New York City Opera: Where Does It Go From Here?

A Podcast on the Future of City Opera

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New York City Opera's decision to move out of Lincoln Center, cut staff across the board and scale back its performance schedule has prompted a range of reactions. The 68-year-old company plans to stage five operas in undetermined venues around New York City next season and in doing so, regain their financial footing. But plenty of questions remain – over the venues, singers and repertoire that will carry them forward. Underlying all of this is the question: will these drastic decisions help to save City Opera?

In this special podcast WQXR Vice President Graham Parker welcomes three guests (L-R): Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post; Amy Burton, a soprano who has sung in over a dozen productions at City Opera; and Willem Brans, the vice-president of the Arts Consulting Group, which works with major performing arts organizations.

Podcast producer: Brian Wise; Engineer: Jason Isaac


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Comments [5]

Harry Matthews from Brooklyn, NY

I have several problems with the podcast. First and most significantly, the City Opera fought very hard to be part of Lincoln Center, not "in the shadow of the Met" but in contrast or even rivalry to the Met. Indeed, when the Met opened in its new house with Barber's disastrous ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA, the City Opera stole the critics' attention with a then-bold production of Handel's GIULIO CESARE with Beverly Sills and Norman Treagle, confirming Rudolph Bing's darkest fears!

I am deeply saddened by failures of the company's board, especially its ridiculously costly flirtation with Mortier. The message George Steele sent to subscribers, myself included, suggested that the company "MIGHT leave Lincoln Center" (emphasis added) suggesting that the Koch Theatre may yet be salvaged, or that Steele might quit if the company leaves Lincoln Center. There is no easy way to leave; the company has long-term commitments to all the companies at Lincoln Center. That $4.5 million in "overhead" covers a lot more than the water in the fountain. The Met, as the largest LC component, has, ironically, veto power over the City Opera's departure

As for marketing, I must describe my experience at MONODRAMAS. I arrived with my subscription tickets and had to fight my way through a huge crowd of ticket buyers in the lobby. The curtain was held for 20 minutes to accommodate the crowd. To be sure, the pricey seats were vacant, but the the upper rings were packed with a cheering crowd. There IS a large audience for new music, despite the cliches.

Finally, a note about the romance of Brooklyn. The podcast is only the latest in several iterations of the idea that moving the City Opera to some venue in Brooklyn would solve all its problems. I have lived within walking distance of BAM for 40 years and I find this notion dubious. Foreign companies, often with the enormous public subsidy that City Opera lacks, can afford to do a short run on the stage where Caruso last appeared. For others, it's a bridge too far.

I recall a famous column by Clive Barnes of the TIMES. He asked a wealthy dance enthusiast if she was planning to attend a Martha Graham season at BAM. "Clive dear," the patron replied, "it's so much easier to see her in London." The Lincoln Center audience cannot easily be translated into the Brooklyn audience.

Like everyone else, I hope NYCO gets a plan and a program very soon. I miss it already.

Jun. 04 2011 05:48 AM
Erica Miner from CA

I too am saddened by the direction NYCO is taking. When I worked in NYC the company was a mainstay of Lincoln Center. It is unthinkable that it will no longer be as vibrant a part of the city's musical life.

Jun. 01 2011 04:17 PM
Digoweli from New York City

The problem can be illustrated by the fact that WQXR is now the only classical music station in New York City and that there are only two comments on this list.
Where's the interest? How many people have listened to this webcast? How many people care? How many people believe that opera has a purpose in American society? Would there have been opera today in America without the tremendous influx of American artists at the Met as a result of WW II cutting off access to Italian and German singers and their “enemy” status? We are now back to the pre-WWII situation where most of the singers on our opera stages are doing the opera of their first language or from the Asian countries subsidized programs. (Think multi-national corporate) That means that for the 10,000 graduate singers a year from American music schools, there is no work. In Europe, American singers are quietly but bluntly called concert or church singers because of the lack of experience available for American singers on the lyric theater stage.
And then there is the fact that the religion of America is economic. Mortier left because opera wasn’t supported by that religion. "Productivity Lag" [PL] is not only a problem of failed opera companies but every single professional theater and orchestral organization in America. Was this mentioned on this webcast? No. But it is mentioned in non-music magazine articles about Gelb and the Met. That is the only place I’ve seen [PL] between costs and sales mentioned seriously as a problem. It is also not mentioned that this [PL] economic virus has now spread to education, healthcare and infrastructure with the same citizen ignorance of its roots. You would think since we caught the bug first we would at least be expert in the symptoms. You can look up “Productivity Lag” on google or the “Baumol Disease” on Wiki. In both cases the performing arts are barely mentioned except to say we caught it first. The problem is endemic to America capitalism and has pretty well dried up the arts in America since 1900 when there were 1,300 opera houses in Iowa alone. Performing Art’s history and performing arts courses largely ignores Productivity Lag as if it were some politician’s pregnant daughter. Isn’t it time that these discussions become more serious as our singers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to be trained from the age of six only to spend more to be retrained when the labor glut is met head on after graduation and they leave the Arts forever like a bad divorce?

May. 29 2011 03:41 PM

In 2003-04 as a part of the American Masters Arts Festival in NYCity, honoring Ned Rorem's 80 birthday year, we produced an “Interactive Management” conference in a suburb of the Nation’s Capital at a corporate headquarters that examines management issues for world governments, the UN and Corporations. The trigger question was a about the viability of establishing a system of Chamber Opera Theaters across the Nation in every city of at least 100,000. The theaters would have an Arts Center, Quadraplex theaters with a generic top of the line technology in each theater. The purpose of the generics was the same purpose for having a generic design for any other musical instrument. Productions could be developed that would travel cheaply from one repertory ensemble to another at practically no cost beyond royalties.

We examined the problem and created a strategic design on a performing arts structure based in a “resident chamber opera repertory company model with orchestra" and multiple theaters under 1000 seats.

Our panel included professional musicians, academics, management, a representatives from the NEA, System’s Scientist John N. Warfield and economist William Baumol. It was moderated by Interactive Management team Dr. Benjamin Broome and Dr. Roxana Cardenas and was led and assembled by myself and John N. Warfield. The conference was sponsored by Enterprise Integration Inc. President Dr. Tom Gulledge.

The conference found that 1.) IF the initial capitalization was there and 2. IF quality generic theatrical instrument from one venue to another, 3) THEN productions could flow from venue to venue at minimal cost and even create profit. Compared to the “one of kind” current American theaters.

The key was multiple performances, generic technology, live salaried repertory ensemble labor (no stars) and artistic quality.

Two problems pointed out in the conference problematique were: 1. a lack of vision about the ultimate meaning of opera itself as work rather than leisure in American culture, 2. the inability to initially capitalize such a long term venture from the current American private sector with the government essentially unavailable, due to political issues.

Ray Evans Harrell, Artistic Director
The Magic Circle Opera Repertory Ensemble, Inc.
The American Masters Arts Festival, Biennial
The Magic Circle Training

May. 29 2011 02:16 PM
marcia C. Maytner from Caldwell, N.J.

I am saddened by the loss of City Opera. I was a subscriber for many years and really enjoyed seeing the young singers and innovative productions. However, I feel that some of the more traditional productions were sacrificed to some very "bare bones" concepts which were not very successful (or popular). I hope they do find a home somewhere in the city and continue to provide affordable opera experiences.

May. 28 2011 12:35 PM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

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