The 70-year-old company says it plans to file for bankruptcy and scrap the bulk of its 2013-14 season unless it somehow manages to reach its fundraising goal, which it admitted is not likely.
"The board has voted to start bankruptcy proceedings next week if we do not raise the $7 million by the end of Monday," spokesman Risa Heller said, adding that commitments had been made for just $1.5 million.
A collapse would leave the 130-year-old Metropolitan Opera as the city's only major opera company.
"It would be absolutely appalling to imagine a city as great as New York not being able to have two major opera companies," said Kasper Holten, director of opera at London's Covent Garden. "If you look London, if you look at Berlin, if you look at Moscow, if you look at Vienna, they have two opera houses, and of course New York should have two opera houses."
Having presented 12 to 16 operas with a peak of about 130 performances in a season, the company has shrunk to four stagings and 16 performances in each of the past two seasons. Its endowment has dwindled from $48 million in 2008 to $5.07 million at the end of June 2012, according to tax records, and its staff has been pared to 25.
City Opera announced Sept. 12 that it needed $7 million by the end of this month and said it hoped to raise $1 million of that total on Kickstarter.com. As of Thursday, $156,663 had been raised from 972 backers on the website.
"It's incredibly difficult to run an organization of this size with our eye so closely fixed on the week-to-week cash flow. It saps the energy of the staff and frankly it undermines the bigger point, which is that the company by many measures is in better financial shape than it has been in a long time," City Opera general manager George Steel said. "We've been creating some of the best work we have ever done, but what we cannot do without is the capital to make our shows happen."
The company says an additional $13 million has to be raised by the end of this year to fund its 2014-15 season.
Founded as "the people's opera" by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1943, City Opera helped launch the careers of Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming.
"My early performances with New York City Opera were what really kicked off my international career, and I look back on those days with enormous pride," Domingo said. "The company has done incredible work for so many decades, and it has played an essential role in New York's cultural scene for millions of opera lovers. It would be an absolute tragedy for that legacy to come to an end."
City Opera's finances were devastated during the term of Susan Baker, who chaired its board from December 2003 until Charles Wall took over in December 2010.
The company used part of its endowment to pay expenses. Given deteriorating economics caused partly by the financial crisis, the 2009-10 season was cut to five productions and 33 performances, and the schedule only slightly increased for 2010-11. The company then left Lincoln Center and is in its third season of performing at a variety of venues.
Known for innovation and feistiness, City Opera became a vehicle for young American singers to gain attention. It presented a number of world premieres, including Jack Beeson's "Lizzie Borden," and under Steel it has staged the U.S. premiere of Rufus Wainwright's "Prima Donna" and a provocative staging of Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face" that included about two dozen naked men.
Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Anna Nicole," which premiered at Covent Garden in February 2011, showcased City Opera at its best—sassy, profane and entertaining. But this could be the end for the company.
"Anna Nicole" runs through Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In danger of cancellation are Johann Christian Bach's "Endimione" at El Museo del Barrio from Feb. 8-16, Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse from Feb. 28-March and Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)" at City Center from April 19-26.
Domingo suggests the company go on the road around the state to broaden its appeal. Fleming, who in addition to singing is creative consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, hopes City Opera survives in an innovative manner.
"I believe the city needs a smaller, more flexible chamber opera company with the highest artistic standards and innovative ideas—performing everything from baroque opera to experimental music theater," she said. "If the Met is a luxury liner, then City Opera could be the life raft that finds a 21st-century future for the art form, and a new audience with it."