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Five New York City Opera Productions That Made History

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New York City Opera filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition on Thursday, beginning the formal process of dissolving the company and paying off millions of dollars to a range of creditors.

Meanwhile, stories of the operas and the numerous singers that the company presented throughout its 70 years of existence have been shared throughout the opera world. Though there are too many to list here, we tried to cull a list of the five most noteworthy productions from its well-too-short history. Please share your favorite productions in the comments below.

1. William Grant Still’s Troubled Island

Founded in 1943, the fledgling New York City Opera immediately became one of the most progressive opera houses in the country—if not the world—when it committed to premiering William Grant Still’s Troubled Island. The work, the first full-scale production of an opera by an African-American, was initially slated to open in 1945, but it was delayed nearly four years. On opening night, however, the performers answered 22 curtain calls. Troubled Island was one of more than 30 world premieres the company staged.

 

2. Handel's Giulio Cesare

There was no precedent for staging baroque opera in New York when NYCO mounted its landmark production of Giulio Cesare to open its 1966 season. Characteristics of the Handel’s opera even seemed to perplex Harold Schonberg, who reviewed the production in The New York Times, writing “everything was different from opera normally encountered.” Regardless of Schonberg’s unfamiliarity with this antiquated piece, the night marked one of the company’s greatest triumphs. No small part of the success was due a the young soprano who had a breakthrough evening as Cleopatra, Beverly Sills.

 

3. Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo

Among a history laden with important debuts, few from NYCO’s history were as auspicious as the American premiere Aberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo with 24-year-old tenor Placido Domingo singing the title role. Though the Spanish language opera doesn’t appear frequently, Domingo’s global stardom was launched that night. This seminal moment also marked the first production New York City Opera held in Lincoln Center’s then-named New York State Theater.

 

4. Boito’s Mefistofeles

Like playing centerfield for the New York Yankees or wearing No. 10 for the Brazilian national soccer team, certain roles within select opera houses carry extra gravitas. Such is the case with the title character of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofeles. The formidable American bass-baritone, Norman Treigle, made a distinct impression at the devil in the premiere in 1969. Five years later, another remarkable bass, Samuel Ramey, took over the role. John Cheek and Harry Dworchak inherited the devil horns in the late 1980s, continuing the legacy of this beloved production.

5. Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah

Florida State University presented the World Premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, It’s the first professional production, staged in fall 1956 by New York City Opera that catapulted this work and its young composer into the limelight. Reviewing the City Center production in the Times, Howard Taubman called it musical theater “of the first order.” Two years later, the production, featuring Phyllis Curtis and Norman Treigle, was part of the American presentation at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. NYCO revisited Susannah during its 2009 gala, with Julius Rudel conducting a cast that included Samuel Ramey.