Could New York City Opera Benefit from a Change of Scene?

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As is his wont, Alex Ross brought up a less-than-modest—if not titillating—proposal for New York City Opera in a recent article for The New Yorker: With their financial situation under review and artistic leadership pushing the company into the exciting and esoteric, perhaps it’s time for a move out of the stuffy and increasingly desolate Upper West Side.

Much has been made about company struggling in the literal shadow of the Met. With the recent renovations to the house, it also seems that the company is living beyond its means in the ritzy David H. Koch Theater. As a realtor once told me during a showing for a closet on 75th Street that ran for $1275 in the early part of the last decade, "You pay for that 10023 zip code."

Under George Steel’s management, the idea that there are greener pastures for the people’s opera is only amplified, both critically and commercially: Last season, the company added an extra performance of Hugo Weisgall’s thorny Esther (a work that was seeing only its second production since its 1993 premiere at—where else?—New York City Opera) in response to enthusiastic ticket sales. This year, a somewhat lesser response was enjoyed by Leonard Bernstein’s troublesome but engrossing work A Quiet Place.

City Opera continued its longstanding track record this weekend with its annual opera lab and showcase, VOX. As a point of full disclosure, I hosted the second night of VOX 2011 at (Le) Poisson Rouge for a simulcast on Q2. However, even sitting as a civilian in the audience for both the six operas on Saturday afternoon—a performance hosted by WQXR’s own Jeff Spurgeon—and watching Sunday evening’s operas in between interviewing the composers and librettists, I couldn’t shut off the critical thinking portion of my brain. Of one opera, I jotted down, “I want to take this work out behind the middle school and get it pregnant” (a quote cribbed from 30 Rock’s outrageous character Tracy Jordan).

Another work showed a flooring balance of intricate orchestrations with an economic libretto. Some were less affecting, but many like Vinkensport by David T. Little (pictured), Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Jeff Myers’s Maren of Vardo begged for full productions and life beyond this weekend of workshops. The statistics for such an aspiration are high: Of the 70 operas workshopped and excerpted at VOX since 1999, 30 have been picked up by companies around the world. In fact, of the three operas produced by New York City Opera this spring, two of them (John Zorn’s La machine de l’être and the aforementioned Séance) were originally seen at VOX.

And though this side project of New York City Opera has up until recently been practically an afterthought to the season—a free weekend of new works given once the mainstage events have closed, these past few years have seemed to resonate deeper with the new NYCO ethos thanks in no small part to Steel and VOX producer Beth Morrison. Perhaps more prominence was placed on them this year with the program’s first ever ticket price ($25 for six operas at the Skirball and $15 for four at (Le) Poisson Rouge). And hopefully more importance will be given to such works in the company’s future. As David Lang wrote in the New York Times last week, “the combination of respect for the past and excitement about the present allows baseball audiences to enjoy baseball in a way that makes it richer, making them more excited, motivated, attentive and passionate. I want the classical music audience to feel that way, too.”

We live in a city whose cultural scene is presided over by Puccini and Verdi. Obviously the popularity of these composers is well deserved and apparent with audiences. But it does say something about what New York audiences crave when the works that sell at City Opera are so often new, American and esoteric. Productions like Monodramas (pictured) are often deemed by other large companies as too risky to take on (you’re more likely to see Zorn in an East Village dive or Feldman in a church basement).

And though the question of the financial plausibility of programming experimental works has often been asked and left unanswered, it was especially telling—and satisfying—to see that this year, even with ticket prices imposed on the adventurous new fare at VOX, a beyond-sold-out (Le) Poisson Rouge and a respectably packed Skirball. True, as I noted in an earlier post for this blog, it's not enough to sell out the comparatively massive David H. Koch Theater, but perhaps that's a good reason to start looking for a new home.

While NYCO remains mum about its future seasons as it continues financial evaluations and union negotiations, board chairman Charles Wall said last month that “I don't think Lincoln Center has a lock” on the company’s location. Hopefully, as Ross mentions, a chic and avant-garde space in Brooklyn could be the company’s new home—one with a smaller seating capacity and lower operating costs that could allow the company’s spotty box office record to flesh out in tandem with their artistic vision. With their own Mercedes Bass or Agnes Varis, the company could flourish as a haven for the new operas that it has so long championed. And maybe we could even count on that scandalous opera about the life and times of David H. Koch.

Listen to the full broadcast of VOX Second Stage here and chime in: Would New York City Opera be better off in a smaller house off Lincoln Center's campus? Are they at their best doing works that extend beyond the standard rep? Leave your thoughts below.