03 June 2011

Whither New York City Opera?

City Opera has made the (erstwhile) New York State Theatre its home base since 1966.

The announcement by New York City Opera that the company would leave its home at Lincoln Center — and in response to the seeming lack of planning, strategy, or foresight behind that announcement — most of what we have seen has been finger-pointing. From cultural commentators high and low, from screeds in the newspaper to a lawsuit filed against the company by the musicians’ union, the principal is to assign blame, and certainly there’s plenty to go around. City Opera has been plagued with bad luck all its life, which is one reason its triumphs stand out in such high relief; indeed most of its history has been a mad scramble for survival. But surely that history has been complicated recently by such decisions as hiring the Belgian-born provocateur Gérard Mortier and going dark for a full season — and specific individuals are responsible for those decisions. They deserve to be called out, to be castigated, vilified, and driven out of town.

But let me set aside the blame for one minute, because it is time to weigh in with a purely emotional response to the crisis. I’m scared.

Beverly Sills retired from singing on the City Opera stage, in 1980.
She had already taken over directorship of the company.

Long before I set foot in Lincoln Center, New York City Opera helped to shape my ideas of what opera was and could be: as music, as theater, as art. Through television, photographs, and recordings, the work of Beverly Sills, Julius Rudel, Norman Treigle, and Tito Capobianco, and many of their colleagues, defined the form for me when I was a boy in Texas, every bit as much as radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and glossy photos in Opera News did. When I moved to New York, I made a point of attending at least one performance per season, even when I was broke and had to scrape to buy myself a ticket.

I can’t count the number of operas I saw there for the first time on any stage, or the number of wonderful American artists I heard. Sure, not every show was a winner, but through several changes of management and a couple of generations of singers, the company’s guiding philosophy rang true.

Opera was exciting, the company proclaimed with each breath; opera was fresh, young, unpredictable, and American. Wagner called opera the Gesamtkunst, usually translated as “total art” but drawn from the verb that means “to gather together or collect.” What is America but a Gesamtreich? Is any art more appropriate for this country?

Since City Opera arrived at Lincoln Center in 1966, it vaulted beyond its original charter (basically, to serve as a “people’s opera” for the city) and became the scrappy upstart neighbor of the exalted Met. Tickets were cheaper, singers were less famous, spirits were more adventurous. City Opera put on nearly as many performances as the Met did, and often featured repertory the Met wouldn’t touch, in productions that were more theatrically innovative not least because City Opera couldn’t afford the Met’s grandiosity.

If the Met is gaining a reputation for adventurousness and innovation lately, it’s not least because that company’s director, Peter Gelb, is a scion of one of the great families of The New York Times: you will see the Pope ride a giraffe before you see him get bad press in the Paper of Record. This has altered our perceptions of his accomplishments, even when the aura of success is undeserved (as is the case with too many of his new productions), and it’s made it easier for some people to claim that City Opera is no longer relevant, or that it suffers in the Met’s shadow.

Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle in Tito Capobianco’s production
of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.

Objectively, these arguments may hold some merit, though as I say it’s hard to divorce them from Mr. Gelb’s public—relations campaign. And really, I don’t think the Met is the problem here: on the contrary, for 45 years, the Met has been the world’s company, which made it easier to understand that City Opera belonged to the rest of us.

Can the scrappy upstart attitude — and our perception of it — endure when City Opera is no longer next-door to the Met? Can the company itself endure when it has (thus far) no clue where to make its permanent home and has reduced its season to a handful of performances?

The title of “New York’s second company” now goes to Dicapo Opera, which offers nearly as many or more performances of more works than City Opera does and which operates in a permanent home, a jewel-box theater on the Upper East Side. City Opera says it expects to perform in unusual venues all over town (and it has begun to do so already) — but now the company will find itself competing not with the Met but with Gotham Chamber Opera, which is already thoroughly experienced and has displayed a peerless imagination for this sort of thing. Neal Goren’s Gothamites performed a Haydn opera in the Hayden Planetarium, for Pete’s sake: when it comes to generating buzz, how can City Opera ever top that?

For theatrical innovation, City Opera is competing not only with the Met, which Gelb is publicly recommitting to stagecraft, but also with Gotham (which has yet to produce an unexciting piece), and with Dicapo (which is generally more staid and conventional in the productions I've seen there). How can City Opera get audiences excited about unusual repertoire, when all three of its rivals (to say nothing of the visiting shows at the Brooklyn Academy) produce works that, for one reason or another, City Opera can’t touch?

More to the point, how will audiences find City Opera when they don’t know where to look? Every time the company produces a show in an “unusual venue,” they’re going to have to spend more on marketing and publicity, and if the work isn’t somehow extra eye-catching, it’s going to be even harder to lure audiences in. So long as City Opera was at Lincoln Center, this wasn’t a problem. You said to yourself, “I wonder what City Opera is doing?” And then you went there.

The new era of (partial?) homelessness will make it harder for the company to hold onto and nurture singers, to retain its identity as a company: that is, as a home base, an assembly of artists. Especially when there are so few performances in a given season, artists may or may not be reengaged, and the idea of a City Opera Artist, whom audiences can follow over a long time, has diminished substantially already. So much for the tradition of developing singers such as Joyce Castle, Lauren Flanigan, Amy Burton, Myrna Paris, Mark Delavan, Elizabeth Hines, Gianna Rolandi, Ashley Putnam, and Jerry Hadley — to name just a few of those who have impressed me over the years.

Hugo Weisgall’s Esther united two of City Opera’s brightest stars, Joyce Castle (center) and Lauren Flanigan (right).

Talk to a veteran and she’ll tell you City Opera was like a family, and I can tell you that, on a good night, the audience felt that way, too. Will that be true, a few years from now? Will the company even exist anymore?

City Opera’s board and administrators have made a lot of crappy decisions lately, and I wish I had more confidence in them, but it’s much too easy to stand outside and criticize. Would I have hired Mortier? I doubt it. I don’t think I’d have hired George Steel, either. But does that make me an authority? I doubt that, too. Neither I nor anybody at City Opera these days seems to possess the cunning of Beverly Sills, who as director effectively extorted extra cash from the Koch administration by threatening to rename the company — the American Opera Company, she suggested, in a way that drove home how essential City Opera was to New York’s cultural life. Sills was in every way singular, and we will not see her like again: we need to get over that.

But her message must be heard now. America needs New York City Opera. New York City needs New York City Opera. And I need New York City Opera. I don’t know what any of us would do without it, and as the company flails about (or seems to) on the brink of a sheer precipice, I’m scared.

Joyce Castle (center) in Massenet’s Cendrillon

1 comment:

director517 said...

Hi. Nice essay. To the point, heartfelt, illuminating. I always enjoy your observations.