Iron resolve

George Steel faces the daunting task of salvaging New York City Opera.

TURNAROUND ARTIST Former Miller Theatre impresario George Steel is returning to New York to run City Opera.

TURNAROUND ARTIST Former Miller Theatre impresario George Steel is returning to New York to run City Opera.

Like all arts lovers in New York City, we at TONY were sorry to bid farewell to George Steel, whose tenure at the head of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre saw that unassuming auditorium turn into a focal point of buzzworthy new music and a place where well-heeled patrons could find common cause with scruffy backpackers. But when Steel, 42, was lured away to run the Dallas Opera last October, little could anyone have known that the impresario would be back here just three months later to take over a struggling New York City Opera.

Steel, like another charismatic figurehead in the news lately, has inherited an institution in crisis. New York City Opera’s nearly yearlong flirtation with Gerard Mortier, who jilted the company in November due to a budgetary shortfall, has left little time to assemble a season, especially given how far in advance most singers are booked. Steel also has to pay an orchestra and crew despite City Opera’s having scuttled its 2008--09 season, an obvious hindrance to cash flow. He’ll be dealing with a relative shoestring budget and almost no time to assemble his team, schedule and casts.

Not surprisingly, Steel’s dance card is crammed full right now. But in a brief telephone conversation with TONY, he gave a succinct summary of his transition and shed some light on his top priorities.

Given the disruption and even rancor that could easily have resulted when you informed the Dallas Opera that you were leaving after only three months, what was it that compelled you to take the New York City Opera job?
When I first was contacted, which was about mid-December, I thought right away, This is not something I can really say yes to or even consider. I’m so entrenched down in Dallas, busy and having a wonderful time. And literally, the press were out in front of the story; as I like to say, it was offered to me first by The New York Times and then by a website. There was such an instantaneous sort of explosion of sometimes silly and sometimes even hurtful gossip online about it that I just was absolutely convinced: no, no, no, no, no.

It was only when I went home over the Christmas break—and by home I mean Washington, D.C., where my wife and I both grew up—that there was some quiet time. I could watch the huge outpouring of support for New York City Opera, and talk to all of my friends and family, many of whom were in touch with me specifically after hearing these stories and saying, “Oh my God, you know, this really is a great company.” And just talking with my wife and coming to terms with what, of course, I knew all along, which is that to me it’s the most important job in the opera business. It’s the company that does the kinds of things that I believe in so profoundly.

When I got back to Texas, I spoke with the leadership of the [Dallas Opera] board about this job. And they were unbelievably and unwaveringly supportive and understanding about it. It’s a remarkable company—the board leadership is truly remarkable, and without their support and understanding of this, an already wrenching decision would have been made impossible.

Was it a surprise that Dallas was so gracious about the situation?
I had no right to expect it, but my experience had told me about the character and goodness of these folks, and their behavior was beyond my expectation. The suddenness with which this job became open meant that the shock wave would inevitably touch every company, and some companies in a particularly strong way. And the Dallas Opera is in fantastic shape. They are in a great position now, and they’re about to be in a wonderful position. Not only is it a wonderful company and a very attractive job—and one that it was difficult for me to agree to leave—but it’s also pointed toward success so very clearly.

So for whoever comes in to take up the reins, there’s a certain momentum already in place?
Yeah. I don’t want to underplay the importance of having someone do the job, but they have a Ferrari, and they need somebody to drive it across the finish line. It’s a pretty tasty situation.

There are so many things you’ll have to deal with in a big hurry at New York City Opera, but what would you say is your foremost priority? Raising money? Booking the season?
There is an enormous amount to do, and yes, putting together the coming season is very important, and we have to do that as soon as we can do it. And there’s been some important groundwork done already by the staff in place. It’s getting to know all of the people I work with there. There’s a wonderful staff at the Opera, and talking to them about what their needs are, what they need to do the best job that they can do, that is absolutely job one. There has been some important work done already on the budget, but obviously getting inside those numbers and making them sing a little bit is very important. And getting to know my colleagues around Lincoln Center—I mean, I’m thrilled to be among so many people I admire.

Had you done any collaborative work with New York City Opera during your tenure at Miller Theatre?
We did the very first VOX opera reading at Miller Theatre, and [dramaturg] Cori [Ellison] and I have been on at least one if not more panels together. [Music director] George Manahan obviously came to conduct VOX. As a teacher at Columbia, where I was an adjunct professor, I brought my kids down to their production of Don Giovanni. And I hasten to point out, just to illustrate the interconnectedness of the opera-world family, we opened our season in Dallas with a production of The Marriage of Figaro from New York City Opera, and [City Opera’s] production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci comes from Dallas. It’s like the interconnectedness of banks: These opera companies have a more-than-familial relationship with each other, and a more-than-familial concern for each other’s well-being.

City Opera was founded with a mission to bring opera to the masses, by every definition you might care to use. Now that the Metropolitan Opera has so successfully adapted elements of that mission, how would you envision City Opera’s role, moving forward?
In the future we will reconnect and sharpen City Opera’s historic mission, but as you point out, that mission has already had effects all around the country and around the world, including at our sister organization across the plaza—which is only testament to how strong that mission is, and how vital. It means recommitting to doing the most interesting repertoire. Early music. Yes, visionary reimaginings of classic operas, but also rediscovering 19th- and 20th-century work. The incredible role City Opera has played in presenting world premieres and U.S. premieres of other major works. And especially championing young American singers.