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Is New York City Opera Headed for Bankruptcy?

"Keep 'em closed ... the clown doesn't like it when you open your eyes."

With Gerard Mortier quitting as its general manager and artistic director before he even started, New York City Opera was left with lots of stillborn plans and financial repercussions. And there's much further for the company to fall. NYCO has enlisted the help of the president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Michael Kaiser, to help reverse its fortunes. But sources close to the company are anticipating dire straits, saying NYCO's fiscal woes haven't yet bottomed out. A former high-ranking staff member says declaring bankruptcy is "a real possibility and perhaps a good option," and says the company may need to abandon its home at Lincoln Center, where Mortier-backed renovations are already under way as part of the $100 million David Koch–funded overhaul of New York State Theater. (An Opera rep disputes that: "Bankruptcy is not among the options being considered at the moment," he says.)

Talk of bankruptcy is also on the lips of the unions. The American Guild of Musical Artists' outside council has already briefed the union's staff on its options should NYCO file for Chapter 11. "All of the unions representing people at NYCO are really going to have to scramble to maintain their collective-bargaining agreements," says the union's head, Alan Gordon. And AGMA's plans won't be helping City Opera get back on its feet. The union plans to pursue arbitration over at least 84 contracts that were scrapped in the wake of Mortier's decision. They include about twenty soloist contracts, some in the $100,000 range, which were tied to now-abandoned productions schedule for 2009–10 season. "While we recognized NYCO's problems, our primary obligation is to our members to make certain that they are paid," says Gordon.

And while Mortier has severed his ties to the mess, he is scrambling to hold on to at least one of the commissions he made: Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain opera. He has contacted Wuorinen repeatedly, promising that "this will happen somewhere, somehow," according to Wuorinen. Except the contract for the production was "between Charles Wuorinen and New York City Opera, not Gerard Mortier," Wuorinen's manager, Howard Stokar says. "If you sign a contract with the Met Museum, it's with the Met, not with Philippe de Montebello." Meanwhile, other houses have expressed interest. "The only thing that's for sure is my contract with City Opera," Wuorinen says. Which, as of now, like most of City Opera's plans, is dead in the water.

Related: It’s Not Over Till… [NYM]

Photo: From top, Nick Vedros & Assoc./Getty Images; Frank Franklin II/AP