Why City Opera May Bite the Dust, and What That Means for New York
Zachary Woolfe for The New York Observer
Looking back, it should have been clear in October how New York City Opera’s year was going to end.
The company opened its season then with the New York premiere of A Quiet Place, the strange, flawed, fascinating final opera by Leonard Bernstein, one of the city’s favorite sons. The opera is close to the heart of City Opera’s artistic director, George Steel, and it felt, in the lead-up, like an “event.” The company treated it as such: in Christopher Alden’s thoughtful production the work received the best possible presentation, and the orchestra sounded great under the young conductor Jayce Ogren. The reviews—it was covered everywhere—were good.
No one came...
...This is as delicate a moment as any in a cultural institution’s history. George Steel, who has never had to cultivate donors on this scale, will have to call on all of his considerable talent, charisma and vision to convince people to take a chance, something most people are unwilling to do with large quantities of their money during a recession. (Mr. Steel is still stuck with much of the board responsible for the mismanagement. Ex-chairman Susan Baker, I’m looking at you.)
But Mr. Steel’s best may not be enough. The company could sell out 500-seat theaters and get raves in every paper and still not convince people to give it the kind of support that could ensure its future. In that case, New York, like Minneapolis, will be a one-opera town.
|Beverly Sills in "Manon"|
City Opera 1969 / Beth Bergman
How People’s Opera Orchestrated Its Peril
Robin Pogrebin and Daniel J. Wakin for The New York Times
AT first glance New York City Opera would appear to have been blessed with a full chorus of advantages.
For 46 years it was a fixture at Lincoln Center, operating at the city’s premier cultural hub in an elegant theater overlooking the plaza fountain. Most of its utility expenses were paid by the city, which owns the building.
It split other expenses with the New York City Ballet, which shares the space. And when the opera sought a renovation, a generous donor and the city stepped forward with $125 million to pay for it.
But now, less than two years after that expensive makeover, City Opera is homeless. Last month the company announced that it is leaving Lincoln Center for stages unknown because it can no longer afford to operate there...
...“City Opera’s programming failed to engage its audience because it was dark for a season and then came back with esoteric choices that didn’t suit the people’s opera,” said Joseph Volpe, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. “If you can’t sell tickets, you can’t raise money.”...
...Still, Mr. Steel said he is not worried. “I hope to be known as the general manager who found a new stable footing for City Opera,” he said.
The move, he said, frees City Opera from the “the cultural gigantism that created Lincoln Center” and the pressure to do big works to fill the house. “The new model is both financially stable and artistically liberating,” he said. “It’s an incredibly exciting prospect.”...
...But many opera veterans are skeptical.
“I have loved City Opera since the late ’50s, and it makes me very sad to see it in such a terrible state,” said Speight Jenkins, the general director of Seattle Opera. “I don’t frankly understand how you can perform in several locations and keep your subscriptions.”
Dear Friend,Like sands through the hourglass ... ...
I am pleased to update you on City Opera's progress in preparing its 2011-2012 season, which will include an intriguing mix of new and classic works, each showcasing today's finest young singers.
Our goal in planning the season has been unique and precise: to find the perfect venue for each opera we do. As you know, New York City is incredibly rich in theaters and performing spaces, and we couldn't be more pleased with the exciting new partnerships we are now finalizing. I believe that the 2011-2012 season will be the start of an inspiring new era of civic engagement for City Opera, as we re-imagine our founding mandate to be the "people's opera."
Another piece of good news is the tremendous success of our Chairman's Challenge fundraising campaign. Since this effort was launched in May, City Opera has raised a remarkable $2.1 million, making it one of the company's most successful fundraising initiatives to date. Many of you have already responded to Chairman Charles R. Wall's call-to-action, and for that, all of us at City Opera join in a chorus of thanks and gratitude. Thank you!
For those of you who have yet to respond, there is still time to make your voice heard. Visit nycOpera.com/challenge or call 212.870.4210 to make your gift today.
Many people ask me how City Opera can take on so much change in such short order. My answer is this: for more than 67 years, City Opera has proven itself to be a company that makes the seemingly "impossible" possible - whether it's putting American opera on the map, being the first to introduce supertitles, or simply making opera accessible to a broad audience.
I promise that with your support, City Opera's 2011-2012 season will be the start of an exciting new chapter in the company's remarkable history. City Opera has always responded to challenges with imagination, ingenuity, and unstoppable passion for the art form which we all love, and today is no exception. I look forward to sharing the good news about the upcoming season with you very soon.
Thank you for your interest, generosity, and patience.
General Manager and Artistic Director