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For NYC Opera's new director, challenges 'part of the appeal'

By Ronald Blum
Associated Press / January 16, 2009
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NEW YORK - George Steel was hired Wednesday as general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera, with a mandate to revive a shattered and mostly shuttered company following the departure of Gerard Mortier.

Steel was executive director of Columbia University's Miller Theatre before moving to the Dallas Opera, where he became general director last October. During Steel's tenure at Columbia, several installments of his Composer Portraits series were performed in Boston.

"There's no doubt there's a lot of challenges ahead, but I've got to say the challenges are part of the appeal," he said.

City Opera announced in February 2007 that Mortier, known for producing avant-garde stagings in Europe, would become general manager starting with the 2009-10 season. But the Belgian backed out in November after complaining he wasn't given a big enough budget. Finishing his final season with the Paris Opera, Mortier agreed later that month to become artistic director of Madrid's Teatro Real in January 2010.

City Opera, New York's No. 2 company behind the Metropolitan, limited its 2008-09 season to several concert performances while its Lincoln Center home was renovated.

Steel, 42, is to start with City Opera on Feb. 1, leaving him little time to formulate a 2009-10 season. He said music director George Manahan and the staff had been quietly at work on a schedule and that he hoped to announce it by mid-March.

For 2009-10, Steel anticipated a shortened season with fewer productions than in the past. Steel doubted that stagings planned by Mortier, focused heavily on 20th century works such as Messiaen's "Saint Francois d'Assise" will be presented and that Mortier's commission for Charles Wuorinen to compose an opera based on "Brokeback Mountain" probably would move to another company.

Without giving a timeframe, Steel said two works he would like to present are Bernstein's "A Quiet Place" and Chausson's "Le Roi Arthus."

"I want to continue City Opera's wonderful legacy both in early music but also in championing visionary reimaginings of classic operas, its extraordinary legacy of rediscovering operas that other people have forgotten, 20th century works and even world premieres," he said.

When contacted initially in mid-December, he told City Opera he wasn't interested.

"I had a great job," he said. "It just wasn't something I was remotely interested in."

Steel said he reconsidered during the holidays after speaking with his family when he went to Washington, D.C., where he and his wife grew up.

"There was a huge outpouring of support for City Opera that we read about online and in papers, and a lot of people contacted me and said it was something I should really think about," he said. "I realized how profoundly I loved New York City Opera and how much I cared about it and its future."

A conductor, Steel said he kept his Manhattan apartment even though he had moved to Texas, partly because of upcoming performing engagements in New York.

"The market being what it is, we held onto it," he said. "We were expecting to keep it for I'd presumed about a year."

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