Interview: George Steel of New York City Opera
OPERA America’s Marc A. Scorca interviewed George Steel, New York City Opera General Manager and Artistic Director on April 12, 2011 about recent press, the 2011-2012 season and union negotiations.
Marc: Last week, we read conflicting reports in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times about City Opera's 2011-2012 season. Since the company is so important to the field I wanted to take a moment to clarify the status of the coming year for City Opera.
George: If life were perfect, all three of the statements would be in total accord. I think there was a mistake at The Wall Street Journal. Whatever person is charged with writing the headlines — and as you and my colleagues surely know, the author of the article never gets to write the headline — whoever wrote the headline, wrote a badly misleading and troubling headline that painted a much worse picture than is really the truth on the ground. But the impetus for both the articles in The Times and The Journal was really the great work of our new board chairman, Chuck Wall. He has acknowledged that we've had tremendous artistic turnaround and he views his job and the board's job as building a foundation financially for fiscal turnaround — a plan for success that matches the artistic success. And to that, he's first looking at the current fiscal year, and taking a look at our books, he sees, as many other chairmen of Boards around the country see, a year-end deficit. In this case it looked like a $5 million shortfall and he is absolutely committed to eliminating any shortfall at the end of this fiscal year. So he personally pledged $2.5 million. As 50% of the shortfall, it's a challenge to raise the rest of it, which is an extraordinary generous thing to do, and that was sort of the heart of the story, we had hoped. Though I think they buried the lead as they say in the news business.
And the second part of what he's doing is looking at next season's budget and building, once and for all, a real balanced budget; a financial plan that really will come out even. And it would, I mean, this year’s budget, if he balances it, would be the first balanced budget for the company in over a decade. And we really need a balanced budget next year, and going forward. And so he has announced that he is doing a top-to-bottom review of the budget — every area of income and expense — and plans to write a balanced budget plan and submit it to the board for their unanimous approval, god willing. And I think May 19th is the board meeting. And that once we have the board signing on to a balanced budget plan we can build the season based on it.
Marc: That is a demonstration of remarkable leadership and generosity on his part. And how fantastic that he really wants to take the reins in hand and help the company construct a sustainable budget. That comes as great news.
George: It is really great news. I mean he's a wonderful guy. He is very personally generous, and he is a great leader of the board, he's a great pragmatist, and he's very much committed to getting the company on stable footing. He's just the right guy for the right moment.
Marc: Your e-mail to the City Opera ‘family’ hinted at a few titles for next season. Are you able to share some of your artistic plans for next year?
George: Well I can share a tiny amount, but what I'm sharing is already public. We have announced that we will be doing Rufus Wainwright's wonderful opera Prima Donna next year. As we speak we're rehearsing Steven Schwartz's opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon and I have to tell you, it is surpassing my expectations. It's a really ravishingly beautiful score. I'm amazed how wonderful it is. And I think exploring this area — this connection between popular song, Broadway at the opera houses — is a vital part of what we're going to be doing going forward. And Rufus' opera marks just another chapter in that exploration.
Marc: Do I understand correctly that you anticipate making an announcement about next season in the springtime?
George: In the latest plan we would announce in early June. But I'm hopeful that we might be able to go ahead a little bit sooner, but it's really up to the Board and it's not work that we can rush. And we just wanted to get the word out so that our subscribers and artists and the public, broadly, knew what was happening and why we hadn't announced already.
Marc: The Wall Street Journal cited Alan Gordon talking about the need to have an agreement with AGMA by the end of April. Any comment about how the union negotiations are going?
George: I'm trying not to comment about Alan Gordon. I would say we're just beginning our conversations with the union. I've had a very productive initial conversation with the 802 members. Paul Kellogg told me he thought his proudest legacy here was his relationship with the orchestra and I must agree it's a wonderful relationship now. At that negotiation we just sit down with members of the orchestra and talk about the issues. It's very productive. We are hoping to have an initial sit-down with AGMA either next week or the subsequent week. I haven't yet heard about any concrete dates, though I proposed those two weeks.
Marc: Finally, how is the public responding to an opera by Steven Schwartz? Are you pleased with ticket sales?
George : The early indications are good, and I think people are waiting to see. I would say that we're courting a real Broadway audience, and they tend to be much more last minute responders. But I think it's going to do well for us.