New York City Opera Union Members Protest Cost Cutting, Departure from Lincoln Center

Protesters gathered outside the Guggenheim Museum as artistic director George Steele unveiled plans for the new season.

NEW YORK - A crowd of about 50 union members of the New York City Opera gathered here Tuesday to protest the company’s plan to leave its longtime home, Lincoln Center, and strip away its chorus and orchestra.

George Steele, NYCO’s general manager and artistic director, announced his decision in May to move the company from the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center to reduce costs. The company also announced a cutback in its annual budget from $31 million to $13 million.

On Tuesday, Steele announced the company’s schedule of performances for the post-Lincoln Center season in a range of locations, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the John Jay College Theater, the New York Times reported. “Today, 'The People’s Opera’ is coming to meet the people of New York in Brooklyn, in Harlem, in Central Park, on the West Side, the East Side - wherever New Yorkers live and love their favorite opera company,” Steel said in a news release. “New York City Opera’s new home stage will be New York City itself - a theater with eight million seats.”

Preceding the announcement, the company’s union members gathered outside the Guggenheim Museum were singing a different tune.

There, on the corner of 88th St and 5th Ave, the company’s unions, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), led the Tuesday protest. Local 802 represents the NYCO orchestra and AGMA, the principal artists, chorus, dancers, directors, and managers.

Together, they voiced their opposition to the company’s decision and what they called Steele’s poor leadership. Amongst the crowd were union members dressed in maroon AGMA shirts and musicians and singers dressed in performance-wear including tuxedos, who held up signs with slogans, including “Stop George Steel From Dismembering City Opera Piece By Piece. Person By Person.” Protesters also chanted “Save City Opera...Now!” Speaking to the crowd, Catherine Malfitano, former NYCO star singer, said: “We are a company, we are a family. Families have fights, families have disputes, families almost fall apart, but in the end they keep going and they survive.”

The union assailed Steel for proposing to fire 50 AGMA artists who each earn less that $40,000 a year and terminating their health insurance, while continuing to take his salary of $355,000 and $53,000 in benefits.

New York Senator Tom Duane told the crowd: “I will fight alongside each and every one of you every day until there is a settlement and agreement that makes you A living wage...and make sure that you are provided with the health benefits and the salary to make sure that your families and loved ones can survive in New York City.”

The protest closed with John O’Connor, recording vp of Local 802, leading the protesters in singing the classic union song “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Together, union members, NYCO artists, supporters and even on-lookers belted out the song as O’Connor tweeked the lyrics and sang “Our home is Lincoln Center, we shall not be moved...Oh we are the People’s Opera, we shall not be moved.”

The protesters asked passersby to sign a petition reversing the NYCO board’s “plans to downgrade NYCO’s status as a full-fledged opera company and to move out of the Lincoln Center.”

Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802, told the crowd: “Right now we are trying to maintain our presence in Lincoln Center.” Asked by THR what the union’s next step is, Gagliardi replied: “Right now, it’s basically day-by-day. [We are] just looking for as much support as we can.”

The City Opera’s new season will open in February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Jonathan Miller’s La Traviata and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna. In March, Cosi Fan Tutte will be staged at the John Jay College Theater, and Telemann’s Orpheus will be at El Museo del Barrio’s Teatro in May. NYCO also announced that it will collaborate with the Public Theater on operas based on Shakespeare’s works, which will be free at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.