Irwin Schneiderman Dies at 88; Guided the City Opera

November 20, 2011


November 17, 2011

Irwin Schneiderman, a lawyer and a philanthropic leader who guided the New York City Opera through a decade of ups and downs, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 88.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said Jennifer Cunningham, who is married to Mr. Schneiderman’s son, Eric T. Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York.

Mr. Schneiderman’s legal specialty was advising troubled corporations. He was also well known as a supporter of abortion rights, Brooklyn College and the Central Park Conservancy. He was a director emeritus of Lincoln Center.

The mission of City Opera, described in 1943 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia as “the people’s opera,” was making performances that were accessible and affordable to a wide audience. It appealed to Mr. Schneiderman, who described himself as a “kid from the Jewish ghetto.” When he accepted the co-chairmanship of the opera in 1993, Mr. Schneiderman said his goal was simple: keeping the opera alive.

Mr. Schneiderman fought many battles for City Opera. An early one was persuading the opera’s general director, Christopher Keene, to accept the addition of the more business-oriented Mark Weinstein as executive director. Mr. Weinstein put the opera on a financially even keel.

After Mr. Keene died in 1995, Mr. Schneiderman played a major role in recruiting Paul Kellogg, who had been artistic director of the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., as general director. Mr. Kellogg kept his relationship with Glimmerglass and was able to combine the companies’ resources. He brought new productions, several world premieres and a new focus on the Baroque to City Opera.

Mr. Schneiderman applauded Mr. Kellogg’s proclaimed passion for “unusual” works, with one qualification: “Unusual doesn’t necessarily mean weird,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

A large part of Mr. Schneiderman’s tenure was devoted to trying to find a new home for City Opera, which had long complained of poor acoustics at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center (now the David H. Koch Theater), which it shared with the New York City Ballet. There were extensive talks about moving downtown to a new cultural complex at the former World Trade Center site, but the opera lost out to other arts groups.

This year, the opera company, which had been struggling financially, left Lincoln Center because it could no longer afford to operate there. The opera will now perform in a variety of locations around the city.

In the mid-1990s Mr. Schneiderman was chairman of a nonprofit foundation created to buy the public radio stations WNYC-AM and FM from New York City. The transaction saved the stations from being sold to private buyers.

Irwin Schneiderman was born in Brooklyn on May 28, 1923. His father, Meyer, worked in wholesale produce and his mother, Bess, was a homemaker. He lived in Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights, among other neighborhoods, and attended Boys High School. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1943, served in the Navy, and in 1948 graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School, his studies financed by the G.I. Bill.

For many years he worked at the law firm of Cahill, Gordon & Reindel. In the 1980s, he represented the investment house E. F. Hutton in a fraud case in which it pleaded guilty to 2,000 counts of mail and wire fraud in a check-kiting scheme. He was later Drexel Burnham Lambert’s lead lawyer in a fraud case that led to the firm’s bankruptcy in 1990.

In addition to his son and daughter-in-law, Mr. Schneiderman is survived by his wife, the former Roberta Haig; his brothers Harold and Leonard; and a granddaughter.

Originally published by The New York Times