Man of Steel

Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

It’s cocktail hour at Lincoln Center, and a couple hundred New York City Opera donors mill about the house’s vast promenade, waiting to meet the company’s new manager and presumptive rescuer, George Steel. A few sharply creased ladies suggest the presence of tenacious wealth, but a more rumpled crowd has also turned out, and glamour is thin on the ground. Steel, who at 42 appears to have walked out of a high-school-yearbook picture, is grinning as if he has just dreamed up a new practical joke. He greets a familiar face with a hearty “What’s happening, baby?” Then he takes the microphone and proclaims, “Wonderful times are coming.” The small crowd beams, visibly eager to believe. “Isn’t it exciting to have someone so young?” one donor gushes. “And so enthusiastic!”

Steel’s appointment in January triggered the kind of grateful swooning that the opera world normally reserves for tenors. With his boyishness and bonhomie, grounded by an owlish intelligence, he has ridden to the aid of a company in distress. He acquired a measure of highbrow celebrity while running Columbia University’s 688-seat Miller Theatre, which he transformed into a crucial niche destination. When he took it over in 1997, he eliminated the mixed-menu concerts by respectable string quartets and concentrated on early and new music. His signature innovation was the “Composer Portrait”: a full evening of music by someone whose name you may never have heard but whom Steel fervently believed you’d like. Miller was the perfect perch for an independent-minded manager and sometime conductor whose favorite composers date from the sixteenth century (William Byrd and Thomas Tallis) and the twentieth (Stravinsky, Bernstein, John Zorn).

In his new job, Steel has four times as many seats to fill and ten times the budget he did at Miller Theatre, plus a company that has faced a perfect storm of misfortune. Renovations to the New York State Theater—now the David H. Koch Theater—forced City Opera into a nearly fallow year. Gérard Mortier, the executive who was to take over this fall, backed out, leaving the company without a leader, a 2009–10 season, a realistic fiscal strategy, and a clear identity. Hiring Steel could be a brilliant one-stroke solution to all these needs, but it also represents an unnerving leap of faith. For one thing, he is new to opera. Like President Obama, Steel is plunging into a crisis with a record that is promising but thin.

He professes to be unfazed. “Sure, there are significant hurdles,” he says. “And I want to be the one to help the company over them. I thought maybe I could watch from the sidelines for a few years and let it get back to normal. Then I thought, That’s crazy. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, right now.

Two months into the Steel era, his new team has almost finished whipping together an abbreviated season (to be announced in the next few weeks), which will open with a gala in November. Six months is a disconcertingly short lead time in the opera world, which typically makes plans four years out. But even as he scrambles to book singers, Steel is plotting a longer-term strategy to make City Opera smaller but more firmly planted. Even before he arrived, the budget had contracted from a prerecession high of $42 million to roughly $30 million. And the number of productions will likely stabilize at about eight to ten per season, down from sixteen several years ago.

Steel is an idea machine and a clear-eyed risk-taker, which suits a bold company that, since its founding in 1943, has cultivated young singers, promoted American opera, and unearthed neglected operas from the past. If the Metropolitan is opera’s global brand, City Opera is the local, high-risk alternative. As a result, even in a penurious year, with no shows onstage, donations are actually rising—which means that Steel can hope to rustle up funds for interesting projects that might otherwise wilt at the box office. “You can choose what to lose money on,” he says. “You want to lose money on things that are essential to your mission.” The list of rarities he’d like to stage in future seasons includes Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, and Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo.

Steel’s life in music began at the age of 9, when his seraphic soprano earned him a berth in Washington’s National Cathedral boys’ choir and a choir scholarship at St. Albans. In his senior year, he got himself expelled—for failure to pass French, he claims. Somehow that didn’t prevent him from getting a job as a teacher at St. Augustine School of the Arts in the South Bronx for $10,000 a year and a free apartment in what was then a showcase of urban blight. He eventually redeemed his academic record by graduating from Yale and went on to a series of arts-administration jobs and a more fitful life of singing and conducting.

Steel charms some donor fans.Photo: Patrick McMullan

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?”

Man of Steel