New York City Opera is profitable, says George Steel, and will live at B.A.M. and City Center for three years

Charles Wall. (Dan Rosenblum)
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The New York City Opera is on track to balance its budget for the first time in 12 years and will reside at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the New York City Center for the next three years, according to an announcement made by the company today.

The company's general manager and artistic director George Steel made the announcement at an event held at The New York Public Library to release and publicize its coming season.

"The opera is now at last on a stable financial footing, and we're looking forward to a bright future and to grow,"  he told the group.

The announcement comes after years of money troubles. Citing difficulties, the company left its home at Lincoln Center last year, two years after finishing a $107 million renovation.

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Opera chairman Charles Wall admitted recent seasons were difficult but repeated that the opera was on “firm footing.”

“And we go, therefore, into the – I’m not going to say 'promised land', although I just did – with a confidence that’s built on the foundation of the current season’s success,” Wall said.

This season was indeed a make-or-break one for the opera. Wall said that every show this season sold out, thought at the Brooklyn Academy of Music ticket prices for La Traviata (directed by Jonathan Miller), and Rufus Wainwright's new opera Prima Donna, were reduced to $25.

Steel couldn't say what percentage of the $13.5 million operating budget had come from ticket sales, saying that that opera tickets are always partly subsidized from other revenue streams in opera, whether they are $25 or $500.

“I’m not looking at a target percentage of the budget that ought to be earned," Steel said. "I’m looking at a balanced budget, sensibly growing the size of the season and matching it with the amount of needed increase in unearned revenue, which is the real driver of what the company can do.”

Steel said he was eager to be at both venues because B.A.M. is possibly the only 19th-century opera house in New York, and because the company would be “returning to our historic roots” by playing at Midtown’s City Center, where the company had its home from its founding until the mid 1960s.

Steel said the opera had the option of performing at other venues as needed.

The New York City Opera was historically referred to as the “people’s opera,” the term coined by Fiorello LaGuardia when founding the company in 1943. But in recent years with dwindling audiences, and the recession hitting ticket sales and endowments, it’s relied more on private funding from foundations and individual donations.

Last year, the opera made more than $16 million of its $25 million revenue in private funding.

Next year's shows are Thomas Adès' “Powder Her Face,” directed by Jay Scheib; Benjamin Britten’s “the Turn of the Screw,” directed by Sam Buntrock; Gioachino Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt,” directed by Michael Counts; and Jacques Offenbach’s “Le Périchole” directed by Christopher Alden.

Steel said the growth would put the company on the right track to reach eight to 10 shows per season, and becoming the second largest in the country. He said the number of performances of each show would be based on market conditions at the time they are mounted, and he reminded the room that like other institutions, the opera company loses money with every show.

“It’s not another million and a half or two million dollar loss, it’s whatever it is,” he said. “But when we think it makes sense to lose a little bit more money because there’s a larger audience for a given production we’ll do it,” Steel said.

Director Michael Counts, who chatted in the back after the press conference, said he was glad to see the company back after years of financial trials.

“The perception was I think beyond the reality of what was occurring, but all the same it’s great to see New York City Opera on a stable footing,” he said.

He said he had faith in Steel and was excited to put on his production, loosely based on the Book of Exodus, next April.

“Parting the Red Sea is always a fun stage spectacle to consider,” he said.