George Steel, Who Briefly Led the Dallas Opera, Can’t Save City Opera From Bankruptcy

When George Steel left the Dallas Opera after a few short months as the company’s general director, there were some hard feelings. Steel was a catch. He had pedigree, ambition, and looks. He spoke about experimentation, risks, and shaking up the Dallas Opera’s sometimes stuffy culture. And then, just like that, he was gone, off to supposedly greener pastures as the head a more prestigious company, the New York City Opera, whose storied history as the city’s “People’s Opera” included the launch of not a few superstar singers, but whose fate in recent years has been defined by financial difficulties.

The Dallas Opera eventually hired Keith Cerny, whose austerity measures have helped steer the Winspear resident company into calmer waters. Not so the NYCO under Steel. After years controversy and cuts, which saw the opera leave its Lincoln Center home and Steel face mounting pressure for Steel to resign, the 70-year-old company may have seen the curtain drop for the final time this past weekend. The last production was Anna Nicole, a tragic piece about the troubled life of Anna Nicole Smith.


  • Anne

    I think Dallas may have well dodged a bullet.

  • losingmyreligion

    I think there were hard feelings here because Steel kept telling people to the bitter end (i.e., lying to their faces) that he wasn’t interested in the NYCO job. And then when he left, it turned out, quite a few people in the DO were perfectly happy to see him go. He was a smooth, charming, obnoxious snob who never really wanted to be in Dallas.

  • MovinOn

    The title of this article should be changed from: “…Can’t Save City Opera From Bankruptcy” too “…PUT City Opera in Bankruptcy”

    There are two things George Steel is good at. Running a small black-box theater on a college campus and smooth talking. His opera managerial skills consist of 4 months at Dallas Opera (where they were happy to see him leave) and the destruction of a major opera icon.

    With those pretty-boy-looks and pedigree voice, he would be more at home as a republican congressman than a GM at an opera company.

  • Bob

    Anne below is correct. The Dallas Opera workers and Board cheered when he left after 3 months. He was not experienced for the job, his pedigree, much false was as a picker of acts for a small university theater. Not the experience of running a repertory company, knowing and understanding opera repertoire, or manging an outfit of over 5 people. (The Miller Theater at Columbia University was a skeleton outfit). Also based upon my understanding, all of the fund raising was done for him. Steel b.s.’d his way into Dallas, a Dulcamara in over his head.

  • fildivoce

    > Steel was a catch. He had pedigree, ambition, and looks. He spoke about experimentation, risks, and shaking up the Dallas Opera’s sometimes stuffy culture.

    Steel’s acceptance of the directorship of two opera companies, one after the other, certainly was ambitious. In both directorships, he waxed poetic about his ambitious plans for the respective companies: plans that revealed themselves to be mere smoke and mirrors concealing his inadequacy for the task at hand. He has no grounding in the artistic and business realities of running an opera company, and those realities cannot be wished away with fanciful talk: they are part of an opera director’s job, they are part of the US operatic culture and industry. Ambition? No: hubris! His pedigree — I’m not sure if one is referring to his social standing (irrelevant) or his artistic CV, but I will address the CV — has proved insufficient, as Columbia University’s Miller Theatre is a different, more protected playing field than DO or NYCO, and his professed love for conducting has not been demonstrated in any display of podium talent nor aptitude. Whatever contact he has had with classical music (and the opera world has not seen any sign of his , theatre, or artistic administration left him far removed from the skills and understanding necessary to head one (pardon! two) of the most respected regional opera companies in the US. He has no comprehension of the operatic repertoire, no comprehension on what goes into rehearsing/performing a season’s worth of opera, no comprehension of how to fundraise on the scale necessary to sustain DO nor NYCO, no comprehension of how to successfully market both to new audiences but also the longtime subscribers who are the lifeblood of a company. As for looks, I cannot vouch for GS as a display of male pulchritude: if one is searching for that middle-aged cornfed white boy look, one doesn’t have to look far to find more pleasing examples, with the bonus that those men wouldn’t promote their hubris and ignorance at the expense of one of Western culture’s greatest art forms.

  • William M

    What’s disgraceful is that the higher-ups at Dallas Opera took a chance on this sorely unqualified man. By doing so, they gave him credibility in an artistic field he did not understand or occupy. Shame on them for giving George Steel the makings of an operatic track record!!

  • georgie

    I have experience working with George Steel and can verify that he’s an ineffective manager. He’s a talented musician, always pushing for novel programming, and definitely a smooth talker like you pointed out, but he is not skilled at administration. He would rather listen to and talk about music all day than handle the business end of working in the arts. Dallas and NYCO both took a chance on him based on his success at a small rag-tag operation within the safety net of a college campus, and it didn’t pay off. Unfortunately I’m not surprised. I don’t fully blame the demise of NYCO on him, but he was the wrong choice to save it.

  • GetRealPeople

    Gee, no axe to grind here. Seriously, people of Dallas? Could we be any more transparent with our bitterness?

    The fact that so many of you seem so eager to demonstrate your obvious expertise in what it takes to run a major opera company and your apparently explicit knowledge of the factual details surrounding the financial difficulties that the NYCO has recently faced, while typical in this sort of situation, is nevertheless a sad commentary on the general lack of self-awareness and the unfortunate preponderance of self-righteousness that are rampant today. Let’s be clear: none of you know what you’re talking about.

    ‘georgie’, the only one of you who claims to have any direct knowledge of George Steel whatsoever, can only say how George was unfit to ‘handle the business end of working in the arts’. Let me guess, ‘georgie’ – wherever it was that you worked with George, it was in a subordinate role to his and you always felt like you could do his job better than him. Am I right? Of course I am. ‘Bob’ – ‘Anne’ below is not the least bit correct in saying that Dallas may have well dodged a bullet in George’s departure. What is she basing that comment on? The fact that the Dallas opera continues while the NYCO may not? And if it doesn’t, we should all attribute that solely to George’s alleged incompetence, I’m assuming? Brilliant deduction, both of you. Really, I’m amazed by your powers of deductive reasoning. But the best is really ‘MovinOn’ – yes, I’m sure that you’re absolutely right in assuming that it was George who put the NYCO into bankruptcy. Thanks, Genius.

    Maybe George was the only one willing to face reality rather than keeping his head in the sand about the dire situation that the NYCO has found itself in – not one that he created, but one that he inherited. Anyone who has to make hard choices will be unpopular to many, depiste having hade those choices for the greater good. Just ask the President. Oh, wait – I’m talking to a Dallas-based audience. I can only imagine the intellectual, insightful responses that my last comment will garner. Don’t waste your time people, we’ve heard it all before.

    George wasn’t given any of the positions that he’s held – he was hired after being interviewed and vetted. One would assume that a lack of qualification would have precluded his assuming any of these posts, correct? So much for that theory, ‘fildivoce’ – and by the way, please let us know which opera company you’re running, since you clearly have all of the necessary business acumen and knowledge to do a far better job than Leonard Bernstein’s former conducting assistant, a.k.a. Mr. Steel, could possibly ever have done.

    I have known George for years, worked for him, and contrary to anyone else who has pulled their soapbox up to this article to post some baseless drivel, I have some factual insight into the true NYCO story. He was not wrong here. In fact, he has done everything possible to right a sinking ship whose holes he was struggling to plug since Day #1 on the job. But of course, you all already knew that, since you couldn’t have possibly attacked someone’s character without knowing anything about them or what they were actually dealing with behind the scenes, could you? And surely you wouldn’t be so short-sighted to have taken the bait that Mr. Simek dangled in front of you before having any sort of independent thoughts about the potential reality of the situation, could you? (Mr. Simek, by the way, is the clever author of the article that you’ve all commented on – just in case you all missed that fact too, like you’ve missed the rest of them.) Because that would be…..well, just plain stupid. Wouldn’t it.