RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the New York City Opera is calling it quits. The company was founded 70 years ago by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, as an alternative to the richer Metropolitan Opera. But Jeff Lunden reports that, after years of financial uncertainty, the People's Opera, as it's known, will have to close its doors.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: In a tersely worded statement released yesterday morning, the New York City Opera's board acknowledged that an emergency fundraising effort failed, and it was launching the process to file for Chapter 11. The company was already in trouble when George Steel was brought in as both artistic and managing director in 2009.

GEORGE STEEL: And it took me a long time to put the numbers together to realize: My God, they've been running many millions of dollars of deficit every year since 2003. It had been hidden with a couple of short-term fixes and patches, and a bequest here and some special funding in another place. But to look and see what the structural deficit was, it was monumental.

LUNDEN: In 2011, Steel made the controversial decision to leave Lincoln Center and present operas in venues across New York. Orchestra member Gail Kruvand says that decision may have saved the company money, but hastened its demise.

GAIL KRUVAND: Well, I think there are probably a number of things that killed it. But I think that decision to leave Lincoln Center was certainly fundamental to the problems that they've been having for the last two years.

LUNDEN: In its heyday, City Opera presented over 100 performances a season, but they were down to 16 a year, says George Steel.

STEEL: As much as leaving Lincoln Center may have been a disincentive to some donors, it was really the size of the season; the fact that we could afford only four productions, we were trapped. I think people looked at the small season and said: You know, they might make it, but I don't know, I'll wait and see. Or some donors said: Well, four operas is too few, so I'm going to give them less money.

LUNDEN: This season, several board members pulled their pledged contributions and several foundations cut their donations. City Opera realized it didn't have enough money to present the coming season beyond its opener, the controversial but popular new work, "Anna Nicole." So it initiated an emergency fund drive to raise $7 million. The company only raised $2 million.

Chorus member Bridget Hendrix Winslow says the performers realized last Saturday was their final show.

BRIDGET HENDRIX WINSLOW: We kept it together because we have a show. And even if it was the last one, we still had to give our best. So we went out and did our job. But...

(LAUGHTER)

WINSLOW: ...at the end, during that curtain call, you know, it started to ...

(LAUGHTER)

WINSLOW: ...and we started to cry.

LUNDEN: Back when City Opera was founded, Julius Rudel was a 22-year-old rehearsal pianist. He went on to become general director from 1957 to 1979, and helped introduce such future stars as Samuel Ramey, Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills to the world.

BEVERLY SILLS: (Singing) Ooh ooh.

LUNDEN: Now at the age of 92, he's devastated.

JULIUS RUDEL: I think it's a tragedy, really. It is hard for me to believe that I will outlive the opera company.

LUNDEN: New York City Opera has dismissed most of its staff and plans to file bankruptcy papers later this week.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SILLS: (Singing) Oh, my love...

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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