New York City Opera’s Woes

Yesterday, zombie grammar rules and today zombie opera companies. Some might argue that New York City Opera (a place dear to many, including to me, as their first entrée into the art form–Turandot, 1976) is already the walking dead, unsteadily traversing different venues, with neither a set home nor a sufficient budget. Dead, and nearly dead companies are not unknown in recent years: not a happy roll call: Opera Boston was borked while I was still up there, Cleveland Opera, Opera Pacific…these are just the ones I can mention from memory. I’m sure there are others.

City Opera is different, not only because it was (despite at least two near-death experiences earlier in its history) a big part of the NYC and national opera scene, full season, launching pad for many starry careers (Sills and Domingo get mentioned most, but Ramey and von Stade were also NYCO babies once upon a time and their web site claims Reneé Fleming too). It also, particularly during the Julius Rudel years, in retrospect likely to be considered the company’s golden age, did first-rate work in an adventurous and plucky way.  To pick one, not quite at random, milestone–the production in 1966 of Handel’s Julius Caesar by NYCO with Sills as Cleopatra (she sort of extorted Rudel into casting her instead of Phyllis Curtin) was a big hit, adding energy to what would become a world-wide interest in Handel’s stage works, now part of most opera companies’ rep.

More recently though, things seem like a mess, particularly on the business side of the house. The ill-fated Gerald Mortier appointment was head-scratching for many in and out of the biz. Venue problems, labor problems, board and governance discord. George Steele, the general manager and artistic director, and who some considered over-parted in at least the gm part of the role, (a Rodolfo cover being asked to sing Siegmund?), has been credited with leading some artistically daring and successful projects (in the NYCO tradition) but he has not done well, at least by my lights, in solving the biggest problem the company faces, namely creating an identity for NYCO as anything other than a permanent invalid.

Granted, forging an identity can be a tricky thing. Big personalities like Sills don’t come along every day. The Met has stolen some of what was once NYCO’s thunder–young talent shows up there first (the phenomenal Pretty Yende might have been a City Opera find a generation ago, yet earlier this year she went straight to the Met); The Met’s GM Peter Gelb has also championed new works, innovative directors, and then there is the Met in HD, which, for all its pleasures, cannibalizes even the Met’s own subscribers.

But an identity is not something an arts organization can opt out of. City Opera’s desperate answer to the “who are we?” question is “We are the People’s Opera,” flogged as a phrase to rally around. It shows up in my FB feed, and they have opened a KickStarter campaign to raise $1 million (a fraction of what they need). Like most KickStarter campaigns, it’s got a video, and that left me unfazed, in fact a little hostile.

No, NYCO, I’m not giving you money just because you need it. To me “The People’s Opera” rings false because it describes what the company once was, not what it is today. I would give money because I identify in some way with the organization, believe in it as it is now, and have a reasonable expectation that what it is becoming will provide some artistic meaning and experiences worth the magnitude of the ask. Tell me that story (better yet, let others —audience members, composers, and artists, for instance—speak for themselves on what the company is and means to them). (Even if Steele is the right NYCO head, he cannot be the only voice, given the doubts, justified or not, many have about his leadership.) Make it clear to me that the company has a chance to be functional business-wise and coherent enough artistically to be around along enough to make good on my support.

In short, tell me why I should come along on what looks like a zombie road trip with you. “Salve me, fons pietatis,” won’t suffice. And although, I ardently hope it’s not Mimì’s death scene, frankly that is preferable, for me at least, to indefinite zombie operatic hospice.

Julus Caesar
A memento of a better era in City Opera’s history: Sills’ spectacular Cleopatra. (Excuse the terrible video.)

One Reply to “New York City Opera’s Woes”

  1. I think you hit the nail on head with the branding issue. With the Met’s change of direction, there is no longer as clear a distinction between it and NYCO. It is amazing that New York can support only one full-time opera company now, but it’s good to be reminded that no business “deserves” to live forever, particularly non profit businesses, which usually begin in reaction to a need. Better to remember the glory days and look to the next rising company rather than prolong the death throes. (btw, this works for people, too, imho)

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