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

Friday, April 12, 2013 - 03:00 PM

A still from the video animations in 'Moses in Egypt' at New York City Opera A still from the video animations in 'Moses in Egypt' at New York City Opera

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


Gisele Regatao and Wayne Shulmister


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Comments [6]

Dear Mr. CC Cove, You are mistaken on many fronts, not least of which was that I had not seen Moses.
I found the Moses production was dreadful, really dreadful. Not a stick of props or sets, just projections. Please tell me who famously said, "projections are NOT scenery"? If I wanted to see a movie, and a bad movie visually at that, I'd go to the cinema. The realistic desert scenes were done far better by David Lean and Cecil B. DeMille (I completly disagree that these cinematic visions of yesteryear are not much superior to the pixel plagued nonsense employed by City Opera), and the inexplicable, grandiose, abstract projected graphic designs (I mean coming close to blinding you and making people in the audience wince) moving about on their own were like torture and totally anti-theatric for the poor singers who looked "beamed in" in front of it all (has no one ever heard of the perils of backlit photography? Especially with human beings in front!) And the pixel problem: sort of like when your television screen has trouble with the pattern on somebody's tie and the little lines or pixels ripple about on their own to major distracting effect.
The costumes were unbelievably stupid and stylized! Like the original Kiss Me Kate on super steroids --or something out of Flash Gordon's Empire of Ming, the Magnificent. They would maybe have been all right if we were dealing with Assyrians, Zoroastrians in Ur, Nineveh or Sumeria worshipping the likes of Marduk --but we were in EGYPT!!! Men in long black skirts? I mean, Mr. Designer and Director, go to a museum and LEARN!
The choreography was bizarre and insipid, even the singers movements were so stilted, stiff and scripted that they were distracting and inane. Sometimes they stood frozen in some ridiculous, awkward and uncomfortable (and unnatural) position. There were two huge turntables on the stage, so singers were moved like chess pieces (pawns!) on conveyor belts which sometimes forced them to walk backwards!
Luckily, the opera has some grand music, and the singers were pretty good when you could possibly concentrate on them in the midst of all the horrible distractions. The end, supposedly a grand visual finale, inexplicably delayed, was totally anti-climatic. Had a terrible headache after it was over. I am going to buy a good recording and was happy to be introduced to the sounds of it, but why must we endure such pathetically misguided productions riding on the backs of good music and singing?

Apr. 18 2013 02:47 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

I'm afraid one "traditional" performance of and "old" opera and its success will not camouflage the careless direction the New York City Opera is going. Cool Observer had some great words to describe his feelings and I'm sorry to say that I join in those words. I am not going to pay money to sit and "see" an opera that I am not going to enjoy....and if I have to be taught how to enjoy it?????......forget it!

Apr. 18 2013 01:12 PM
SteveA from New York City

What could be better than yesterday's performance of Rossini's Moses in Egypt, a top notch opera by a top notch composer with wonderful, melodic arias, duets, a solo harp-based quartet? This one opera has not been performed in New York City for 100 years?!! I'm shocked!

I have a good idea: How about The Met Opera and NYC Opera halting production of all operas in the current repertory for a period of 10 years? For the next 10 years, no Verdi, Wagner or Puccini operas will be produced by these two companies. Likewise, any opera that was produced by them within the last 10 years shall be disqualified.

Under my plan for the next decade, Met Opera and NYC Opera shall perform historically noteworthy and popular operas that are today rarely performed; Rossini's Moses in Egypt clearly fills the bill, as do most or all of the works of Donizetti, Auber, Meyerbeer and many others).

Apr. 15 2013 11:32 AM
CC Cove from New York, NY

I enjoyed yesterday's performance of Moses in Egypt -- as did my uncle and his partner, who have been staunch Metropolitan Opera patrons for decades. In fact, they liked the actual staging more than I did; I think it's too static, and the choreography, what there is of it, struck me as generally more distracting than enhancing, especially the choral hand gestures.

My quibbles aside (there also were some coordination glitches at yesterday's debut & David Fry had to step in as Moses at the last minute) , I think it would be a shame for people to pass on this production because of the disgruntled comments from CoolObserver, who has not seen it and has no intention of doing so. It's a delicious score heard very rarely; the singers did it fine justice; nice balance between the orchestra and the voices; and City Center is a more intimate venue than the Metropolitan Opera House.

Bottom line: we considered it well worth our time and the price of admission. In fact, I've just purchased another ticket to see it again on Saturday with, I'm hoping, David Cushing, as Moses.

Apr. 15 2013 10:20 AM
CoolObserver from Manhattan, New York

I really hate to say this, but the "old identity" of the NYCO under Paul Kellogg seemed just fine and was inspiring and adventuresome consistent with a long lineage of "the people's opera" under Julius Rudel and Bev Sills. I am sadder still to say that after subscribing for many, many years and going to the City Opera since I was 15, more years than I like to remember, I AM NOT going to renew my subscription next year as the aesthetic choices and the repugnant productions under George Steele, who seems to want to be a Peter Gelb imitator, have made me disappointed, disgusted and frankly sick of seeing the NYCO staggering about for a soul without values that have sustained it for so long.

Apr. 13 2013 02:01 PM
CoolObserver from Manhattan, New York

Steele seems fixated on Euro-trash style updates and opera sold to you on the basis of stunts, novelty and newness for newness sake (an opera on Anna Nicole?). Far, far too much of the Alden brother's desperate, sensationalistic and garbage interpretations ruining classics with their peculiar obsessions, dislocated versions and weird, self-serving interpretations. If the concept is thin, just throw in some gratuitous sex! The worst Don Giovanni (entirely set in a Mormon temple?) I have ever seen, the absolute worst Cosi fan tutte, (supposedly on a grimy bench of Central Park?) I could even imagine, along with just poor choices like a very drab Traviata and the academic and desperate A Quite Place, to name a few besides Powder Her Face, perhaps the stupidest romp in a vacant place ever.
Going to the meandering and floundering City Opera the last couple of years has been pitifully and painfully like trailing a beloved relative gone mad and vagrant who is willfully spiraling down into squalor and self-destructive excess. Keeping with this metaphor, they have discarded the sets and costumes of former glories and turned to self promoting charlatans who offer promises of resuscitation through courting controversy, novelty, sexual display and other bankrupt desperate efforts.
On top of it all, and again like Peter Gelb, when one objects, complains, points out the tawdriness, shallowness and bankruptcy of these ideas, the corporate mentality cannot accept the shoddiness of their product or ideas and focuses on bigger and louder promotions. The product is not selling, not because it is inferior, but because they must not be selling it well enough --perhaps bigger banners on opera houses' facade, PR documentaries and advertising! Professional critics are not much help because when they are not quoting press releases, peculiarities and aberrations give them easier material to write about! And the ultimate defense to criticism is to undercut the accuser: one must old and should "get with it, times have changed," you don't know what will attract a younger audience and that such measures are "necessary to save the art form"-- or in my case, to kill it for me, to end my interest and support. I would never pay for an opera seat to "close my eyes." If that is the choice I am given I'll stay home and listen to recordings or the radio! Good bye, City Opera, I used to love you!

Apr. 13 2013 01:59 PM

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