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?