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A Status Report on City Opera

The current issue of the Times Literary Supplement (UK) includes my review of the City Opera season just past, as follows:

Now is a tough time for American orchestras and opera companies. Many are cutting back. Some – including opera companies in Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando, and Orange County, California – have shut down. Others – including the Minnesota Orchestra, which is among the nation’s best – are in abeyance. In New York, New York City Opera is navigating a drastic and controversial downsizing. The company began in 1944 at the City Center, a converted Shriners’ Auditorium on West 55th Street that in 1948 also became home to George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. City Opera’s signatures were young American singers, adventurous repertoire, and low prices. In 1966, seduced by the glamour of Lincoln Center, it moved to the City Ballet’s New York State Theatre on the Lincoln Center campus – a move for which no one subsequently cared to take credit. The State Theatre proved inordinately expensive. Its architectural aspirations toward sleekness and refinement were a fit for Balanchine’s company, which (unlike City Opera) urgently needed a bigger stage than the City Center afforded. The acoustics of the new house were amazingly bungled – neither the singers nor the orchestra registered with impact or warmth. (Christopher Keene, during his tenure as City Opera’s general manager, privately likened the sound of opera at the State Theatre to that of a “car radio.”) The company could sustain neither its finances nor its identity. In 2011, the current general manager and artistic director, George Steel, decided to decamp. The City Opera is now itinerant. The present season, just ended, comprised 16 performances of four operas. The annual budget is now only $13.6 million. The City Opera season once totaled as many as 145 performances of 21 productions.

Two ironies compound this saga. The first is that Steel, just before departing Lincoln Center, played a key role in rescuing the acoustics of the State Theatre. The second is that the company’s eight Spring performances – of Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” and Offenbach’s “La Perichole” – took place at the home the company abandoned nearly half a century ago: the City Center. A final twist: two years ago the City Center underwent a $56.6 million renovation. Its faux Moorish décor has been lovingly restored. The seats (there are 2,250) are new. So are the sprung stage floor, the dressing rooms, and the lighting. The result is beautiful and distinctive but not glamorous or elegant: a fit for a spunky opera company dedicated to novelty.

“Moses in Egypt” was a terrific show. This was the original 1818 “Mosè in Egitto,” sung in the original Italian – not the revised and augmented “Moȉse et Pharaon” Rossini fashioned in 1827. Rather like that of “Aida” six decades later, the plot of intertwines a tragic love story – the Pharoah’s son loves an Israeli maiden – with epic pageantry. Michael Counts, the production designer, eschewed sets in favor of projections created by the video designer Ada Whitney: a bewitching “cinematic environment” that simulated camera pans and kindred special effects. At one point, the singers entered a care and the “cameras” swiveled 180 degrees so we were looking out, not in. When in act one Moses lifted a plague of darkness, Whitney’s projection was not realistic but galactic. Other projected images were wholly abstract. Some poetically showed shifting sands and animated camels. The parting of the Red Sea for the Israelis, and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptians, were beautifully and dramatically rendered. The production as a whole achieved a stylized visual and gestural aesthetic that aligned with hieratic Egypt, and with the score’s “opera seria” formalities. Unlike Robert Lepage’s projections for the Metropolitan Opera’s now notorious “Ring” cycle ten blocks uptown, the imagery never seemed gratuitous. Rossini was at no point upstaged; a Gesamtkunstwerk was memorably achieved. If he did not find the long line of the ensembles, the conductor – Jayce Ogren, the company’s newly appointed music director – led the performance smartly. If not paragons of bel canto, the singers were uniformly young, credible, and robust. There was no coughing whatsoever in the sold-out house. “Moses in Egypt” had apparently never been staged in New York in its original version. This was an important occasion.

Offenbach’s operetta, with its fabulous score, directly followed. Expectations ran high: Christopher Alden, Steel’s de facto house director, was in charge. Alden’s work is invariably witty and ingenious; his 2010 staging of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” for Santa Fe Opera, was an intellectual tour de force. In “La Perichole,” Alden’s version of Offenbach’s synthetic “Peru” was properly tacky: all vinyl and linoleum, with pinatas suspended from on high. He began by turning the piece on its head: the ebullient opening chorus was indolent; the fetching streets singers Perichole (Marie Lenormand) and Piquillo (Philippe Talbot) were nervous and inept. The Viceroy (Kevin Burdette) – the operetta’s third principal, who steals Perichole – was a sex-crazed escapee from a Monty Python skit. (With his long rubbery body, manic exertions, and droll features, Burdette uncannily resembled John Cleese).

The production, conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, was saturated with cunning detail and in-your-face excess. If it failed to levitate, the main problem was the cast’s two French imports. Talbot, a winning artist, revealed a light tenor too small for the house. Lenormand could not sing Perichole’s beautiful music beautifully. The resulting show was over the top but under-sung. It failed to make a winning case for doing “Perichole” – with its acres of dialogue – in French for an American audience. Beginning in the 1950s, the Met gave “La Perichole” in a clever translation by Maurice Valency. Cyril Richard (who also directed) and Theodore Uppman were unforgettable as the Viceroy and Piquillo. Offenbach’s opera comique was made silly, charming, and touching. The City Opera “La Perichole,” while entertaining, was neither charming nor touching.

The prior Fall component of the company’s 2012-2013 season comprised two chamber operas – Thomas Ades’s “Powder Her Face” and Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2,000-seat Opera House. The Ades work should not have been attempted in so large a space. (I could not attend the Britten.) “Powder Her Face,” “Moses in Egypt” and “La Perichole” all disclosed economies imposed on a cash-strapped operation. That there were practically no sets was not problematic. But Steel fielded too small an orchestra and chorus for Offenbach at the City Center. The program books (if they can be called that) were unworthy of the company’s intellectual ambitions. The oversized house for “Powder Her Face” seemed self-evidently calculated to maximize revenues.

Next season City Opera returns to City Center only once – for a new Christopher Alden version of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” At BAM it presents the American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Anna Nicole.” Michael Counts directs the first American performances of Johann Christian Bach’s “Endimione” at the Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. In collaboration with English National Opera, City Opera gives Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, which also co-produces. There are 23 performances in all.

What’s the status of New York City Opera? Plainly, it is not a company wandering in the wilderness, like Moses’s Israelis. Nor, however, has it found the Promised Land – a home conferring identity, such as City Center could potentially re-provide. Its ongoing reinvention retains interest and fascination both with regard to the fluctuating fate of opera in New York City, and in the nation at large.


  1. Small music theater requires entirely new concepts of composition, singing and staging. NYCO wants to create a new form of chamber music theater but is still thinking in operatic terms in everything from the size of halls, to staging, to instrumentation, to the bel canto voice. Incongruities inevitably appear.

    The challenges are daunting. They need to develop not only an entirely new literature, but a host of new vocal and dramaturgical concepts to go with it. Instead, they are taking standard literature, or new pieces still written with mostly 19th century concepts of music theater, and simply trying to update them into small forms. There is still a notable lag between practice and theory.

    But of course the biggest problem is that they have so little money, because our system of funding the arts by private donations doesn’t work very well—not even in mega-rich New York. The USA only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year.

    Without funds, the NYCO is in a poor position to face the immense challenges of creating new concepts of music theater. The result is a rinky-dink season, rinky-dink productions, and the rinky-dink mentality to go with it. It’s not really the company’s fault. It’s a result of their poverty, and says something not only about New York City, but also about our country as a whole.

    • Joel Lee says:

      Again, we go on and on about the acoustics at the NY State Theater. Why were there not criticisms when Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Maralin Niska, Johanna Meier, on and on were all singing there? Did anyone complain about the acoustics after the Roberto Devereux, The Mephistopheles or the countless other productions? No, it was only with the current crop of NY Times critics that this became an obsession. And they are still obsessed with it and FIsher Hall. Anyone who sat on the arms of the second or third ring in The NY State Theaterwould testify that these were some of the best seats in all of NYC.

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