13 July 2011

Swan Song for NYCO

Menotti’s La Loca: Beverly Sills and conductor John Mauceri
In 1979, when Sills had already taken directorship of the company, a performance of this opera was the first I attended at NYCO, and one of the last in which she sang. Fresh off the bus in New York, I arrived at Lincoln Center a few minutes before the show started, and I managed to obtain a good ticket — four rows in front of Sills’ mother.

New York City Opera ceased to exist on Tuesday, during a press conference at the Guggenheim Museum, when the company’s current director, George Steel, announced the upcoming season. While I hope that NYCO will be resuscitated at some future date, it’s clear that that day won’t come any time soon — not with these so-called plans, not with this management, not with this board. Here are the reasons.

No, NYCO’s survival wasn’t dependent on remaining at Lincoln Center, though the location was a big part of the company’s identity, and the move to the New York State Theater is what put NYCO on the map, back in 1966. But a home base lent a sense of permanence, of stability no matter what artistic or financial crises beset the company, has defined New York City Opera. It was important to audiences, to performers, and to the staff — and it’s gone now.

What I find almost impossible to believe is that Steel announced the company’s departure from Lincoln Center before having found any alternative permanent home to announce at the same time. That’s shockingly bad P.R. and not terribly good management, to put it mildly. Has he been looking for another home? He hasn’t said much on that count, and given NYCO’s finances and the current real-estate market in what Mayor Bloomberg has nonchalantly described as “a luxury city,” maybe there isn’t much to say.

But no matter rosily Steel tries to paint the picture, describing the company as performing in a theater with 8 million seats (namely, all of New York), he hasn’t been able to disguise the fact that New York City Opera is now a bus-and-truck operation.

By smashing contractual relationships with singers and musicians, NYCO has compounded its logistical challenges. Talk to any NYCOer from years gone by, and the word “family” comes up, again and again. No, not everybody was happy there (the soprano June Anderson, for example), but countless others found an atmosphere that fostered creativity and a spirit of camaraderie. When challenges arose, whether artistic or managerial or financial, the company bonded together and prevailed.

But because the company now shows no loyalty toward its personnel, there’s no incentive for the personnel to show loyalty. Audiences — and donors — won’t catch the ensemble spirit, as we always have done in the past, and you’ve got to expect that we won’t support the company the way we used to. Did nobody consider this?

George Steel now faces an outright revolt by artists, including former director Julius Rudel and the long list of signatories who joined soprano Catherine Malfitano (who in turn was inspired by the resignation letter of Joyce Castle) to protest the departure from Lincoln Center. It’s almost inconceivable that the musicians’ unions won’t strike against the company, now that they’ve been reduced from resident ensemble to pick-up orchestra. Likewise, the chorus and principal roster have been reduced to freelancers. These developments will make it much more difficult for Steel to succeed.

A Doomed Program
Next season’s programming choices couldn’t count for more, yet they appear slapdash at best. When NYCO is producing a mere four operas, can the company really afford to make one of these Jonathan Miller’s La Traviata? How can we get excited about a production that, far from fresh, wasn’t Miller’s first stab at this piece? And for all its several virtues, this show was hardly a must-see attraction when I saw it at Glimmerglass in 2009.

The company presumably had contractual obligations to the pop singer Rufus Wainwright, whose first opera will be another of NYCO’s four offerings next season. Wainwright’s opera got terrible reviews at its world premiere in England, and the little that New York has seen of it wasn’t encouraging. (If Amy Burton can’t sell your material, it can’t be sold.) Already some critics are blaming Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon for worsening the current crisis: what makes anybody think that Wainwright’s Prima Donna will fare any better?

In effect, between Traviata and Prima Donna, the company is burdened next season with two potential stinkers and relying on a mere two operas to save its skin. The only buzz I’m hearing about the season’s programming focuses on Telemann’s Orpheus, to be presented in the Museo del Barrio; there’s some positive talk, too, about the embryonic wild card, a still-undefined out-of-season collaboration between NYCO and the Shakespeare Festival, to be presented at the Delacorte in Central Park in 2012.

Yet even the optimism is tempered. The Telemann piece is the sort of opera that Neal Goren’s Gotham Chamber Opera has been staging successfully for a decade: if NYCO can’t surpass Gotham’s standard, even if Steel merely matches it, then the show will be a humiliating failure.

And already the Shakespeare collaboration has people wondering whether this is a bid to merge the companies. Given the Festival’s piss-poor track record with standard-rep opera (a successful Pirates of Penzance stands opposite catastrophes such as La Bohème and Non Pasquale [sic], all with updated orchestrations and “ordinary” theater voices), this does not bode as well as you might think.

Incompetent Management
Steel has given every indication of approaching the current crisis haphazardly, as if he didn’t anticipate (and may not have cared) how unions, donors, critics, and audiences would respond to his decisions. Even the season announcement was incomplete. Was he game-playing? If the departure announcement was really a bid to get Lincoln Center or the city to shoulder some of the company’s financial burdens, then it failed. Whether or not he meant it seriously, whether or not he was ready, now we’re stuck with his makeshift strategies.

It’s impossible to forget that Steel’s only significant experience as an impresario, prior to joining NYCO, was as director of Columbia University’s Miller Theater, where he produced a few original acts and booked itinerant troupes. That’s his comfort zone; it’s what he knows. But surely he can see that Jonathan Miller’s Traviata couldn’t survive on its own, and wouldn’t have been any kind of a draw without the auspices of a full-fledged company, Glimmerglass, behind it. Now the roles are reversed, and Steel has got to try to produce and market shows of radically differing appeal in disparate venues.

This is more or less the path that Steel followed for the previous two seasons, but audiences dwindled as the company faltered. We can see that the Miller Theater template doesn’t work for NYCO, but it’s unclear that Steel knows of any other.

(Mis)led by Susan Baker, the NYCO board erred fatally in hiring Gérard Mortier, a provocateur with none of the experience (much less the temperament) required to run an American company; the board erred again by hiring Steel, who had no relevant experience whatever. In this sense, it’s no surprise that he’s having trouble digging his way out of a predicament that would test the mettle of any impresario. But considering some of the other managerial talent available at the time, he should never have been offered this job — and especially given his evident discomfort at the helm of Dallas Opera, which he fled after a few weeks, he shouldn’t have accepted City Opera’s offer. Unfortunately for us all, it’s too late now.

What They Should Have Done
Since New York City Opera has ceased to exist, it’s now apparent that the wiser, bolder, more generous choice would have been to kill it outright — with one last season at Lincoln Center. Put on a dozen operas, hire lots of young singers, stage unconventional repertory, and go out in a blaze of glory.

Maybe this would have inspired some wealthy patrons to band together to save the company — in a way that the current plans surely won’t. Maybe the mayor would have taken action at last. Or maybe nothing and no one could save NYCO. Times are hard, and too many prior mistakes can’t be undone. So why not let NYCO die as it has lived, true to itself?

Again and again over its long history, this company has faced its doom, but always with artistic integrity and personal courage — never like this. Ultimately, the loss of that trademark City Opera attitude is the real proof that the company is dead already. And not until or unless they get it back will City Opera live again.

1 comment:

Janice Hall said...

I knew you would pick up on this! I was one of the many former NYCO performers who signed the protest letter. The board should be removed; they have made unconscionable decisions for years now.

I knew when Mortier was announced that he would never show; that decision was wrong on all fronts.