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At New York City Opera, the Fat Lady Is About to Sing

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The glorious fall of New York City Opera is imminent. The only thing that can stop it is a major gift or basket of gifts from its ranks of supporters or, most helpfully, a brand new funder who will choose to remain committed to the group over the long haul.

And it will be a long haul. Down to its last nickel and ready to scuttle its current season of productions, the NYCO has been having money problems for years -- for reasons both complex and persistent. Anybody who thinks they can bring it back to life with a one-time gift is dreaming.

The NYCO launched its 2013-14 season with a bang, premiering the 2011 opera, Anna Nicole by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, a production that has been getting good reviews. Soprano Sarah Joy Miller's singing is apparently sensational, no less so than the prosthetic breasts and "fat suit" she gets to wear in her role as the reality-show celebrity Anna Nicole Smith.

Opening night was Tuesday, Sept. 17. On Sunday a week earlier, the group announced it would have to cancel most of its 2013-2014 season unless it can raise $20 million dollars -- $7 million is needed before the end of September.

Making a public plea for funds, the NYCO turned to technology, launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million in smaller donations in a 22-day drive. Perhaps indicative of their fortunes generally, that drive is so far looking a little pathetic, netting just under $112,000 12 days in.

It wasn't always this way. When the company was founded in 1943, its mission was to put on performances to rival the Metropolitan Opera, to develop American talent and to include more daring productions, newly commissioned works and works outside the rut of canonic repertoire in which the Met seemed stuck.

For more than half a century, the organization turned out hundreds of performances every season -- including landmark premieres, developing and nurturing operatic stars and, in general, being a cultural touchstone for New York City and the U.S. plus an admirable representative to the international community.

But from early in this century, the group had been having financial problems. In 2008, things went from bad to worse, as a general director was hired and quit in short order because they couldn't raise the budget he had agreed to. Then, the economic crisis pulled the rug out from under an already wobbly enterprise. As George Steel took over, he first had to deal with a major renovation of the Koch Theater, which stunted the NYCO season and further depleted the coffers. Steel had to scale back subsequent seasons to stay within a shrinking budget.