When Bigger is Not Always Better

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - 11:56 AM

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.


More in:

Comments [7]

A singer from NYC

I am loathe to support an outfit that does its fundraising on the backs of singers, requiring them to purchase several hundred dollars of tickets for the privilege of performing for free.

Jan. 21 2012 02:40 PM
Abigail Wolff from NYC

The passion that Sung Jin Hong brings inspires his orchestra and singers to greater heights in their quest to make beautiful, very moving music. I am a total fan. A higher ticket price or a bigger name does not automatically guarantee a better performance. Long live One World Symphony!

May. 23 2011 12:10 AM

"Does opera benefit from the return to lush music in a simple setting?" - I think it certainly increases the accessibility. Not every person who loves great music can afford to attend the Met regularly. And the One World Symphony is certainly not a case of "you get what you pay for". You get much more! Their professionalism is consistently astounding and on par with the "big fish" orchestras but at an affordable, almost guilt inducing, rate. Who needs plush red carpeting and a stage full of props and sets you can't even see from where you're sitting?

May. 13 2011 06:16 PM
Jay Lee

I think the small spirited companies deserve even higher prices even though I'm happy with the lower prices. As a fan of the One World Symphony in particular, I can feel the spirit of each musician's and music as a whole only in the non-gargantuan but specially-flavored and uniquely-colored small gems.

May. 12 2011 01:56 PM
Michael Fish

"Are smaller companies better off financially than the larger fish?"

They can be - if they pay their instrumentalists nothing or next to nothing, if vocalists don't get paid and have to sell a certain number of tickets before their application fee is reimbursed and if ticket prices are as steep as $40. It is only thanks to the dedication of the hundreds of musicians who have devoted their time that this group has been able to exist for 10 years. It is not a professional setting and can therefore not be compared with New York City Opera at all.

May. 12 2011 11:36 AM

While I love what many independent companies are doing, I struggle to compare it with those larger organizations such as City Opera.

Musicians in One World Symphony mostly volunteer their time and talents. Volunteer groups can survive because musicians work for free while ticket prices and donations can cover costs of the venue, etc. Organizations such as the Met and City Opera are trying to provide financial security and decent salaries for its musicians and staff.

Is a smaller company "better off financially" if it does not pay its musicians? Maybe, but I hope this does not suggest that the future of the arts lies in volunteer work.

May. 12 2011 11:34 AM
Devon Estes

What's the price on these shows? I'm not sure that I'd rather see a concert version of a show when I can pay 15 bucks for a family circle ticket and get a full production at the Met of the same opera. I do love the little companies that do obscure gems that would never be given an opportunity in the big house though, like DiCapo.

May. 12 2011 09:22 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.


About Operavore

Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore