(Posted this afternoon on the TONY Blog)
That seismic ripple you just felt rumbling through New York City's classical-music community was the bombshell announcement that George Steel, daredevil impresario of the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, has accepted the position of general director at the Dallas Opera, effective as of October 1, 2008. Steel, a 41-year-old Maryland native and Yale University graduate, is set to become the company's sixth general director in its 52-year history, and will take over in plenty of time to usher it into its new home, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, in Fall 2009.
"I have family connections in Dallas as far back as the 19th century, so coming to Dallas is something of a spiritual return," Steel said in a press statement circulated this afternoon. "Yet in many ways, Dallas will be a 'Brave New World.' The challenge to build a 21st century opera company equal to its remarkable new venue proved impossible to resist."
We have to confess that we're pretty torn up about the news. On the one hand, we can't possibly begrudge Steel such an amazing career opportunity; this is, without a doubt, the next rung on an inevitable ascent to a national arena.
The down side is that Steel is among the handful of New York arts presenters who have truly made a lasting impact on the city's artistic profile: first through his innovative early work at the 92nd Street Y (where the Dawn Upshaw series "Voices of the Spirit" is still fondly remembered by everyone who attended), and later with his complete revitalization of the Miller Theatre as a hothouse for major contemporary composers and rising new performers. Steel's expansive tastes saw him devoting evenings at Miller to Elliott Carter and Steve Reich, Milton Babbitt and John Zorn, as well as rising young composers like Huang Ruo and Jefferson Friedman.
To the amazement of all, Miller became a hot destination, packing houses with beards and backpackers alike. A recent move into opera saw the city's first productions of Carter's What Next? and Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway, and the current season will open in September with Xenakis's Oresteia. Under Steel's watch, Miller also became a major producer of early-music concerts, many of which featured his own outstanding Vox Vocal Ensemble.
We're sorry to see George Steel go, then, though it was likely inevitable from the minute he started attracting attention. Columbia will have to look hard for someone of his caliber. Dallas, meanwhile, gains a true lone star -- and becomes the odds-on favorite for a full-scale revival of A Quiet Place, the misunderstood final opera of Steel's mentor, Leonard Bernstein.
Update: New York musician, musicologist, educator and recording-industry professional Roger Evans has some insightful thoughts to share on Steel's ascension and the house he is soon to command.