Culture Magazine

Opera Strikes Out

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
How the City Opera mirrors the New York Mets

Opera Strikes Out

In 1999, the Mets added black to their classic logo,
with mixed (that is, ugly) results.
Image ™the New York Mets Baseball Club
and Major League Baseball.

Growing up in New York, my childhood was defined by two New York organizations: the New York City Opera and the New York Mets. As I write this, both organizations face disaster.
The City Opera is homeless, having announced a move out of the former New York State Theater. The opera company has frittered its endowment in recent years. The Mets, with the third-highest payroll in baseball for the last three seasons, are operating with an annual deficit of $70 million.
And they say there's no parallel between opera and sports.
According to team owner Fred Wilpon (in a recent Sports Illustrated article) $21 million of the club's $142 million dollar payroll is spent on former Mets players signed to long-term contracts, including the much-loathed Bobby Bonilla and pitcher Bret Saberhagen. In 2007 the City Opera board hired Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier as its new general manager to replace the outgoing Paul Kellogg. Mr. Mortier never produced an opera in New York City, but was paid handsomely for his trouble.
His replacement, George Steel (who arrived in New York after a whole 3 and a half months of running the Dallas Opera) made a huge mistake to start his administration. Desperate for money, he ceded the company's rights to use the State Theater in September and October to the New York City Ballet. This created a truncated schedule of five operas: two in the fall and three in the spring. This decision stripped City Opera of its eminence as the company that traditionally led off the fall cultural calendar in New York, opening three weeks before the Metropolitan Opera next door.

Opera Strikes Out

In 2009, the City Opera
made the same mistake.
Image © New York City Opera.

Mr. Steel chose to experiment on his rapidly shrinking audience, presenting operas that few people came to see in 2011. (I saw them, but as the writer of this blog, that's sort of my job.) Bad marketing, ugly poster art, and a tin ear for what New York audiences want combined to create a perfect disaster of a season, capped by the bomb that was Stephen Schwartz' first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
The Mets also have trouble at the box office. The spiffy new ballpark CitiField is a virtual ghost town, with yawning sections of overpriced green seats that are just begging to be tarped off for the sake of the television cameras.
But that's nothing compared to the Mets' biggest problem. Although the team has a secure (if empty) home at CitiField, Fred and Jeff Wilpon are being sued by a victim of Wall Street fraud-meister Bernie Madoff. He wants $700 million to recoup losses from Mr. Madoff, who is currently jailed for operating a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme disguised as an investment fund. The Madoff fingerprints have appeared on the Mets finances, including the monies paid out the Mets' ballplayers. The Wilpons, desperate for cash to meet their $142 million payroll, are willing to sell as much as 49% of the team to parties unknown.
Since becoming Major League Baseball's first expansion team in 1962, the Mets have labored in the shadow of the cross-town New York Yankees and their 27 world championships. Since their founding in 1947, the City Opera has lived in the shadow of their former neighbors at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera. But while the Metropolitan Opera has a 2011-2012 season scheduled, the NYCO has no season announcement yet. No money is coming in from ticket sales or subscriptions to operas that may not exist at a venue that remains unannounced. Nobody wants to make the donations that are the lifeblood of performing arts in this country.
Currently, both organizations face the abyss. City Opera is down to just $5 million of what was once an eight-figure endowment fund. Seeking to save on an annual rent of $4.5 million, the company has moved out of Lincoln Center, destination unknown. As of this writing, no operas scheduled yet for next year, although general manager George Steel has promised that a slate of "five operas" is coming soon. Whoopee. As for the Mets? Well, I'm going to baseball in the Bronx this year.

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