy, Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral, and Amy Burton are absent from NYCO more seasons than they actually perform there.
Therefore, the company identity is now sustained by those artists who still continue year after year: the chorus, the orchestra, the weekly soloists, the dancers, and the behind-the-scenes stage directors and stage managers. Audiences recognize and cheer these artists, even if they are not performing the title roles. Collectively, these professionals represent hundreds of years of NYCO experience and expertise. Most have a Bachelor or Master Degree in their field, and have spent years studying their craft. They cannot be replaced by hiring people off the street.
NYCO has been slowly reducing its company members. Fifty choristers were hired for the first NYCO season. There are only 32 currently, and Mr. Steel would like to cut the number even further. The company once had a permanent corps of dancers. There is only one salaried dancer left. The only two remaining weekly artists, Don Yule and William Ledbetter â€” who have a combined ninety-three years of history with the company â€” have not been reengaged next season. NYCO has slowly bled away its pool of experienced company talent.
Yet, George Steel and NYCO want to do away with even the few remaining members of the company and/or the guarantees that protect them. This past year, the AGMA contract kept NYCO from losing its vital talent while renovation work to the Koch Theater precluded a normal season. If Mr. Steel and the board are successful in their efforts to break the AGMA contract, or through negotiations slash the chorus, cut the weekly solo artists, do away with the dancers, and halve the number of stage directors â€” what exactly will be left of New York City Opera? An empty shell? A booking agency? Just a name?
Who would be left to carry on the essence of New York City Opera? The administration staff members? Many are new to their job in the last two years, and have not yet fully integrated into the company. The Board? It has guided NYCO to the point of ruin with their ill-advised decisions of the last three years. The Artistic Director? Tony Amato is Amato Opera. Michael Spierman still is the guiding force behind the Bronx Opera. George Steel, on the other hand, has not yet been responsible for even one staged production at NYCO. It remains to be proven if he can become an identifying force for the company.
I submit that no organization, not even an “institution” like New York City Opera, deserves to continue if it has lost everything that made it worthwhile in the first place: the dedicated performing artists who return every season to give the company its identity and history. The fight between NYCO and AGMA is not just about money and guarantees. Yes, the outcome could determine whether the company lives or dies. But, if all that survives is just the NYCO name, its very soul will surely be dead.
George Steel and New York City Opera, even though confronted by seemingly insurmountable financial and administrative problems, must do everything possible to hold on to the talented, seasoned artists who make the company special. NYCO has been on the brink of ruin many times in its history. I believe it can be saved once again, still keeping the company â€” the people â€” together to thrill audiences with innovative, dynamic, and memorable opera.Â — Douglas Purcell
The writer has been a member of the New York City Opera Regular Chorus since 2004. Previously, he sang with the NYCO Associate Chorus for six seasons. He has been a member of the Metropolitan Opera Extra Chorus since 2006.