The demise of New York’s beloved City Opera seemed sudden and bizarre—and so painful to opera lovers in the City, that many lost sight of what a long process it was. The board’s bad decisions went back around a decade. The company’s deficits climbed, and its endowment was repeatedly raided. There was time to change things, and the warning signals were unmistakable. The late Gérard Mortier’s innovative spirit and visibility may have been an asset, but he was hardly famed for his thrift. In the end they couldn’t afford even to get him started. When the NYCO couldn’t meet the budget they had agreed to offer him, he backed out. His replacement, George Steel, had similar artistic inclinations. His administrative experience had been with much smaller organizations. He reduced the season, constructing a thematically coherent program stressing contemporary and baroque opera and innovative productions of the standards. Many of these were great successes with critics and the public. I only saw the successes, as it happened, so I can’t offer a balanced opinion. Artistically, the NYCO’s last year was a strong one, considering Powder Her Face, The Turn of the Screw, and Anna Nicole. These productions were all challenging in their way, intellectually strong, and entertaining, in the City Opera’s best tradition.
This left New York with only one major opera company. It’s not the only important arts capital with that situation, but the city has enjoyed its second company since 1944. The City Opera, as “the people’s opera” and its association with Fiorello Laguardia inspired an affection alien to the Metropolitan, not to mention the stellar figures who created its golden age in the 1960s and 1970s, Norman Treigle, the young Plácido Domingo, Beverly Sills, and Frederica von Stade among them, who not only gave the company their artistic talents, but their personalities as well, in the form of fundraising efforts and leadership. Beverly Sills will always be remembered in the most admiring and affectionate way. Its impact on American opera was huge, from the rediscovery of Bel Canto to the commissioning and performance of new operas, especially by American composers. My own great moment at the NYCO was their production of Hindemith’s powerful Mathis der Maler—an initiative of Christopher Keene’s—which had a major influence on my views of 20th century opera. Then there was Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, and that chilling, deeply moving Turn of the Screw…It is painful to realize that that’s all over.
The story is well-known. Just before the opening of the 2013-14 season with Anna Nicole, George Steel announced that the company needed 7 million dollars in three weeks not to cancel the rest of the season and a 22-day, one-million-dollar Kickstarter campaign. Needless to say, both efforts failed. (What surprised me, was that I hadn’t received the usual fundraising emails from the NYCO in quite a few months. I concluded that Steel was only interested in donors at a very exalted level.) The costumes and sets have been sold at auction. There remain only the name and a thrift shop.
These are assets that can be sold, and two bidders have been showing a keen interest in acquiring them. Gene Kaufman, a New York architect, has bid 1.5 million, and Roy Niederhoffer, a hedge fund manager has bid 1.25 million. Although his offer is less, his former presence on the NYCO board which oversaw its decline and death, has gained him an advantage with his fellow former board members. (The outcome lies with the judge in bankruptcy court.) His choice as General Manager is Michael Capasso, former head of the DiCapo Opera, which suffered a similar demise in 2013, after thirty-three years of putting on small-scale productions in the remodeled basement of St. Jean-Baptiste Church on the Upper East Side. Their organization is called New York City Opera Renaissance. They recently organized a gala fundraising concert which doubled as a tribute to Julius Rudel, who presided over the City Opera’s glory days as Principal Conductor and General Director between 1957 and 1979. He was succeeded by three other significant figures, who all, through their work at the NYCO and elsewhere, left historical marks on American opera production in the late 20th century: Beverly Sills (1979-88), Christopher Keene (1989-95), and Paul Kellogg (1996-2007).
This controversial event was a public claim of legitimacy, a display of the support of Rudel’s family, who participated in the event, stressing that the Maestro wanted no memorials, unless they served music and musicians. Rudel himself, who passed on in June 2014 at the age of 93, met with Niederhoffer and Capasso at one point. A reception with sparkling wine preceded the concert. The evening concluded with a dinner. At the reception I noticed an older gentlemen, bearded, and by no means dressed for such a glitzy event, sitting on a bench reading a play in ancient Greek. Was it Sophocles or Aristophanes? I couldn’t see.
The concert was a potpourri of arias and ensembles typical of the New York City Opera over the years and under Julius Rudel’s leadership in particular. Of the conductors, Imre Palló, Gary Thor Wedlow, and Steven Osgood are City Opera veterans. The NYCO orchestra showed some energy and engagement in the opening “Fledermaus” Overture, but not a great deal of assurance and cohesion. They improved with each selection, however, and played quite a fine Carmen Overture for Plácido Domingo, when he took up the baton, and the others. Domingo was originally billed to conduct the “Fledermaus” Overture, and there were several other changes as well. David Daniels, James Morris, and Sting, who were originally billed, cancelled out. The young countertenor John Holiday sang “Va tacito e nascosto” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Daniels’ place. The quality of Holiday’s voice and the control and taste of his phrasing were impressive, but it was clear that he needs to work on his acting and general posture on stage. Joélle Harvey sang “S’altro che lacrime” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito with a most appealing voice and refined musicianship. After the Quintet from Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, Plácido Domingo sang “Pietà, rispetto, onore” from Verdi’s Macbeth, with the opulent baritone he has adopted in recent years. Control, consistency, and weight were all as they have been for many years now. Ailiyn Pérez showed a strong presence and fine silvery tones in “Tu che di gel sei cinta” from Puccini’s Turandot. There were numbers from a zarzuela and Tosca, as well as several speeches by Sherrill Milnes, Roy Niederhoffer, Michael Capasso, and Julius Rudel’s son, followed by a video tribute to him.
The second half of the program was a medley of American opera and musical theater associated more or less directly with the City Opera. Chuck Cooper, replacing Sting, sang the title song from Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, as if he were perhaps flying in a helicopter over Columbus Circle while Cirien Mazzagatti directed the orchestra, entirely soundly, in the Rose Theater. Mark Delavan offered one of the high points of the evening in a powerful, rich-toned rendition of “Hear me, O Lord,” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which, it should be remembered, was premiered not by Julius Rudel, but by his predecessor, Erich Leinsdorf. Then Kristin Sampson sang the premiere performance of Tobias Picker’s “The Waking,” a concert aria based on a Theodore Roethke poem, intended to express the awakening of the City Opera after its period of sleep.
Mark Delavan then returned to the stage to sing “Epiphany” from Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. I haven’t yet divined the purpose of that entertainment or why such a thing should exist, but Delavan’s intense performance was magnificent. If nothing else, “Epiphany” is a fabulous excuse to chew the scenery. Frederica von Stade followed with two more outstanding performances, “Red” from Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, an operatic monologue Gordon wrote expressly for her, and “Don’t Say a Word” from Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Her voice was perfectly supported throughout, and its timbre rich and luxuriant, as she sang the arias. In this way four of our leading contemporary opera composers were represented, and I believe all of them were present in one of the boxes. The last two numbers were also rather grave, so the organizers chose to follow it with Weill’s frothy “Ice Cream Sextet” from Street Scene. We had already heard some superb singing, but Christina Goerke’s “O don fatale,” from Verdi’s Don Carlo capped off the evening with a performance that was dramatically intense and impeccably sung. The evening closed with Leonard Bernstein’s “Make our garden grow,” from his Candide.
Yes, the message was clear enough. The singers who participated in this ensemble scenes deserve high praise for their enthusiasm and well-honed art: Heather Johnson, Emily Misch, Oleksana Hrabova, Adam Bonanni, William Ferguson, Sidney Outlaw, David Leigh, and Michael Corvino. I’m not especially drawn to gala conglomerations of operatic snippets, but it turned out to be a largely enjoyable evening.
A lot has been written about New York City Opera Renaissance and this event. The fantastic world of melodramma, even in a moment of decline, has the energy to spin off eddies of rivalry and intrigue. (You can find most of it through Google.) I might recommend Fred Plotkin’s thoughtful discussion on WQXR’s Operavore, “Should New York City Opera Be Revived?” Most of us have asked that question. NYCO Renaissance’s gala, far from distracting me from that question, made it all the more present in my mind. The program was all about three aspects of the old City Opera’s work, the exposure of young American singers to New York audiences and critics, the greats who reached maturity during the company’s heyday, and American Opera, which was promoted by Erich Leinsdorf before Rudel’s time. One of the inaccurate statements made in the talks was that Rudel was “ahead of his time” in his support of American opera. That’s not true at all, since Giulio Gatti-Casazza commissioned one new American opera each year at the Met during his tenure (1908-1935) and considered the support of American opera to be one of his most important duties there. The focus of the gala was very much on the past, and I fear that, if a reborn City Opera were to cling to its old agenda, it would bode ill both for opera in New York and for the success of the company. Opera is not only still vital in this country and around the world, it is thriving, wherever it is well served.1 The fact is, opera is changing. For several years now, a growing number of small companies have flourished in the city, bringing brilliantly conceived, carefully rehearsed productions with superb young American singers, of a different kind of opera, some of it more challenging than the sort of American opera that was put in the foreground at the gala. The website of the New York Opera Alliance lists thirty-eight companies. Especially characteristic and important experiences for me were The Center for Contemporary Opera’s production of Hans-Werner Henze’s El Cimarrón with the great singing actor Eric McKeever, brilliantly directed by Eugenia Arsenis, and The Little Opera Theatre of New York’s Carlisle Floyd double bill of Slow Dusk and Markheim.
New forces in the opera world range from the experimental to historically informed performances of the classics. Will Crutchfield has developed this to a sophisticated level with the Orchesttra of St. Luke’s playing modern instruments at Caramoor, while Juilliard regularly offers staged performances of opera with their superb period instrument band, Juilliard 415, like the recent production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulis, to sold out houses. Whatever company assumes the tasks of the New York City Opera should take all of this into account. George Steel, who bears much of the blame for the City Opera’s failure, was keenly aware of the both the best and the most fashionable trends in opera today—a healthy and energizing combination if managed judiciously.
For me the future of opera in New York is still all in the air, and the Met is as much a part of the uncertainty as the still-to-be-reborn City Opera. New York should have a second opera company—and there should be an “other” opera, capable of mounting substantial productions—but it cannot embody everything Fiorello Laguardia had in mind in 1944 with his “people’s opera,” nor everything Julius Rudel so impressively acheived. And let’s not forget the later contributions of Beverly Sills, Christopher Keene, and Paul Kellogg. The New York City Opera accomplished as much as the Met or San Francisco to the history of opera in America, but the view of it reflected in this recent gala is narrow, focused on an era which ended with the 1970s. It would be a fine thing if Mr. Niederhoffer’s group or some other could build or rebuild an innovative company could not just survive but thrive, presenting opera at lower prices, but sufficiently well-funded to mount grand opera in a convincing way, but there is a lot to be said for a fresh start, and a chance for the many little opera companies which have been springing up so abundantly in the city.
- New York is not one of those places, at least when it comes to the major houses. The Met is facing a crisis which is similar to but different from the City Opera’s. My impression is that few if any of George Steel’s productions suffered from poor attendance—at least all the performances I attended were sold out—and the Met’s audiences are dwindling dramatically. Meanwhile the Met’s deficit grows, as do its invasions of its endowment, just like the City Opera, and its credit declines. Several American companies are doing very well in terms of attendance, and some even financially, perhaps. The problem remains that opera is an expensive art form, and it traditionally loses money in the end. There is almost always a deficit, and patrons have to make it up, whether it is the Holy Roman Emperor or a hedge fund manager from Long Island. ↩