As New York City Opera Seeks New Identity, a Nod to its Past

Email a Friend

This Sunday, New York City Opera will perform at City Center on West 55th street for the first time since 1965. The homecoming happens as the company looks to forge a new identity.

The company is mounting a new production of Rossini's Moses in Egypt, a rarely-performed opera that combines a Biblical epic with a sentimental love story, all wrapped up in big choral numbers and flashy arias.

At a rehearsal on Tuesday at City Center, the mood was upbeat. General manager George Steel chatted with producers in the hall. An assistant dashed through the auditorium, spot-checking balances; technicians tested out a video wall of desert scenery.

City Opera officials are hoping to remind patrons of its golden age with the return to City Center. The company has become a touring outfit since it moved out of its longtime home at Lincoln Center two years ago. It’s playing in smaller and mid-sized venues around the city, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In January, it auctioned off decades’ worth of old sets and costumes in order to trim costs.

“I think the more we hew to our historic mission of bringing fresh and exciting opera to new audiences the more we succeed," said Steel. "I think returning to City Center is exactly right down the fairway for our mission.”

Moses in Egypt has not been seen in New York for over a century, according to Steel, and its setting is well-matched to the hall's Moorish fantasy decor.

Ken Benson is a veteran artist manager in the opera world. He says he’s optimistic about the opera company’s return to City Center – especially given the theater’s renovations in 2011. "It’s going to be a nice nod to the past and look toward the future," he said. "And also City Center has been wonderfully refurbished in recent years so they’re going to be returning to in a way a different kind of City Center."

Benson is more ambivalent on City Opera’s new status as a touring company. He says that with only four shows a year – down from as many as 16 a decade ago – it’s impossible to have much continuity, or nurture young singers.

"When you’re doing 16 operas you can afford a mix of rare pieces and new pieces and standard rep," he said. "When you’re down to four you have to choose much more carefully. Also, I think it’s correct that it doesn’t have the feel of a company in the same way. It really couldn’t because it used to be virtually a year-round operation. You had not only the chorus and orchestra but the regular singers. The supporting singers who would do the supporting roles; that was a real company.”

City Opera’s administration and board have come under scathing criticism from some former staff and musicians, who feel it’s been mismanaged. Steel (right) says the company is now living within its means, and is on track to its second straight balanced budget. "We’ve totally remade the financial model of the company because we want to put as much money as we can on-stage," said Steel.

Conductor Jayce Ogren was named City Opera’s music director last month, filling a role that had been eliminated during the company’s downsizing. It’s a small sign the institution is starting to rebuild. He says he is optimistic about the state of the company.

“We have the right amount of rehearsal time with the orchestra. We’re getting good players in the orchestra – our players and additional players when we need them," said Ogden. "We’re getting world-class singers. Things feel stable and it feels like we’re offering something that no one else offers in the city.”

Photo: Ron Perez