After 70 Years, New York City Opera Prepares its Final Bow

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In Handel’s Julius Caesar, Cleopatra sings the lament, “I will weep for my fate.” With the fate of New York City Opera now in the hands of a bankruptcy court, recordings like a City Opera version with soprano Benita Valente may be all that opera fans can hold onto as a memory of the company.

A lawyer for City Opera said on Monday the company will file for bankruptcy protection on Wednesday and either liquidate in court or be sold to another institution, after failing to raise $7 million.

The People's Opera, as it's famously known, launched the careers of many stars – not only of Valente but also Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo. Last week, Domingo called the prospect of a City Opera downfall "a great loss."

"It's impossible to think that New Yorkers won't support an opera house that has given so many great artists and has done so much for American operas," Domingo told WQXR. Domingo recalled how he made his New York debut at City Opera in 1966, when then-music director Julius Rudel hired him to star in Don Rodrigo, a new opera by Alberto Ginastera.

"[Rudel] said, 'I want you to make your debut with Butterfly and Carmen – but we also want you to sing Don Rodrigo,'" Domingo continued. "I said, ‘I’ll sing anything.’ I didn’t know how difficult it was. But it was a great possibility for me so I made my debut on the 22nd of February, 1966."

Domingo moved on to larger houses. Other singers built their careers at City Opera. Soprano Amy Burton debuted at the company in 1994 and sang there many times over the following decade.

"They were offering me such substantial, meaty performing opportunities," she said on Monday. "It was a tremendous validation to work there especially because I’m from here. I went to those performances as a little girl and as a student. To sing there was definitely the fulfillment of a fantasy and a dream."

City Opera had its heyday in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when singers like Renee Fleming, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey and Catherine Malfitano got their starts there. Beverly Sills was its leading soprano during much of this era, before she became its director from 1979 to 1989.

But City Opera’s history goes back even further, to the fall of 1943 when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia founded it as a way to bring opera to the masses. Calling it "the people's opera," LaGuardia launched it at New York City Center, and in a WNYC broadcast proclaimed its first season a success, reaching 90,000 listeners.

The Mayor said it was "way above all expectations and way above standards of larger opera houses, if I may say so. Young, enthusiastic artists of fresh voices gave us splendid performances of Tosca, Martha, Carmen." He added, "We are preparing another opera season real soon."

The company was innovative in many respects, keeping ticket prices at a bargain-basement $.75 and hiring African-American singers, nearly a decade before the Metropolitan Opera did. It also became known for its ventures into modern and Baroque opera.

LaGuardia named the little-known Hungarian conductor Laszlo Halasz as the company’s first music director. In a late 1960s WNYC interview Halasz remembered the time he was called into the mayor's office: "He was sitting in a Turkish pasha position and would say, 'what will you present next season at the opera?'" The opera-loving mayor would give Halasz an earful about the kinds of operas he'd prefer to hear."

In the past decade, City Opera experienced a series of financial hardships. It has gone from presenting as many as 130 performances in a season to 16 performances in each of the past two seasons. It has laid off much of its staff, cut salaries and, most controversially, left its longtime home at Lincoln Center. On Saturday, the curtain fell on the opera Anna Nicole, about the Playboy bunny and tabloid star.

The day before, artistic director and general manager George Steel said that, like the star of Anna Nicole, the company would need a sugar daddy to avoid bankruptcy.

"It’s devastating for everybody," Steel said. "It’s unthinkable that a world capital for opera would lose an opera company like New York City Opera. But there’s no working capital, very little endowment, no credit. It’s no surprise to anybody inside this company that it’s finally come to a head.”

Some are not surprised by the fact that few former company stars stepped up to rally support. Ken Benson is a veteran artist manager who has guided the careers of many singers who appeared at City Opera.

"In recent years, it wasn’t the City Opera that people recognized or felt connected with sentimentally or emotionally," he said. "That did hurt it. It’s a tricky thing. There is huge affection and support for City Opera out there but I don’t think it was tapped the right way.”

Meanwhile, there will be a significant trickle-down effect in the opera business.

"This fall I was suddenly getting calls from a lot of my friends who were coaches and pianists saying, 'if you hear of any work please keep me in mind,'" Benson added. "I realized these are people who at this time of year would have been coaching, preparing City Opera singers for roles.”

All these opera singers in New York basically have one major company to turn to – the Metropolitan Opera. And ironically, the Met is taking on Bellini’s Norma this week – an opera that Beverly Sills, the former City Opera director, sang late in her career.

Listen to the full piece above.

Photo: In 2007, City Opera gave the New York premiere of Margaret Garner, the 2005 opera with score by Richard Danielpour and libretto by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. The staging was a new production for the company by director Tazewell Thompson.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection; Domingo photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera