Can This Man Save the Opera?

In the climactic final act of Verdi's opera La traviata, the heroine Violetta is on her deathbed, stricken with tuberculosis. Suddenly her estranged lover Alfredo returns to her side and the newly reunited lovers imagine a future together. Violetta experiences a great resurgence of strength only to collapse dead at Alfredo's feet.


George Steel, General Manager and Artistic Director of the New York City Opera, is hoping this scene is played out on stage, not in real life. The opera company's season premiere of La traviata on February 12 has been threatened by a labor dispute. Rehearsals for the production were cancelled as the orchestra union reacted to Steel's dramatic restructuring of the company that involved steep cuts in pay. This real-life melodrama threatens not only traviata but the entire season. This week, however, a tentative contract agreement was announced that could save the season, and the company. 

UPDATE, January 20: The deal is done!

A cancelled season would have amounted to a great reversal of fortune for the not-for-profit company. As New York Magazine wrote, "if the Metropolitan is opera’s global brand, City Opera is the local, high-risk alternative.” For nearly 70 years the City Opera has showcased up-and-coming talent performing works from an alternative repertoire. The company also racked up huge operating deficits due to mismanagement. Steel was brought on board to fix all of that. 

Steel told Big Think that in order to survive, the City Opera "must transition to the model that most opera companies use: paying people only for the work that they do.” Under the union's current contract, musicians have payment guarantees that Steel says have led to gigantic overhead costs for each production. In the video below, Steel describes how he was forced to rethink the way operas were produced in order to invest the most money possible into what actually goes onstage. 

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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