When Bigger is Not Always Better

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With the future of New York City Opera and the financial solvency of the Met both in question as of late, the idea of the independently run opera company seems more viable in the 21st Century. Case in point: Sung Jin Hong’s One World Symphony, a New York-based ensemble that rounds out its tenth anniversary season this weekend with an abridged version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Productions are stark with sparse props and costumes, yet Maestro Hong and his musicians continually deliver a wholly satisfying—and often intrepid—product.

This season alone has included programs that mix and match works of John Lennon, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich and Messiaen, a Nordic Lights-themed program of Grieg, Salonen, Saariaho and Sibelius, and a concert performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Last year they took a grand tour through Vienna in Die Fledermaus, Russia via Pique Dame, Prague thanks to The Cunning Little Vixen, and Paris with works of Ravel, Berlioz and Piaf. And this fall they dive into rep ranging from Gluck to Verdi to Berg to Hong himself.

The balance of opera-in-concert and orchestral works seems to work well for One World; it pays off almost as handsomely as the balance of performing in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, generally at Ansche Chesed Synagogue on the Upper West Side, and St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights (one of the perks of traveling light).

Hong’s humanitarian efforts are also notable—the symphony commits to raising funds for at least one charity each year, a noble cause given how much arts organizations themselves clamor for funding. Perhaps it’s the modest means that they spin into artistically rich evenings. On a more mystical level, perhaps there’s some musical karma at play that returns the love the orchestra puts out into its world. At any rate, One World Symphony is one of those slow-and-steady success stories that sets a tone for making art in this decade’s economic climate.

Continually working singers like Wagnerian soprano Shawn Thuris (Tristan), Erin Carr (Isolde May 13) and Celeste Siciliano (Isolde May 15) make up One World’s casts. On the side of New Music, we often talk about how the multifarious performance groups in the city feed into one another like a giant post-classical family. The same holds true for many of the small yet spirited companies that populate New York. And it truly is all these gems of companies that make New York’s music scene shine.

Below, a clip from One World Symphony’s 2010 production of Pique Dame. Does opera benefit from the return to lush music in a simple setting? Are smaller companies better off financially than the larger fish? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.