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Home » Officer Columns » Executive Board Members » The Sad Demise of the New York City Opera

The Sad Demise of the New York City Opera

  -  Theatre, Touring, and Booking Division Director

Tino Gagliardi – AFM International Executive Board Member and President of Local 802 (New York City)
It is hard to believe, but it has actually come to pass. What the musicians of the New York City Opera (NYCO) Orchestra have long feared: the reckless and misguided decisions of management to move out of the opera’s newly renovated home at Lincoln Center, slash the season schedule, and abandon an accessible repertoire, have predictably resulted in financial disaster for the company.

Back in 2011, Local 802 (New York City) and the musicians of NYCO, coordinated our resources to prevent the utter deconstruction of the legacy agreement between Local 802 and the company. Unfortunately, despite our pleas to the public and city hall, decrying the deficiencies of management’s strategy, the musicians found themselves asking the bottom-line question: will it be Local 802 to dictate the demise of our beloved opera company by striking, or do we make the great sacrifices in wages and benefits to try and keep the venerable company afloat?

NYCO, where Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Tatiana Troyanos, Catherine Malfitano, Samuel Ramey, and countless other greats had their start, was the accessible alternative to the Metropolitan Opera. Tickets were reasonably priced, and in addition to the standard repertoire of La bohème, Salome, or Madam Butterfly, new opera was premiered such as William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and Bernstein’s Candide, after its run on Broadway.

On a personal level, I would not have been able to quench my thirst for opera if it wasn’t for the City Opera. Prices and availability of tickets was always an obstacle for me as I tried, like everyone else, to cobble together a career in New York City. I recall seeing my first live performance of NYCO’s Madam Butterfly at the New York State Theater. At that time, my only means of transportation was my motorcycle. For my wife and I, this was a formal experience. Despite my wife having to ride sidesaddle from Brooklyn to Lincoln Center, we agreed that this was a special enough occasion to avoid taking the subway.
So here we are, so many years later, lamenting the loss of one of New York City’s cultural institutions. A lot of questions have been raised such as whether there isn’t room in NYC for another opera company; whether or not the programming at the Met offered too much competition; or more simply, has the company run its course? To these questions, I have to say absolutely no. The current void in opera offerings is case in point. Add to that the mission of the City Opera as “The People’s Opera,” and we cannot help but recognize the vital role and stature NYCO had in presenting American and new opera in the US.

What plagued NYCO is not unfamiliar to most AFM musicians. Over and over again we witness acts of mismanagement on the part of not-for-profit arts organizations with the casualties being the talent that makes these companies viable and the communities they serve. Instead of taking advantage of the years of experience that the musicians represent and using that resource to address artistic or even economic hurdles, the norm has been to gut union agreements and cut off musicians from any artistic input regarding the future of the organization. In NYCO’s case, despite pleas from both the musicians and the singers, the decision to leave Lincoln Center was the ultimate tragedy.

By leaving the Koch Theater (formerly known as the New York State Theater) the company lost its funding base. The smaller venues where the company performed over the last couple of years prevented the company from getting real returns on ticket sales and to rely on contributions. Though NYCO boasted a warehouse full of sets and costumes, including an extensive library, new programming left out traditional opera fare that was readily available for reliable box office revenue.

Regrettably, because of this type of egregious mismanagement and paucity of vision, this most storied of cultural institutions now lies in ruin. Regardless, the world-class musicians of the NYCO orchestra believe in the possibility of a new beginning and are committed to continue working together as a cohesive ensemble should the opportunity arise. Their ardent hope is to continue to play the opera they love in a company that possesses a respect for tradition and a bold vision for the future.