Has City Opera Really Sung Its Last Aria?

Nearly every good finale has buried in it somewhere the seeds a sequel. New York City Opera in recent days has professed little public hope for a future beyond bankruptcy. Unless you want to count a little S.O.S. tucked into general manager George Steel's legal declaration that serves as the official overture to the many filings of a chapter 11 proceeding.

The first clue to a possible future beyond chapter 11 is just that - a chapter 11, rather than chapter 7, filing. Chapter 7 is what you do when you want to dissolve the entity. Chapter 11 is for re-organization.

City Opera's filing is interesting, because, although it clearly starts the process of winding down, it holds open the possibility of the business continuing.

The part of the filing that states what City Opera wants to accomplish through bankruptcy cites pension obligations and lack of liquidity as the reasons for bankruptcy. But it raises another possibility:

"Absent a drastic change in circumstances, another cultural or educational institution being willing to partner or adopt NYC Opera, or a miraculous increase in donations, NYC Opera will be forced to use the chapter 11 process to conduct an orderly wind-down of its operations."

A "miraculous increase is donations" sounds like it might have happened by now if it was going to happen. Unless another idea came along - perhaps a new structure. And so the mention of a merger or lesser form of consolidation is tantalizing.

In fact, the opera company is talking to potential partners about a merger or some other form of consolidation.

"I'm going to call it strategic alternatives," says Kenneth A. Rosen, the bankruptcy lawyer who is handling the case for City Opera. "One of the reasons we [filed] is that sometimes it results in potential suitors picking up the phone and saying, 'I have an idea.' And yes, we've had some very interesting phone calls."

Rosen declined to name groups who have floated ideas. "In any conversation we have had with potential suitors, we are very focused on what the mission statement is. What LaGuardia called the People's Opera. We are very focused on fulfilling what donors expect, people who have made donations to the opera over the years because they wanted to support the artform."

That was the reason for filing chapter 11 rather than 7, Rosen said.

"Chapter 11 gives us the opportunity to reorganize. When you get a phone call from someone interested, you have to weigh: Do they want to stay in Manhattan, or do they want to go elsewhere? The hope, the wish, the dream of the board is to preserve NYC Opera for 12 generations to come."