Coda: The Long Goodbye
Rhoda Levine's staging of Anthony Davis's X at NYCO, 1986
© Carol Rosegg 2013
I admit that I am in denial about the failure of New York City Opera, and I know that I'm not alone. Yes, I realize that its financial problems were lethal — that they had been for years, perhaps even decades. Having covered City Opera for The New York Times through several of its administrations, going back to the Julius Rudel years, and having watched its directors deal with bruising labor negotiations (and a couple of season-killing strikes), perennial budget struggles, and internecine disputes over everything from administrative structures to how to deal with the problematic acoustics of the (then) New York State Theater, I know the battles this valiant company waged. Its most recent moves — raiding its endowment, leaving its home to wander the city, and cutting its schedule to slightly more than nothing — left scant room for optimism.
Yet it is impossible to believe that a company so important to New York City's cultural fabric will be allowed to disappear, and for the lack of (far) less money than this country routinely presses on countries that loathe us.
Different operagoers will have different reasons to bewail the loss of City Opera. We've all seen generations of great singers come through the company's roster on their way to starrier heights, and not just Plácido Domingo and Beverly Sills, although they are the company's alumni poster children. But many of us, no doubt, were also sympathetic to the company's insistence that it not be seen as a farm team for the Met and other big houses.
For me, it really wasn't. I admire great singing as much as the next person, but I believe the company's real importance was its fabulously multi-tiered approach to the repertory — and the breadth with which it defined the canon.
In terms of repertory, City Opera came pretty close to being all things to all people. For anyone new to opera who wanted to quickly absorb the basics — Le Nozze di Figaro, Carmen, La Bohème, La Traviata, Die Zauberflote, Il Barbiere di Siviglia — City Opera worked its way through most of the core works over the course of two or three seasons. It was a tour you could take without breaking the bank, and you could generally count on seeing solid, traditional stagings, and with casts that were always reliable and sometimes great.
Many of the company's standard-repertory productions remained in service for two or three decades, and some of them got pretty threadbare after a while, even with occasional sprucing up. In the 1990s, the company began reconsidering some of its chestnuts, letting Nicholas Muni put Violetta's final moments in an AIDS ward, in his 1991 Traviata, for example, or letting Frank Corsaro set his 1990 Carmen in the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes these notions worked; often they were more ephemeral than is ideal for a company that kept its stagings so long. But they engendered arguments, and there is something to be said for that.
City Opera's penchant for rarities — pieces such as Handel's Xerxes and Agrippina, Rossini's Viaggio a Reims, Wagner's Feen, Mozart's Oca del Cairo, Chabrier's Étoile — enlivened its schedule too. I was less taken with some lighter excursions. Operetta was one thing — I have fond memories of watching my parents be charmed by Sills, toward the end of her career, in The Merry Widow — but the company's flirtations with Broadway musicals made me cringe. I don't mean its Sondheim productions: I loved City Opera's stagings of A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, but I regard those as operas. Works such as The Pajama Game, 110 in the Shade, New Moon — not so much. And I felt that Sills staged them for the wrong reason. (She got a hefty grant to do so.)
Her successor, Christopher Keene, agreed and quickly shed the Broadway productions. Keene was devoted to new music, and the most memorable productions of his tenure honored the drive toward contemporary work that animated the tenures of his predecessors, back to Laszlo Halasz, the company's first director, and his successors, through George Steel.
Indeed, new music was the heart of this company. The nights at City Opera I will remember most vividly, and miss most fervently, are those spent taking in scores such as Philip Glass's Akhnaten, Anthony Davis's X, Hugo Weisgall's Esther, Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden, Richard Rodney Bennett's Mines of Sulphur — there are too many to name.
And that doesn't even take into account the contemporary oldies the company offered, among them the Hans Neugebauer–Achim Freyer production of Moses und Aron that caused a flap in 1990 when someone in the company's fundraising department wondered whether it contravened a new set of puritanical National Endowment for the Arts restrictions, as well as two of Rhoda Levine's most striking productions, Zimmermann's grim Soldaten and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler.
It is fitting that Steel chose to go out with a new work, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole, and that otherwise, the most memorable productions of his short tenure were Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face and Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna.
Where will scores such as these be done now? Perhaps at Brooklyn Academy of Music, but BAM's productions are occasional, not repertory stagings. And though the Met has lately been presenting contemporary works, that corner of the repertory necessarily remains a small part of its mission. It is difficult to imagine it matching the adventurousness that City Opera showed, in its heyday, without alienating its core audience. That leaves New York without a company that has experimentalism as part of its lifeblood. This, for anyone who cares about opera as a living form, is the real tragedy of City Opera's disappearance.
ALLAN KOZINN is a culture reporter for The New York Times.
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