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New York City Opera yields performance dates to the ballet

20 January 2010, New York, USA

NYCO General Manager and Artistic Director, George Steel, with Julia Koch at the inauguration of the David H. Koch Theater (April 2009)
NYCO General Manager and Artistic Director, George Steel, with Julia Koch at the inauguration of the David H. Koch Theater (April 2009)

New York City Opera has ceded four weeks of its autumn season to New York City Ballet in return for US$9 million from a capital campaign fund shared by the two companies.

The move substantially reduces the amount of opera on offer at the newly refurbished David H. Koch Theatre (formerly the New York State Theater), where both opera and ballet companies have been resident since 1964. The venue recently reopened after renovations costing US$107 million, paid for by oil billionaire and philanthropist, David H. Koch.

Some reports, including highly critical commentary by Bloomberg, have implied that the benefactor – known to be an avid dance fan – may have influenced the decision to change the season dates, which tips the balance number of performances at the David H. Koch Theatre substantially in favour of ballet.

NYCO’s Director of Public Relations, Pascal Nadon, speaking to Opera Now, strongly countered this suggestion: “David Koch has not sought and does not have any influence on the programming in the Theater or on the scheduling balance between New York City Opera and New York City Ballet.”

Nadon is keen to point out that “our recent autumn season was a great success, including the gala opening, which raised a record-breaking US$2.3 million for the company.” Opera Now critic Robert Levine described NYCO's recent Don Giovanni as "active, clever and never dull", adding that the theatre's new acoustics are "clean, clear and with plenty of ping" – perfect for opera.  Despite this success, Nadon concedes that NYCO still needs “to work towards a ‘right-size’ operation” that entails “reducing our fixed operating costs and producing a more compact and manageable number of productions than in the past.”

US-based Opera Now correspondent, Heidi Waleson, concurs with this view, dismissing David Koch’s possible influence as a “red herring”. The real reason for the shift, she says, is purely financial:

“In addition to the US$ 9 million in funds that NYCO will receive from this move, giving up the autumn season to the ballet will also help them to lower their fixed costs.” The latter, says Waleson “are enormous, given that NYCO still has union contracts which obligate them to pay their orchestra and chorus for many more dates than they can actually afford to perform, as well as their costs for the building.”

The collapse of the global economy goes some way towards explaining these challenges, but the key turning-point in the fortunes of NYCO seems to have been the decision by Gerard Mortier’s (during his 21-month tenure as general manager and artistic director of the company) to give very few performances at other venues during the renovation of the New York State Theater. New York City Ballet meanwhile continued to give performances throughout the closure.

“The ballet has had the upper hand all along,” explains Waleson. “When the Theater was closed for the renovation, they gave up no performance weeks, since it was Mortier who wanted the work done on behalf of the opera. I'm not surprised that the ballet has now taken advantage of NYCO's financial peril to secure the autumn season.”

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