City Opera was founded in 1943 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The City
Center on West 55th Street provided a cultural opportunity to a flow of
immigrants fleeing Europe. Ticket prices were an issue for them, so
accessibility was part of the mission, to the extent of La Guardia
calling us the people's opera. That part of the mission survives in our
current pricing, low price, $12, high price, $100.
But the mission has also evolved. This year, American artists drive 90
percent of our roster. New works, especially American, are an important
part of our repertoire, from unfamiliar pieces from all periods and
familiar works seen in a new way. We see our job as keeping opera fresh
and growing with our times, a living art, not a museum object.
City Opera is now the country's second largest opera company in
activity. This season we are presenting 15 operas in 117 performances.
But we are the fifth largest in budget size, so we have to do things
efficiently. Our budget by the way is not $35 million. Now what does
To begin with, opera is the most complex performing art, merging music,
drama, dance, and design in one enormous, sublime, and expensive
experience. We have 144 principal singers on this year's roster, 118
chorus members, and 69 members of the orchestra. There are 73 full-time
administrative employees in marketing, fundraising, administration and
production. Some 593 part-time employees work for us, and many more work
as ushers, porters and stagehands. In all, we need over 15 unions.
Last year, 237,000 people attended, with 82 percent from New York City
and the surrounding suburbs. Forty percent were subscribers. But here we
begin to get into the problem. These figures are down by about 6 percent
from the year 2000.
Since September 11, 2001, there seems to have been a seismic change in
audience patterns. Subscriptions are down across the country, even the
world. Single ticket buyers are not buying ahead and they are attending
fewer performances a year. Sales are off for the tried and true
repertory - La Boheme, Carmen and Madame Butterfly -- but often up for
the untried and unknown, that for instance when Elizabeth Futral played
Daphne by Richard Strauss, which had never been done in New York City,
it sold more tickets this fall than any of our other performances.
The problem seems to be across the board in the performing arts with
very few exceptions. It's partly the economy, it's partly a
psychological change I suspect, anxiety brought about by the world
situation, possibly a hedonistic response that builds restaurants but
keeps people away from a two-and-a-half or three-hour challenging
It's too complex to understand. But the important thing is that we are
looking for causes and how to respond in marketing and programming. As
examples of how people are facing this, the National Theater in London
now has an extended season of 10-pound seats underwritten with corporate
support. City Center, returning to the tradition of accessibility,
recently ran a highly successful short season of $10 tickets for dance,
underwritten by the Peter J. Sharpe Foundation. Covent Garden has done a
modified version of the same thing. These houses are all filled.
Now what is the future for City Opera? Most significantly for us will be
the realization of our full potential in the new house. We want a
smaller hall, with acoustics more suited to our needs, more backstage
and rehearsal space, enabling co productions and rental income as well
as artistic benefits. City Opera has less than half the backstage space
of most theater institutions across the country. And we want a more
advantageous performance schedule to increase income potential. We now
must open far too early in the season and cannot perform during the big
As you know there have been many rumors. The New York Times recently
reported prominently on one possibility - that's the American Red Cross
site on Amsterdam Avenue. But the story was premature to say the very
least. It's an idea without a deal, and we are in process of discussions
with the American Red Cross site as we continue to be in discussions
with other people as well.
But I do assure you of this: Our board and staff are profoundly
committed to building a theater in our time at City Opera, and we have
been astounded at the support we have been getting after a couple of
rather well-publicized disappointments.
There is more promising news. Individual contributed support grew in
every category last season. We saw the numbers of members, patrons, and
major donors increase by more than 10 percent over previous years. And
our board has grown remarkably stronger in recent years, attracting
donors at a high level to see our future plans as not only attractive
The art form itself is in wonderful shape, and so is the artistic life
of City Opera. There is no shortage of gifted composers whose work will
move and enchant generations to come. There is no shortage of gifted
singers who perform for us. In fact, there are more well-trained and
exciting young singers converging on the stage than any time in my
memory. And our orchestra and chorus have been radically improved in
recent years by our music director George Manahan, so that now they are
recognized as among the best in the country.
Last year, we had consistently best reviews we have ever had. Next May,
City Opera will take 185 people on a tour to Japan as the official U.S.
cultural representative for Expo 2005, with the significant sponsorship
of the Toyota Corporation, Citigroup Private Banking, and Fuji TV.
Therefore morale at the company is at a very high level. Certainly there
are challenges in this perplexing economic and psychological and
political climate. We are helped by the fact that we are in a city whose
leaders from La Guardia onward have recognized the enormous importance
of the arts to its economic, emotional and intellectual well-being, and
a city that always seems to recognize the importance of challenge and
Our company's early history in World War II and in times since teaches
us that in horrible meonts there is hunger for the enlightenment,
distraction, solace, entertainment, joy, and revelation that only art
can bring. These are human needs, and I am betting they always will be.
Our job is to provide these things and for the future engage new
audiences in these feelings with a company that's stable and thriving. I
think we can do that.
Paul Kellogg has been general director and artistic director of New York
City Opera since 1996
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