At New York City Opera, the Fat Lady Is About to Sing

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The glorious fall of New York City Opera is imminent. The only thing that can stop it is a major gift or basket of gifts from its ranks of supporters or, most helpfully, a brand new funder who will choose to remain committed to the group over the long haul.

And it will be a long haul. Down to its last nickel and ready to scuttle its current season of productions, the NYCO has been having money problems for years -- for reasons both complex and persistent. Anybody who thinks they can bring it back to life with a one-time gift is dreaming.

The NYCO launched its 2013-14 season with a bang, premiering the 2011 opera, Anna Nicole by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, a production that has been getting good reviews. Soprano Sarah Joy Miller's singing is apparently sensational, no less so than the prosthetic breasts and "fat suit" she gets to wear in her role as the reality-show celebrity Anna Nicole Smith.

Opening night was Tuesday, Sept. 17. On Sunday a week earlier, the group announced it would have to cancel most of its 2013-2014 season unless it can raise $20 million dollars -- $7 million is needed before the end of September.

Making a public plea for funds, the NYCO turned to technology, launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million in smaller donations in a 22-day drive. Perhaps indicative of their fortunes generally, that drive is so far looking a little pathetic, netting just under $112,000 12 days in.

It wasn't always this way. When the company was founded in 1943, its mission was to put on performances to rival the Metropolitan Opera, to develop American talent and to include more daring productions, newly commissioned works and works outside the rut of canonic repertoire in which the Met seemed stuck.

For more than half a century, the organization turned out hundreds of performances every season -- including landmark premieres, developing and nurturing operatic stars and, in general, being a cultural touchstone for New York City and the U.S. plus an admirable representative to the international community.

But from early in this century, the group had been having financial problems. In 2008, things went from bad to worse, as a general director was hired and quit in short order because they couldn't raise the budget he had agreed to. Then, the economic crisis pulled the rug out from under an already wobbly enterprise. As George Steel took over, he first had to deal with a major renovation of the Koch Theater, which stunted the NYCO season and further depleted the coffers. Steel had to scale back subsequent seasons to stay within a shrinking budget.

After limping through two seasons, Steel did what any reasonable businessman would do: he looked for ways to cut costs. He downsized. He left the expensive location in Lincoln Center's Koch Theater and headed for much lower cost New York venues, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In doing so, he severed his company's relationship with the unions and employee pension plans.

By doing away with labor obligations, Steel effectively reduced the organization to a company of freelancers. Much early criticism of the move targeted that point. The anger and disappointment over that and other cost-saving moves has not helped it gain backers or audiences.

Moving out of Lincoln Center, symbol of American cultural achievement, on its own disappointed supporters. While it slowed the drain on funds by reducing expenses, it amputated much of the group's prestige and diminished its national stature.

Steel's moves seem to have merely lessened the rate and angle of the NYCO's nosedive, most noticeable in the continued decline in fundraising.

The NYCO did not respond to requests for an interview related to this story.

In practice, the quality of NYCO performances has remained quite high. Musicians and crew still need to eat and still love what they are doing, so they come back to work with reduced benefits. It's not a long-term solution, but in the short term, musicians are motivated to make the sacrifice.

The current production of Anna Nicole shows off what the company can do best, where they fit in to the cultural landscape. It's a risk -- not a huge risk, not a we-should-be-doing-this-in-a-brooklyn-loft-space-for-a-crowd-of-tattooed-singles-dressed-mostly-in-black risk. But still a risk. It's a new opera grounded in the life and death of the Playboy-bunny-turned-celebrity-wife Anna Nicole Smith. There's a lot to say about that, humanizing the character and examining why and how we elevate men and women to Bizarro Olympus. It's the kind of project that has the ability to be long-term cultural touchstone or a complete flop.

That type of undertaking, yearning for the cultural touchstone, has consistently been the NYCO's target. The Metropolitan Opera has made great strides in increasing its cultural relevance, but it still can't do that, can't respond as quickly to cultural pressures, discover and develop new trends and be an important incubator for immediate social and cultural concerns.

But that means little right now. Fundraising efforts aren't helped by such long explanations. There's no soundbite, no obvious prestige involved in saving NYCO.

Try "culturally significant as a flexible and dynamic social mirror" out loud. That's your elevator speech. Now imagine that you're talking about opera. Funny, right?

Because of the freelance nature of the group, Steel can't even guarantee the quality of productions with conviction, so that's pretty much all he's got as a pitch.

His fault? I don't agree with his decisions, but I still wouldn't go that far. The group likely would have failed at Lincoln Center even faster than they've failed outside of Lincoln Center. He made a calculated business decision to save the company. It didn't work.

National Problem

If the NYCO was alone in its plight, the story would be merely tragic. But financial problems have wracked the entire country's classical music organizations, hitting institutions of such high profile as the Philadelphia Orchestra. Unions are often held to blame by management, who point to labor negotiations and the ballooning costs associated with traditional contracts that often included healthy pensions and health care packages.

Those are contributing factors. But as music organizations have found costs rising sharply, they've also seen ticket sales and subscriptions declining. Subscriptions, in particular, have dropped off a cliff in the last decade -- revenue that many groups counted on as a budgeting cushion for their long-term plans. Single ticket sales literally go up and down with the weather -- almost impossible to even estimate in advance. Alternative revenue sources, which never amounted to a hill of beans, have likewise tanked.

In addition, and most importantly, charitable contributions -- the lifeblood of the arts -- are still suffering compared to pre-recession levels, when they weren't all that great. According to the Web site of Giving USA, a group that monitors charitable giving, national charitable contributions to the arts and culture sank 8.2% during the two-year recession of 2008 and 2009 from a high of $13.7 billion in 2007. By 2012, the total has risen again to $14.44 billion, about 5% of total charitable giving. The increase is encouraging but still short of the 2007 mark in real dollars: 2007's total would equal $15.17 billion if adjusted for inflation.

Giving USA estimates that if current trends continue, it will take another six or seven years for overall charitable giving levels to pass pre-crisis levels.

That estimate is backed up by anecdotal data. Individuals represent 72% of charitable giving in the U.S. A Bank of America study found that 53% of high-net-worth individuals expected to keep their charitable donations at 2011 levels over the next five years, while the rest planned to decrease their charitable giving.

When they were needed most, individual givers slacked off.

This isn't solely about the economy. A lowering quality of education and a shift away from teaching the arts to all citizens is taking its toll, reducing the interest of a now-mature generation of high-net-worth individuals. It's hard to put a value on opera when the average person doesn't understand the difference between commercial and non-commercial art.

Technology has made the enticing of audiences to an evening at the opera much harder. Marketing departments are finding the adjustment to social media tools awkward. Efforts to retrofit concert halls for a multimedia experience to liven up classical music's stiff reputation have come off as embarrassingly apologetic and ultimately counterproductive to the goal of engaging audiences with the experience of great musical traditions.

If benefactors are to save the NYCO, they will have to be resolved to confront this entire mess and to stick it out until somewhere around 2020. By then, perhaps, economic pressures will have subsided more completely and the high-net-worth folks who are still closely guarding their cash hoards will be inclined to be more liberal in their charitable commitments.

Got all that? Good, because now you can forget about it. The NYCO is doomed.

Take another look at the NYCO Kickstarter campaign. Ten days to go in a 22-day campaign and they're not an eighth of the way to the goal of one lousy million. You think a white knight is going to gallop onto the scene with that kind of commitment where a group can't, on its own, muster popular grassroots support?

It's possible. And by that I mean not really.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York and Asbury Park, N.J.

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