Last year, he made his debut as an opera impresario during a four-month stint at the Dallas Opera. When he jumped back to New York, Dallas Morning News music critic Scott Cantrell waved a dyspeptic adieu, writing that Steel was slow to learn the company’s culture and quick to alienate senior staff. Artistic administrator Jonathan Pell declined to comment on Steel’s management style but didn’t seem especially bereft. “It’s like Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower in Dallas, and it turns out the whole previous season was a dream. Six months from now, people aren’t going to remember he was here.” Steel notes only that Dallas Opera board members were supportive of his move—which could mean that they were glad to see him go. A lot depends on whether his genial swagger will play better in New York.
Steel’s new kingdom is lodged in a subterranean burrow, where a fish tank offers the only glimpse of the natural world. In these sealed-off precincts, staff meets to discuss how queens and rakes should sound in imaginary worlds. Reality seems far away. At a meeting with the graphics firm that is developing the company’s image, designer Susan Sellers unfolds a poster bearing a new City Opera logo: a big black dot, meant to represent inclusiveness, enduring presence, and powerful modernity. It looks uncomfortably like an abyss.
The dot triggers a philosophical discussion. City Opera is a bare-bones operation that produces spare versions of a luxury product. In theory, that could make it the ideal cultural entity for this lean age: What better way to forget about your troubles than to watch people sing about worse ones? “Luxury needs to engage ideas,” Sellers says. “Opera deals with darkness and schizophrenia, and in a time when we’ve been so deluded, that directness is reassuring.” She stops talking. The black dot sits ominously on the table, and for a moment no one speaks. Finally, Steel smiles, and the room relaxes. “I love the graphic strength,” he says. “I love it. We have a swell season, and we want it to be, Bam! Bam! This is what we’re doing: You got a problem with that?”