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NYC Opera Move From Lincoln Center Hits Wrong Note, Musicians Say

UPPER WEST SIDE — The fat lady didn't sing, but New York City Opera's days at Lincoln Center are officially over.

The opera's general manager and artistic director George Steel announced Tuesday that the financially-troubled institution will kick off its 2011 season in Brooklyn because it can't afford to remain in its longtime home, the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.

The opera will open its 2011 season with La Traviata at Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed by Orpheus at El Teatro at Museo Del Barrio in Harlem, and Cosi Fan Tutte at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College on 10th Avenue and West 58th Street.

Scattering performances throughout the city was the only way the organization could survive, Steel said. "New York City Opera's new home stage will be New York City itself - a theater with eight million seats," Steel said. "We're coming out to meet the people of New York."

The cash-strapped arts organization, founded in 1943 and dubbed "the people's opera" by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, is seeking to slash its budget after a series of financial setbacks. It's operated at Lincoln Center since 1966.

The company has trimmed its staff by 14 positions, Steel said, and is negotiating new contracts with the unions that represent orchestra and chorus members.

"The changes we're seeking will be difficult for the people affected by them," Steel said.

At a rally staged just before Steel's announcement at the Guggenheim Museum, union members accused the opera's board of attempting to dismantle one of the world's premiere  arts organizations and turn it into a freelance traveling troupe.

The contract cuts proposed by opera company officials would make it impossible for orchestra members to earn a living, said Gail Kruvand, a bassist and chairwoman of the negotiating committee for Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.

Until a few years ago, orchestra members were guaranteed 29 weeks of work, Kruvand said. Two years ago, as part of $2.5 million in concessions, the union agreed to cut its guaranteed work schedule to 22 weeks, which amounted to a 24 percent pay cut, Kruvand said.

Under the current proposal, union members wouldn't have any guaranteed weeks of work, and health, vacation, sick pay and other benefits would be eliminated. Orchestra members would make just under $5,500 for the season, before taxes and benefit costs, Kruvand said.

"It's absolutely horrendous," Kruvand said. "We're a fine orchestra and we've been playing to rave reviews, and we're bewildered as to why we’re being treated like this. It feels punitive."

Renowned soprano Catherine Malfitano, who sang the role of Mimi in New York City Opera's "La Boheme," accused the opera company of operating under "rudderless leadership" that wants to "hijack" the company's legacy and tradition.

"To perform without the chorus is unthinkable, to perform with a pick-up chorus is nonsensical," Malfitano said. "Opera is not a pick-up affair. Opera needs a strong company that that can build their performing chops over decades."

Malfitano is one of several opera stars, including Placido Domingo and Frederica von Stade, who signed a letter protesting the move from Lincoln Center and what they called the "dismembering" of the institution.

But Steel said the opera has backing from some key players — namely "important donors," who've already pledged $1 million to support the opera's new multi-venue performance schedule.

Steel said he believes the opera's subscribers will follow as well. "In New York, people go see what they want to see," Steel said. "You don't go to the nearest opera to your apartment."

But Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, said the New York City Opera was part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

"We can't have an itinerant opera company with an itenerant and replaceable chorus," Rosenthal said. "It's been a fixture at Lincoln Center for a lifetime, and a lot of us cannot imagine Lincoln Center without the New York City Opera."