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Music stops for hard-up New York City Opera

11 january 2012, 13:45
Playing Armida at the Metropolitan Opera. ©REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Playing Armida at the Metropolitan Opera. ©REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
New York City Opera shut its doors Monday after a contract dispute brought a company known for daring modern productions, as well as for nurturing greats such as Placido Domingo, to a halt, AFP reports.

"Rehearsals are canceled until we have a deal. We are taking this one day at a time," Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for New York City Opera, told AFP in an email. The opera was meant to be rehearsing Verdi's "La Traviata."

City Opera, already struggling to escape mounting expenses and falling ticket sales, was brought to its knees over the weekend after failed negotiations between unionized musicians and management.

The drama added to fears for the future of the 69-year-old company long distinguished from its bigger rival, the Metropolitan Opera, for its innovative productions, including a focus on challenging -- and not always crowd-pleasing -- 20th century works.

George Steel, the general manager and artistic director, said the unions failed to understand the company could only be saved if employee contracts were radically pared back.

"For New York City Opera to survive, we must transition to the model that most opera companies use: paying people only for the work that they do," Steel said in a statement. He said management had gone to "extraordinary lengths" to accommodate musicians' demands.

However, unions representing the musicians threatened to strike to protest the company's attempt to force through "destructive" conditions.

Musicians told Steel in a letter that they were trying to find "a way to keep City Opera as a significant New York cultural icon" and had made "concession after concession."

"Instead," the letter said, "when City Opera's lawyers walked out of negotiations they imposed their own, destructive contract."

The American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents singers and directors, and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra, have voted to authorize a strike.

Heller said there was no plan to hire non-union replacement workers.

City Opera has been on life support since last year when it announced a cost-saving move out of its home in the prestigious Lincoln Center and shortened the schedule.

The financial decline set in years ago, compounded by the weak US economy, an expensive theater renovation, and plummeting ticket sales.

City Opera was founded in 1943 and helped launch the careers of Domingo, Jose Carreras and Beverly Sills, among others.

"La Traviata" was scheduled to open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of City Opera's temporary venues, on February 12, followed by the premiere of Rufus Wainwright's opera "Prima Donna" on February 16.

Wainwright begged opera lovers on his website to show support.

"A big early interest in ‘Prima Donna’ would really boost the moral and physical prospects for both my piece and the New York City Opera as a whole," he said.

Wainwright extended his appeal to musicians and management at City Opera, asking them to think of the big picture.

"If talks break down and there's a strike, the company will likely be decimated, thus leaving the city of New York with only one large opera house whereas all the great cultural cities of the world have at least two," he wrote.

"Is New York not a great cultural city? Yes, that is a rhetorical question."

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