Five New York City Opera Productions That Made History

Thursday, October 03, 2013

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.


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Comments [22]

Don Igelsrud from Calgary, Alberta

I saw a wonderful and very funny production of Love of Three Oranges with Robert Rounseville in 1966. I've been looking for a production of that opera like the NYO one, but nothing compares.

Apr. 28 2014 01:30 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

NORMAN TREIGLE, BEVERLY SILLS and the QUEENS operas that SILLS so skillfully performed and the BERNSTEIN Trouble in Tahiti with Julian Patrick and Prokofieff's Love for Three Oranges are some of my most treasured memories of the NYCO. NEW YORK and opera generally NEED an entry opera company with the financial and organizational capabilities to give experience and recognition to the young opera singer aspirants. The New York City Opera's founding general manager and principle conductor Laszlo Halasz over a period of thirty years prepared me for my opera roles, Wagner and other roles, and for my third and fourth ALL-WAGNER solo concerts in 1995 and 1998 at the main hall of Carnegie Hall. The proper leadership at the helm and in top positions of the opera company is central to its eventual success. GOOD LUCK !!!

Jan. 18 2014 09:51 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

I would also add the highly innovative and very beautiful production of Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt" by, I believe, Frank Corsaro

Oct. 07 2013 11:39 PM
Jack Frymire from Bellingham WA

Can't quarrel with those choices, but NYCO was a great French house, most notably the Rudel/Sills?Capobianco
Manon, with Sills's ravishing fil di voce in the farewell to the table, which enthralled the house. Problem was, as
her super-stardom came to dominate repertoire, Opera-in-English and premieres dwindled. Ultimately it became
an unequal contest between Sills/Rudel and the Metropolitan in core repertoire. Guess who won.

Oct. 07 2013 04:25 PM
floria from nyc

Maybe with a new board and "artistic" director the NYCO might be able to continue its journey of affordable great opera, featuring young American singers and directors(not the imports for the kinky productions)brought to the American people. We have a lot of talent in this country but we need talented administrations recognizing that talent.

Oct. 07 2013 11:36 AM
Cathy Collins from Minot, ND

What about the star turn for Beverly Sills in Ballad of Baby Doe?

Oct. 06 2013 12:05 AM
The Divo from Texas

The above mentioned Don Rodrigo also featured the spectacular soprano Jeannine Crader, whose Tosca with Domingo is on CD!!

Oct. 05 2013 04:41 PM
Mark Greenfest

ve hope that the NYCO co. may be reorganized and not liquidated under Chapter 11. If George Steel and the NYCO board would get a good attorney as an advisor and a experienced bankrptcy attorney to reorganize the company, they might be able to pull it off, yet. American Opera Projects can lend them a board member, Cassandra Joseph, who is a very experienced merger and acquisition counsel and total opera buff for new, baroque, repetoire and other works, well used to incubating projects on varied budgets. Patti Monson, the former director of the Manhattan School of Music Tactus ensemble, one of the premiere flute performers in the US, has a very close relationship with the bankruptcy attorney who handled the Enron case. There is some chance of making lemonade out of sour lemons. It's worth a try....

Oct. 05 2013 02:09 PM
Fran Guida from Queens, NY

NYCO was my introduction to live opera when, as a college student, I was taken to a production of "Carmen". NYCO was my opera venue of choice, because of its affordability, intimacy, and innovative content. I so enjoyed the Handel operas and the classic ones, to which NYCO always brought a fresh viewpoint. I love the Met, but NYCO will always hold a special place in my heart.

Oct. 05 2013 01:04 PM
Pamina from Los Angeles, CA

I have to cite the Corsaro "Butterfly" too. I never saw it live, but I've repeatedly watched the telecast of it at the Paley Center (former Museum of TV and Radio). Such a beautiful, traditional yet innovative and influential production! You rarely see a "Butterfly" today that doesn't borrow an element or two from it: even the popular film versions of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Frederic Mitterand are loaded with its influence. How I wish that old telecast (featuring the late Jerry Hadley's Pinkerton) would be released on DVD!

Oct. 05 2013 10:28 AM
Frank Schramm from Montclair, NJ

City Opera, always took great risks with new productions, with less heard opera's.
My favorite is Busoni's "Doctor Faust".
It was so well done, I went to see it twice.
City Opera should not be lost. There is a whole new generation
who sadly will never get to experience what it
So greatly offered generations in the past,

Oct. 05 2013 08:05 AM

Way back ('50s or '60s)I saw a production there of Turandot. The final scene is always spectacular, but in this one as the stage lights came up at the opening of the scene, they got extremely bright...and then continued to get much brighter. I'll never forget the awe it created, at least in me.

Oct. 05 2013 12:53 AM
Daniel James Shigo from Manhattan

Mose und Aron was by far the most electrifying production that I had a honor of appearing in at NYCO during my tenure there from 1988-2010 (I was also in the production at the Met). The absolute roar of the audience when the curtain came up said it all. It was simply overwhelming. Mefistofele was a close second. These two great opera typify what NYCO did very well: great acting, singing, and innovation productions. We wore yellow makeup for Moses than didn't come off for a week! Was it worth it? Yes!

Oct. 04 2013 09:47 PM

"Moses und Aron", the Cosaro "Butterfly" and the Ravel "Enfant" designed by Maurice Sendak.

Oct. 04 2013 07:10 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria.

Oct. 04 2013 06:32 PM
EA from LI

"The Elixir of Love" in 2011--I went with friends who had never seen an opera before and they were so wowed! It was a delightful production (set in the American West)--I'll never forget it.

Oct. 04 2013 03:32 PM

The Donizetti Queens Trilogy should be on the top of the list, that's what put Beverly Sills on the cover of Time. Reality is, if an opera company doesn't offer at least 50% of its repertory with operas by composers ending with the letter i (Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini) it's doomed to fail. The avalanche of questionable music that infested NYCO in the 1990s and early 2000s is what made the company irrelevant with the public. I'm all for modern productions and engaging directors but music FIRST. It has to be first rate.

Oct. 04 2013 11:44 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Whether my two favorite New York City Opera premieres made history is debatable, but I'd feel bereft if neither were ever staged. They are Copland's "The Tender Land" and Ward's "The Crucible". The former was rejected for presentation by the NBC Opera Theater --- which is incomprehensible to me --- and the latter was a New York City Opera commission. I feel both are just as enjoyable and provocative as "Troubled Island" and "Don Rodrigo", but clearly here we have our own value judgements. No argument from me as regards the importance of "Giulio Cesare" and "Mefistofele" and the Donizetti Tudor Trilogy that Michael already mentioned.

Oct. 04 2013 10:56 AM
Michael from Los Angeles CA

As a culture starved teenager in Los Angeles during the 70's, NYCO was our opera company on loan. The company introduced me to the standard repertory, but also Donizetti's Tudor Trilogy staged for Beverly Sills which were hardly known in the U.S. at the time. I wish I had a time machine to relive those glorious years!!!!

Oct. 04 2013 01:13 AM
Shepsl Topaz from Queens, NY

As in the corporate world, medium and small companies that make the arts truly exciting by constantly bringing fresh ideas to fruition struggle against the concentration of funds -- whether private or public -- in the largest, "safe" institutions. For want of a fraction of the budget of the massive Met and true leadership, a jewel is allowed to die, one where future stars -- performers and composers alike -- had opportunities the tried-and-true behemoths wouldn't think of offering.

Oct. 04 2013 12:35 AM
David from Flushing

The production of Handel operas in recent years was my chief attraction to the NYCO. With the waning of the Baroque Boom, these performances were much appreciated. I suspect the Met would never have undertaken Giulio Cesare without the influence of the company across the plaza.

Oct. 03 2013 08:38 PM

Where are the Koch brothers when we need them?

Oct. 03 2013 07:29 PM

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