- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - The New York City Opera, a pillar of American culture that for decades has built daring new productions along with the careers of stars like Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming and Beverly Sills, is fighting for its life.

Members of the company’s board met Thursday at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to consider the opera’s future, and spokeswoman Maggie McKeon said Thursday evening that deliberations were continuing.

No announcements were expected before Friday.

Singers and production staff locked in a tussle over a new contract are threatening to “strike and drive City Opera out of existence,” a union leader warned in an e-mail Wednesday to The Associated Press.

But in a letter to the board this week, union members expressed a willingness to make additional sacrifices, said Alan Gordon, executive director of The American Guild of Musical Artists, representing singers, dancers, stage directors and managers.

The company’s endowment has dwindled from $55 million to $9 million, according to audits obtained by the AP. And City Opera has put off announcing its 2011-2012 season as it faces a projected deficit of $5 million.

The board chairman last month personally contributed an emergency $2.5 million toward plugging the deficit, company officials said.

Another current board member, Susan Baker, resigned as chairwoman in September after being blamed in the media for decisions that have left opera company on the financial brink. She was succeeded by Charles R. Wall, a former tobacco company attorney who contributed the $2.5 million.

Company officials declined to say how much money they have left, or comment on Gordon’s statements.

The board is conducting an exhaustive financial review, with Wall saying that future programming won’t be scheduled until the budget is balanced.

In the past three years, one season was totally eliminated and two cut down drastically.

City Opera’s contracts with AGMA and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, representing the orchestra, expired on April 29. The two sides are now involved in what Gordon called “very truncated negotiations.”

He said that under an old contract, chorus singers were guaranteed 26 weeks of work each year. Now, with possible cuts in salary, working hours and medical coverage looming, they “will have to decide whether to bargain over reduced employment or, instead, strike and drive City Opera out of existence.”

Chorus members earned an average of about $36,000 a year, “and every NYCO chorister has to maintain a second job in order to survive,” the union boss said.

In the letter to the board, singers and production staff said they were willing “to find new and creative ways to work with smaller budgets and fewer resources than we ever have in the past.” But they faulted the company for cutting back on such classic and traditional works as “Carmen” and “La Boheme” that are in their repertoire.

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