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

Monday, May 16, 2011 - 09:19 PM

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.


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Comments [9]

Harry Matthews from Brooklyn, NY

A bit of history might be instructive here. City Opera was founded nearly 70 years ago, when the City took over the bankrupt Mecca Temple on 55th Street. Mayor Laguardia, being Italian, thought first of creating a "people's opera." The company offered cheap tickets (even in the early '70s, the top price was $7.95), young, emerging artists, and a venturesome repertory. It was not supposed to come to Lincoln Center. The (then) New York State Theatre was built for Balanchine's NYC Ballet, at the time part of the City Center of Music and Drama, along with City Opera and other performing groups. The Ballet planned to use the house 22 weeks a year, but did not relish being stuck with overhead for the other 30 weeks. Julius Rudel, then City Opera's DIrector, wanted to give his company and its stars (Beverly Sills in particular) a grander showcase. Over the objections of Rudolf Bing, City Center won the right to install both the Ballet and the Opera in the new house. Bing's worst nightmares came true when Samuel Barber's ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA, commissioned for the opening of the new Met, proved a fiasco while, next door, Sills and Norman Treigle were creating a sensation with a minimalist production of Handel's GIULIO CESARE.

And so, for several decades, City Opera succeeded as the inventive, sometimes intemperate younger sibling of the stuffy old maid next door. There were some lean years, but a few major donors, like Lloyd Reigel, the charisma of Sills (a terrific fund-raiser who became General Director), and a skillful balance of traditional and new works kept the enterprise afloat.

The current problems began when the Board of Directors took its eye off the work on stage and began fretting about the house. The acoustics had always been dodgy, and many alterations, major and minor, often successful, were made over the years. Still, the Board wasted much time, energy and money seeking a new home at Ground Zero and later near Lincoln Center. And much as I would like to see NYCO within walking distance of my apartment, I remember Clive Barnes once writing that a friend of his preferred seeing dance companies in London, rather than Brooklyn. As Dave points out, there are precious few sites suitable for opera in New York City; if one had been available, City Opera would have moved years ago. They have a decent home now, the Ballet has taken on a larger share of its maintenance (in return for a longer season), and redemption is going to come from what they put on stage.

ESTHER got an extra performance because of the enormous support of the Jewish community. MONODRAMAS drew large numbers of new music enthusiasts. The right repertory will attract a public.

NYCO's current crisis comes from its ill-conceived flirtation with Gerard Mortier. It will take time to recover. Performances in alternative spaces can well be part of the plan. But giving up the one available house suitable for grand opera is a really bad idea.

May. 18 2011 10:14 PM
Michael Meltzer

Any planning or theorizing about a move, indulged in by those in a position to do anything about it, will naturally fantasize about the current management crew remaining intact, the top salaries intact and current artistic options intact.
That's not how corporate downsizing works. Structure is shaken to its foundations and there are pink slips in lots of Christmas stockings.
That's why nothing usually happens. Talk is cheap.

May. 18 2011 04:40 PM
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian from Teaneck, New Jersey

George Jochnowitz wrote:

"What's the greatest opera composed in the second half of the 20th century? Bernstein's CANDIDE..."

No George, not by a long shot.

Messiaen's 'Saint Francis of Assisi' is unquestionably the finest opera of the past 50 years.

Olivia wrote:

"Would New York City Opera be better off in a smaller house off Lincoln Center's campus?"

Why do people have this concern with appearing "chic and avant-garde"? It's ridiculous.

No, NYCO should stay put and focus primarily on semi-obscure operas from ALL periods with an occasional warhorse thrown in.

May. 17 2011 08:31 PM
George Jochnowitz from New York

What's the greatest opera composed in the second half of the 20th century? CANDIDE. It should be performed at the new York City Opera.
And so should relatively unknown works by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Mascagni, Weber, and other composers who could write melodies.

May. 17 2011 04:58 PM
David from Flushing

There is a very small number of existing theaters that are suitable for opera in New York. The pit needs to be a certain size, there must be provision that productions "fit," and the acoustics should be good.

There is, of course, BAM, but what else? We have an old movie palace here in Flushing that is about to be torn down, but it is as large as the Met and has doubtful acoustics. Just any auditorium would not make a suitable home.

Location, location, location is a major concern. The Indian Museum left town because of this and the Brooklyn Museum suffers from it. You cannot place a cultural institution just anywhere. I suspect that Manhattan must remain the home of NYCO if it intends to survive.

May. 17 2011 04:22 PM
Eddie Lew from New York City

New York City Opera traditionally had a good thing going until it started competing with the Met; get out of Lincoln Center (is there no old vaudeville house in Manhattan to be restored a la the Majestic in Brooklyn?). Too much novelty backfires; people traditionally stay away from what is unfamiliar. Use what people really want – to be moved emotionally, not intellectually - and get them back into the opera house. Then gradually introduce new works here and there; a complete shock of the new is a mistake.

The bottom line is: get someone to run NYCO who is not an overeducated MFA and put in someone who loves singing and opera (and who has a knowledge of the operatic past), and people will return to be moved and be transcended, in a way only opera can provide: from the heart, not the brain. The Met, years ago, played to packed houses (for over 100 years!) on selling voices, the great operas (as they should be seen, not parasitic director’s visions of them), and some new works. There’s a tried and true formula, try it again on a smaller scale, maybe that’s the answer?

May. 17 2011 04:17 PM

New York City Opera belongs at Lincoln Center. All the houses on this block have had spotty houses since 9/11 It's time for NYC to stand up for what it has. A cultural center of the world. If you don't take care of what you have and nurture it; all will diminish. All this talk sounds like a realestate deal instead of developement of the arts. How could you blame this location for sales? KFM

May. 17 2011 02:36 PM

If NYCO doesn't do it, someone else will. There are literally a dozen smaller opera companies who are enjoying success in small venues. People want affordable, more intimate forms of opera. The NYCO has been floundering for many years, and it's time to take a bold move off campus and make another theater shine with what they do best: new or rarely heard operas. You might lose some of the UES or UWS crowd, but they'll get the LES, Poisson Rouge, and Galapagos crowd.

May. 17 2011 10:24 AM
Bernie from UWS

My guess is City Opera has a dedicated subscriber base that largely lives on the UWS and UES. Spending a half-hour on the subway to get to Brooklyn would probably be enough to turn many of them off the company for good. Granted, you might gain some folks in Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods, but they're likely to be single-ticket buyers, not subscribers.

The fact is, they're damned if they do, damned if they don't. Works like the Bernstein are a tough sell, but if you want Butterfly or Barber, you might go across the plaza for the Met's offerings. Maybe there's a middle ground in there somewhere.

May. 17 2011 07:40 AM

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