Fading from the limelight: New York City Opera

As mentioned in a recent New York Times story and an article on artinfo.com, the economy has done a real number on a once prominent performing arts organization, New York City Opera. The anatomy of the downfall of New York City Opera highlights just how important donations are to keeping an arts organization alive, as those new to the performing arts are simply not aware of how little ticket sales bring in compared to grants and endowments.

Even though, again, I’m over a thousand miles removed from where New York City Opera performs, the case study is of relevance to any arts organization anywhere at least in the US, if not the world. From the NY Times story:

Fund-raising has been flat, though in the past year, [New York City Opera artistic director George] Steel said, donations rose to a projected $18 million, up $3 million from last year. Still, that was well short of the $22 million that had been budgeted.

And from earlier in the story:

It realized $3 million in annual ticket revenues, which covered 10 percent of its budget.

Now, compare those two numbers. $3 million from ticket revenues, versus $18 million from donations. In order to get the same amount of money from just ticket sales, New York City Opera would need to sell tickets at about six times their current price. And that’s acting on the very generous assumption that the same people will be willing to pay six times as much, which is almost certainly not the case.

There’s more to it than that, however. The other mistakes New York City Opera made are worth learning from. In 2008 the situation was so dire the company had to raid their endowment fund for cash, which required special permission from the New York (state) attorney general. Now, this year, New York City Opera simply can’t afford to perform in Lincoln Center, instead opting to perform in different locations around the city.

It didn’t exactly help that New York City Opera, known for being a bit more eclectic than the Metropolitan Opera (usually called simply “the Met” and the more prominent of the two opera companies in New York City), perhaps got a bit too eclectic. Again quoting the Times article:

Last year’s eclectic mix of productions — including an updated Donizetti; a Leonard Bernstein New York premiere; a new work by the composer of the Broadway musical “Wicked,” Stephen Schwartz; a lesser-known Strauss; and a bill of three contemporary one-acts — failed to catch on with traditional operagoers or audiences seeking something new.

“Has anyone ever heard of any of those things they were selling?” said Carol Vaness, the soprano and a onetime City Opera star. “They didn’t do the operas people wanted to see.”

While I have not recently had the resources to attend performing arts events in recent months, I admire the eclectic and eccentric productions to a point. It’s okay to push the envelope a bit, but push it too much and you wind up with plenty of red ink on the balance sheet, as New York City Opera found out.

Time will tell what will become of the once-proud New York City Opera. I hope they recover, but even more so, I hope other arts organizations learn from and avoid the mistakes of New York City Opera. While it is painful to watch an organization with such a strong legacy sink into obscurity, the only thing worse would be for that to happen only for others to repeat that organization’s mistakes.

5 thoughts on “Fading from the limelight: New York City Opera”

  1. I read in your post an assumption that ticket revenues can overcome most of the deficit, as you calculated the ticket prices to be six times more if the budget can be balanced.

    If the ticket revenues are not the major part of NYCO's income, as the numbers showed, and as is the case for virtually every major arts organization, then how adventuresome, or even how full/empty the halls are, does not have as direct a relationship to the red ink. You can have full houses every night and still be in the red. It's the fund raising that makes or breaks an organization.

    Carol Vaness asks has anyone heard of these operas. If she has never heard of Strauss Intermezzo, or Bernstein's A Quiet Place, then she's really outdated. What…if SHE's not heard of them then that means they are not worth putting on? I would figure as much, coming from Carol Vaness, age 59, who made her career in the days when you can just do Puccini, Verdi, and that's about it.

    1. That was actually not an assumption; that was merely an illustration of how important private donations are financially as opposed to ticket sales. I would never realistically assume NYCO would raise ticket prices to those levels; it'd be virtual suicide.

  2. You also fail to point out a MAJOR part of NYCO's current troubs: Gerard Mortier's "Let's renovate Theater for $60 Million!! Shut down NYCO for a year!!" debacle in 2007.

    This is a huge reason fundraising has been flat. When NYCO turned out the lights for a year and blew $60 million, thanks to the brilliant thinking of Mortier and others who let him do that (and then have Mortier skip town after the troubles mount, never to even put on one production).

    1. Yes, I did leave that out, but not on purpose. According to the Times story, Mortier left because he was presented with a budget of only $34 million, versus the $60 million he said he needed (not quite 57 cents on the dollar). If I were him in that position, I'd leave too.

  3. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Houston has long had a policy of doing a popular G&S opera one year, followed by a more obscure one the following year. I always thought that was a very pragmatic approach.
    My recent post The Black Belles

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