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Slipped Disc editorial: City Opera is (almost) dead, long live city opera

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.

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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.


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  1. Sanford Rothenberg says:

    The demise of NYCO was brought about by the “perfect storm” of fiscal mismanagement,squandered endowment funds,and “soft” pledges which were never paid to the company.There have,and continue to be scrappy smaller companies (which European readers would label as “fringe”).Bel Canto Opera gave outstanding productions of neglected works,and sent a number of singers to Lincoln Center,and beyond.The recently reorganized Amato Opera Company performed popular works on a smaller scale,and there continue to be groups such as New York Grand Opera, DiCapo Opera, and Bronx Opera which have served as supplements and alternatives to the larger ensembles.Whether a coalition of such groups will arise is debatable,but it is to be hoped that a well-funded and organized larger company,whether a resuscitated NYCO,or something new will emerge.

  2. There will be not be a coalition of the various opera companies that exist now in the NYC area. Their missions, intentions and quality vary too much to make joining together possible. Bel Canto and Amato, as two examples, are pretty much opposites as far as repertoire is concerned and have very different audiences and support bases. However, one can hope that the demise of NYCO will prompt people who went there to look into these groups and allow them to thrive, as many of them (such as the two listed above) do wonderful work that deserves support and provides the area with the 21st century version of a “People’s Opera” alternative to the Met.

  3. Samuel McCoy says:

    Mr. Lebrecht is correct in his assertion of the thriving operatic scene in New York and a coalition of sorts has already been formed in the guise of New York Opera Alliance.

    As you can see from their website, NYOA is a coalition of the many diverse and varied opera companies bringing quality work to New York opera audiences. Losing New York City Opera is a tremendous loss to our community. The New York opera scene, however, will continue to grow and thrive.

  4. Public funding for “people’s opera” and other cultural institutions is necessary, but in the current environment impossible. Meanwhile the traders and hedge funds churn billions of shares of stock and other instruments every month without even a ‘de minimis’ tax on the sales or purchases, as wealth in the trillions is sucked up by the 1% in our very own ‘gilded age’. Furthermore, this problem and the power to do anything about it will be exacerbated by an immeasurable order of magnitude if changes in the law and economic relationships, such as are embodied in the TPP treaty and US-EU Trade Agreement, are ratified. Isn’t it time to make the super wealthy pay their fair share, or at least what they paid when Eisenhower was President? Governments don’t respond without pressure whether from the special interests or the people, so if one wants the system to change, one must be active and vocal.

  5. New York has the second largest Metro GDP of in the world — behind only Tokyo. It could easily afford two houses just as less rich metro areas like London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and Munich.

    The metro population of New York is 23 million which is three times the entire population of Austria. And yet Austria has two houses in Vienna, and one each in Linz, Salzburg, Klagenfurt, and Graz. I suspect there are several others. Germany has 83 full time, year-round houses. We see why the USA only has 3 houses in the top 100 cities for opera performances per year. And why Chicago and San Francisco rank relatively low on that list.

    Funding the arts by donations from the wealthy doesn’t work — and the constant begging is ridiculous. Severe problems are created when the wealthy control a nation’s arts and cultural identity. Norman’s harsh allusion to the metaphor of a slutty gold digger is apt.

  6. The Santa Fe Opera spends 20 million dollars on a six week season. It’s true that opera needs to trim down and become more innovative if it is to remain a living genre. Perhaps the NYCO will reincarnate in some such form. But we should remember that many, if not most, European houses also run small studio theaters where smaller forms are explored. I do not know of any US house with an active studio theater in addition to a main stage. We only have about 6 real houses and its all they can do to keep their main stages running. We see that the countries that spend the most on big opera, also spend the most on exploring smaller forms as well.

    • Absolutely, William Osborne, and once again thanks for your comments, always on-target and uncompromising in their high standards. As you point out, with the arts there is no way, in effect, to be halfway pregnant. Either one is committed or one isn’t. As usual, the statistics tell the story: the countries that spend the most on big opera also spend the most on exploring smaller forms.

  7. City Opera’s raison d’etre was to provide full-scale but inexpensive productions that could be priced at a significantly lower rate than the Met. The move to Lincoln Center forced the company to spend more at every level, yet it remained committed to selling lower-priced tickets. But the company never came up with a sound financial plan to enable it to fulfill its mission. Maybe that wasn’t possible under any circumstances, but the death of the company has been unnecessarily dragged out and brutal.

    There was a difference, though, between NYCO and the other smaller, admirable companies in NYC. NYCO performed in an immense auditorium, mounted full-scale productions, employed a full-scale symphony orchestra, and presented rising or big-name singers. None of the remaining small companies can offer all that.

  8. “A people’s opera cannot survive when it depends on a clutch of wealthy donors.”

    Indeed. A company like NYCO depends on widespread support and enthusiasm from the community it was designed to serve. The series of events and decisions surrounding the Mortier/State Theatre renovation debacle coincided with a severe economic slump that hit the arts hard everywhere, but for me that was not what spelled this company’s demise. It was what they did to alienate their populist base.

    Slashing the season, leaving Lincoln Center, dissolving the full-time orchestra, chorus and dance corps transformed this company into something barely recognizable to its subscribers. They then raised subscription prices such that long-time subscribers found that they were paying more for much shorter seasons, quite a slap in the face for their supporters.

    The fan base might have rallied more fiercely for the sake of preserving a beloved institution, but it was much more difficult to generate enthusiasm for a company slimmed down to a mere shadow of what it had been, and it was tone-deaf to alienate their subscribers as they did. We were admonished to accept these changes and told that it was not realistic to sustain the company in its former state, but that perhaps was a self-fulfilling prophecy – there are people who might have been willing to open their wallets to preserve NYCO as it was who were simply not interested in funding what it might become.

    To pull out of this downward spiral, the People’s Opera needed the People to mobilize. You don’t inspire us to mobilize by telling us at this late hour that we need to cough up $7 million in a little over 3 weeks so that the same team that has been squandering our good will for the past several years can make another attempt to steer away from another yawning ditch. Honestly, who launches a $1 million Kickstarter campaign with less than a month to do it?

    I still believe that the People want their opera company and would rally to support it were there any reason to believe in the competence of its stewards and were there some plan to restore the production values to which we grew accustomed.

    • Bravo!

      While some may want to use NYCO to further their arguments about public funding, the fact is that NYCO will die because it was forced it onto life support by those who claimed to want to save it.

      I don’t know what those running NYCO now expected would happen after years of unbelievable and inexplicable decisions, but clearly they hoped the “people’ would save their patient. Anyone watching this debacle could have told them the “people” don’t want the patient they’ve created. But, they haven’t heard anything the “people” have said for years, so it is not surprising they didn’t this time, either.

      Incompetence and arrogance killed the NYCO- nothing but that.

    • Exactly right–talking about demonstrated lack of support for NYCO without talking about the lack of confidence in the management obfuscates the issue. Didn’t some article from the past few days report that Steel’s salary one year was 1/3 of all ticket revenue? Fair or not, it’s hard to see that kind of figure and not think about fiscal mismanagement. Putting on great productions itself doesn’t mean a company should survive–making a lot of high-quality art with limited means would inspire a lot more confidence than the reverse.

  9. You may explain it various ways; the mission was never clear, the concept is no longer viable, there was mismanagement, the times have changed, there was the recession, and so on. But the simple fact remains that one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the world cannot support two opera companies. It is shameful. 7 million dollars would not be the answer, but the amount needed for its basic survival, and it is literally pocket change for Bloomberg, and other American billionaires. That that amount can’t be raised shows the state of the arts in general , and the fact that the wealthy giving to arts institutions simply doesn’t carry the prestige it once did. What used to be NYCO’s giant neighbor across the plaza to a degree still has that appeal.

    Even acknowledging the problems with the NYS theater I think the cessation of a regular season in the same auditorium was the real death knell-it unraveled from there. That was the real end-it was no longer an opera company. Why they didn’t just curtail the season, make cut backs and soldier on is beyond me. But as has been pointed out mismanagement, miscalculations, the wrong personalities all played a role-and the current director is hopeless, at least in dealing with this reality. Why not have tried going back to the old City Center for a shorter season? It worked well for years there.

    No one brings up the last, apparently, viable administration under P. Kellogg. Was his failure to finally find /build another acoustically suitable opera house the foreshadow of how it would end? Were there problems beneath the surface in those years that also could have been uncovered that showed where it would end?

    These fringe companies are not the answer in a tough city like NY. NYC needs, and could afford a smaller alternative opera company-in a let’s say an 1800 seat house that could present Baroque opera (absurd in the vastness of the Met), modern opera, experimental pieces, less know works.

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