New York City Opera Seeks a New Home

Saturday, May 21, 2011 - 06:55 AM

After a meeting that generated enormous speculation—not to mention the receipt of an open letter from singers and production staff that was leaked to the Wall Street Journal—the board of New York City Opera voted today to move out of Lincoln Center and cut both staff and productions from its already limited schedule as it tightens its belt. General manager and artistic director George Steel reported to the Associated Press that an announcement of the company’s new home would be made in a few weeks.

Understandably, this decision has already garnered much outcry and concern. The company may face significant protest from the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union for singers, dancers, stage directors and stage managers. “They don’t program popular operas. No one goes to see what they do program," Gordon told WQXR in an interview.

What Gordon does not mention but the open letter from NYCO’s artistic staff touches on is the greater problem of NYCO’s marketing department when it comes to the promotion of its rep. Take one look at their print materials and try to decipher the plot of The Elixir of Love (a cheap knockoff of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing), Monodramas (a redheaded young lady sprawled in a field of wet grass) or A Quiet Place (a smashed up grey car). See how long you can spend on their Web site attempting to find show dates before you give up. The effort behind the company’s most important arm when it comes to directly reaching the general public seems to lie less in promoting the art and more in promoting the graphic design.

The board’s decision, coupled with an approved budget that is, in Steel’s words, “significantly smaller” than its financial resources over the last two seasons, is still a work in progress as the specifics are hammered out. And while Gordon has a point that it’s relatively poor thinking to expect a house of nearly 2,600 seats to sell out for a troublesome late-period Bernstein opera or a trio of monodramas that make Richard Strauss seem as lush and luscious as Puccini, it seems somewhat shortsighted on his part to suggest the only way of remaining financially stable on the company’s part is to program. Equally disconcerting is Gordon’s statement to the Wall Street Journal that "George Steel is destroying a central part of America's cultural heritage."

Gordon acknowledges that a guarantee of 26 weeks of employment for its members is the bottom line for AGMA—though concerns with the company’s plan to pay its artists on a freelance basis are also raised. But why think of this as destruction as opposed to progression or transition?

Since New York City Opera moved from City Center to Lincoln Center, the area around 62nd Street and Columbus Avenue has gone through several facelifts. Tenants have come and gone, several restaurants have sat at the same addresses, and two major stores for classical music junkies (Tower Records and the Lincoln Triangle Barnes & Noble) have shuttered. There is still a significant population of arts lovers in 10023, but many—if not most—of them go to the Met for their Verdi and Wagner.

Sure, as Gordon told WQXR, “[AGMA] members would be capable of doing standard operas—Boheme, Butterfly, and Traviata—even with little rehearsal,” but why should we see these operas every year and from two companies, and on short rehearsal periods at that? It’s a similar mentality that allows many people in this country to think of the Olive Garden as “authentic” Italian fare.

From a personal standpoint, I’ve had mixed feelings about the idea of City Opera looking for a new home since 2004 when talks of relocating to Ground Zero were still in the air. Going to the State/Koch Theater was an integral part of my life over the last 20 years. But an arts organization is a living, breathing thing that must respond to its social, cultural and economical climate. If it means that New York City Opera can survive financially in a set of smaller houses, offering a mix of large-scale productions and concert works, is that not preferable to seeing the company cancel another season—or worse, close up shop entirely?

The question of a suitable space for an opera house has been raised—and was astutely brought up in the comments for my piece on NYCO earlier this week. Finding a large site may be daunting, but it’s not impossible. Brooklyn Academy of Music has produced many fine operas and has established relationships with the likes of William Christie and Robert Lepage. True, it may isolate the Upper West and East Siders, but it pulls in another audience. The Park Avenue Armory has also cultivated a reputation for daring theatrical works, such as the recent performance of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit as part of the Tune-In Music Festival and a 2008 production of Bernd Alois Zimmerman's opera Die Soldaten (pictured) produced by Lincoln Center.

But not every opera necessitates a large pit and plenty of fly space. Intimate works across all periods—from Peri to Paola Prestini—have a proven track record of thriving in more intimate spaces, and certainly Steel has his own reputation with houses on that scale with his time at the helm of the Miller Theatre at Columbia University (and given a steadfastly positive relationship with his previous employer, perhaps that house is already on Steel’s shortlist). Selling out (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village to an audience that was an even mix of LES and AARP was easily accomplished with VOX 2011’s Second Stage program.

While there is indeed a huge amount of emotional investment in NYCO’s home at Lincoln Center for artists and audiences alike, that the company should embrace the “New York City” portion of its name shouldn’t be so distressing. It didn’t start at Lincoln Center, why should it end there?

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Comments [10]

Michael Meltzer

If there is an identity crisis, it might do well to reflect on some of the landmark premieres that contributed to putting City Opera on the map in the first place, like Four Saints in Three Acts, Tender Land, Wings of the Dove, The Crucible, Lizzie Boden, Candide and Little Women.
Those are permanently in the repertoire, and City Opera can take great pride in its own contribution.
Perhaps a "legacy series" of productions would help remind the opera's management, the public and the community of benefactors, who and what CIty Opera was, is and needs to continue to be.

May. 24 2011 04:59 PM
Ken Thompson from Manhattan

If NYCO survives its current financial crisis (and its floundering leadership), moving to smaller venues will not be a major problem for drawing audiences. But mounting productions that a paying public will want to see... THAT will be the challenge. They have a faithful audience, but they are doing nothing to keep that base of ticket buyers interested and keep them coming back. Stupid productions of core repertory won't do it, and who has the time, money and patience to keep sitting through experimental works?

As for what organization would take up the slack at the State Theater, I would hope that American Ballet Theater would leap at the opportunity. The State Theater is one of the best dance venues in the country-- ABT used to dance there years ago. It is insane for ABT and New York City Ballet to have competing seasons simultaneously. Any serious balletomane attends performances at both companies. Those companies should share the theater instead of fighting over audiences! Besides, the State Theater would certainly be more economical for ABT to rent than the Metropolitan Opera House. Larger touring companies could take up the slack between NYCB and ABT's seasons. Lincoln Center Theater could also use the State Theater for mounting musicals, which are rather a tricky proposition in the Beaumont and Newhouse Theaters.

May. 23 2011 11:47 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Like many a composer and/or author, inspiration may rush through the brain at any hour of the day. So it has been with me for the last hour and a half. Under the leadership of Maestro Laszlo Halasz appointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia back in 1943 the NYCO became the darling of the younger audiences by virtue of Halasz's bringing in Broadway musicals stage directors, set and costume designers, and singers who looked like and sounded well enough to be the appropriate protagonists of the roles. Halasz was a practical perfectionist and made NYCO commercially profitibIe, whereas the Met Opera for good reasons "always had to go a-begging" for financial support, given its star name performers and much larger performing ensembles, etc. There are Broadway theaters that do musicals that could accommodate the needs of an opera company and are equally well-situated to reach the tourists, also Hunter College's Danny Kaye Theater might be a good choice or the old venue, the City Center, where it all began.

May. 23 2011 11:14 AM
Anonymous from Algiers

I am not at all surprised that New York City Opera's subscription audience has fallen off. The company's new management holds up Christopher Alden's heinous production of "Don Giovanni" as the exemplar of City Opera's new direction. That production is the one of the absolute worst I have ever experienced in my 45 years of opera going. (Anthony Tommasini gave Alden's production his enthusiastic blessing in the New York Times apparently to support the company, which was floundering for survival (and to appear "hip", too, I'll warrant). Alden's concept of having the opera performed in the community center of a Greenwich Village church during a group therapy session for insane sex addicts had nothing to do with the opera written by Mozart and Da Ponte. That production was so wrong-headed as to be infuriating and insulting to anyone who knows the opera. I have not attended anything at City Opera since that debacle, and frankly I am very dubious about ever wasting my time and money to see one of their new productions ever again. I am not alone in these feelings.

New York City Opera has a great history and a proud tradition, and that legacy was not created by pandering to the tastes of AIRHEADS AND JUNKIESs who have never seen an opera before.

May. 21 2011 06:40 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

From what I read, the operas that were generating income were the standard operas. The avant-garde and modern ones did not bring in a sell out crowd. Really sad to see this happen. It was a wonderful first step for young opera singers.

May. 21 2011 01:06 PM
Mike from NYC

The full name of the composer of Die Soldaten is Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

May. 21 2011 12:28 PM
David from Flushing

Another question that enters my mind is whether the departure of the NYCO will endanger those that will have to support the Koch Theater with reduced income. This is something that might snowball.

May. 21 2011 11:34 AM
Devon Estes from New York

While I'm sad to see NYCO leave it's long-time home, I'm even sadder to think that they may be on the verge of going under completely. The effort that it's going to take to sell shows at less-known locations, with a reduced staff and a damaged brand identity is going to be Herculean. Maybe it's time they merge with one of the smaller companies in NYC - like DiCapo, Gotham Chamber Opera, or Amato/Amore Opera - and bring their endowment to build what is already an important part of NYC's opera scene.

May. 21 2011 10:50 AM
Frank Feldman

If all they're gonna do is trot out another Boheme and Traviata, et al., ad nauseam, I think they should move down to the theater where Brother Theodore used to do his shows downtown and maybe hire a synthesizer player.

May. 21 2011 10:46 AM
David from Flushing

Remember that it was the bad acoustics of the 7th Regiment Armory that inspired the construction of Carnegie Hall. The early May Music Festivals there hung large panels of fabric as an attempt to tame the echoes.

May. 21 2011 10:37 AM

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