When the bailiffs come knocking today, they will be greeted with a sigh of inevitability. New York’s City Opera, once a nurturing stage for the likes of Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Carol Vaness, Catherine Malfitano and many more, has long since lost its purpose.
Founded in wartime by Mayor La Guardia as a ‘people’s opera’, the company played on West 55th Street from 1943 to 1966 and at the Lincoln Center until the year before last. Then it went into exile, but the game was already up.
The idea in 2008 of hiring Gerard Mortier as general manager to challenge the Met’s hegemony was inspired, but ludicrously underfunded. Mortier looked at the balance sheet and fled. His replacement, George Steel, was underpowered on paper and unimpressive on performance. City Opera kept on losing cash and customers. A final bid to raise cash on kickstarter was greeted with stupefaction and mirth. The end has, barring miracles, now arrived.
Some might conclude that New York is not big enough or rich enough to sustain two opera companies. Perhaps, perhaps not. More to the point is the recognition that a people’s opera cannot survive when it depends on a clutch of wealthy donors. The model for City Opera belonged to another era. Its death, with a show about a sluttish gold-digger, is somehow apt.
New York is, however, more diverse in opera performances than its parish newspaper reports. There is a thriving opera scene in the city, embracing all forms from baroque to post-modern that never get seen at the Met. Sooner or later it ought to yield a coalition of small producers who create a city opera that is fit for the 21st century.