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Revival Meeting

Several contenders are bidding for the legacy of New York City Opera in the hopes that the company — or a simulacrum of it — might be resurrected. Do those vying for a City Opera comeback know what they're getting themselves into, and is there still an audience to engage? BRIAN KELLOW reports.

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The New York State Theater, New York City Opera's former Lincoln Center home, in 1964
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NYCO Renaissance chairman Niederhoffer
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NYCO Renaissance artistic director Michael Capasso

Roy G. Niederhoffer is a forty-eight-year-old New Yorker who runs his own investment management company, R. G. Niederhoffer Capital Management, Inc. He’s a father of four and an avid amateur musician who plays violin in the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. He is also a man with a gnawing ambition — to bring New York City Opera back to life. After seventy years in operation, the company closed its doors in October 2013, following a run of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, leaving in its wake a bankruptcy proceeding of some $30 million, roughly two-thirds of which is represented by union benefits owed to the musicians’ union, Local 802. 

Niederhoffer is chairman of NYCO Renaissance, a new not-for-profit organization that hopes to resuscitate City Opera with a limited season of performances in the 1,100-seat Rose Theater in Manhattan’s Time Warner building. The Rose would seem a far more congenial home for opera than the 2,586-seat and always acoustically-problematic David Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) at Lincoln Center, home to New York City Opera for many years. “I have noticed that from the stage of the Rose you can see every pair of eyes in the theater,” Niederhoffer says excitedly. “The two-way interaction between performers and audience will be extraordinary.” 

Many people interviewed for this article characterize Niederhoffer as a man of considerable good will who was deeply saddened by City Opera’s demise and wants to do what he can to enhance the city’s musical landscape. Niederhoffer joined the NYCO board late in 2010, when the company had been in deep financial trouble for some time; he recalls that the question of declaring bankruptcy arose at the very first board meeting he attended. (He has since resigned from the NYCO board.)

NYCO Renaissance’s choice for artistic director is Michael Capasso, former general director of the now-also-defunct Dicapo Opera Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Niederhoffer admits that he was never a major donor to Dicapo Opera Theatre at any point during Capasso’s thirty-three year tenure there. He has, however, known Capasso since serving as the teenage concert master for a high-school performance of Carmen that Capasso directed. In a recent interview, Niederhoffer told me that he considered Capasso to be “inventive, visionary and creative, yet able to work in a low-overhead way.”

Capasso’s overhead at Dicapo was, in fact, very low. He founded the company in 1981, eventually finding a permanent home for it in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church on East Seventy-sixth Street. Father John Kamas was pastor at St. Jean Baptiste from 1987 to 2000 and remembers that the church did not charge Capasso any rent once the company began regular performances there in 1991. Kamas recalls that Dicapo covered all routine expenses for the theater — electricity, repairs, cleaning — and allowed the church to use the theater for several annual fund-raisers. The deal generated good will for the church, but the two pastors who followed Kamas reversed direction and charged Dicapo a rent that Kamas remembers “was not modest.” (Dicapo’s tax returns for 2011 state the amount of gross rent as $68,012.) According to Kamas, there were years when Dicapo was unable to pay any rent at all. But Capasso was an ambitious producer of opera, and he contributed something vital to an area that doesn’t offer much in the way of major classical-music venues, apart from Hunter College and the very reduced programs at the Ninety-second Street Y. Dicapo was a little like the East Side answer to the old Equity Library Theatre on the Upper West Side. Capasso’s ambitions were never in doubt; he balanced performances of Puccini works (usually with drastically reduced orchestrations), many of which were thought to be far beyond the company’s capacity in terms of scale, with works by composer Tobias Picker (Emmeline, Thérèse Raquin), who served as Dicapo’s artistic adviser for a brief time.

But Dicapo remained a nice, small neighborhood company. Whether or not Capasso is the man to put his artistic stamp on reviving New York’s beloved second company is a matter of hot debate in the opera world. Niederhoffer points out that until the financial crisis of 2008–09, Dicapo’s ticket sales and direct revenues “from other operations” made up more than sixty percent of the company’s overall budget. Capasso operated with minimal fundraising — something that many in the opera industry do not view as a virtue — and never relied on a professional development staff or huge contributions from his board. He also brought in what money he could by sub-letting the space to various organizations. 

The beginning of the end for Dicapo came, according to Niederhoffer, in 2009–10, when Capasso “asked donors to double and triple their donations at the very time they too were cutting back their donations.” After a financially vexing 2011–12 season, when Dicapo proved unable to pay its musicians for the season’s final production, Local 802 was legally obligated to sue the company. A bargain was struck allowing Dicapo to use funds from its performances and educational ventures elsewhere, to be applied toward the Local 802 debt. 

Niederhoffer dismisses the question of Capasso’s fiscal fitness to run the company. “I’m not hiring Mr. Capasso for his financial expertise or big balance sheet,” he says. “That’s my role and the role of our Board. I am hiring him for his breadth of production experience, plethora of knowledge about opera, remarkable energy and enthusiasm, and his overall artistic vision.”

According to Niederhoffer, the Renaissance board consists of a wide range of business and philanthropic leaders who have raised pledges in the seven digits. In addition, Niederhoffer says that he personally has spent $500,000 to date on the preparatory phase, $1.25 million for the company’s name, and “seven digits going forward.” 

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Architect Gene Kaufmann of New Vision for NYC Opera, Inc.

Initially, the purchase agreement put forth by NYCO Renaissance prior to the court auction offered a promissory note made by the Renaissance board in the amount of $500,000. According to NYCO Renaissance’s lead counsel, Gerald Catalanello, this was “for the benefit of all of the creditors of the NYCO bankruptcy estate (not just the pension) payable in equal installments over a ten-year period.” During the January 20 auction, NYCO Renaissance upped its bid to a direct cash payment of $1,250,000. At first, there were four other bidders in the running to purchase New York City Opera’s name — the Brooklyn Academy of Music, St. Ann’s Warehouse, SUNY Purchase and a group then known as Opera New York, an organization headed by Gene Kaufman, an architect and diehard opera fan who serves on the board of Glimmerglass Opera. Opera New York has since changed its name to New Vision for NYC Opera, Inc. At the moment, New Vision for NYC Opera is the only rival group remaining on its feet, having submitted to the court a bid of $1,500,000 — $250,000 higher than the one made by Renaissance.

In a phone interview in late January, Kaufman said, “At Glimmerglass, I’ve seen the inner workings of a company that’s successful. I see how it can be done, and I thought something like that could be done in New York. My plan involves a great deal of thinking by many people.” When asked if one of those people might be Glimmerglass’s artistic and general director, Francesca Zambello, Kaufman replied, “You should ask her about that.” (Zambello, who was once a contender for the leadership of the old New York City Opera, did not respond to two separate OPERA NEWS e-mails requesting a comment.)

Kaufman seeks to involve “a wide cross-section of people from the opera world who have tremendous expertise to advise us and play some kind of role — directors and singers included, people who run companies and raise funds, and so on.” Among those in the opera world he cites as supporters are Christopher Fecteau, founding artistic director of Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble; American Opera Projects’ general director Charles Jarden; and composer David Lang. (Judging from a series of e-mails sent to OPERA NEWS by New Vision for NYC Opera's representatives, the level of support in several cases appears to be quite vague and general; Lang’s e-mail, for instance, states, “Yes, you can say that I will be among the people who you could ask for advice. In fact, I love giving advice!” A January 15 e-mail to Kaufman from OperaAmerica’s president and CEO Marc A. Scorca says simply, “We will help in every way possible, of course.”

NYCO Renaissance has detailed plans for future seasons that will honor the traditional NYCO mix of repertory classics, challenging works and Broadway musicals. Among the titles mentioned at this early stage are a new Fliegende Holländer (Niederhoffer promises it will be “magical”); the New York premiere of Terence Blanchard’s 2013 jazz opera Champion; a new Candide directed by Harold Prince; and a Tosca that reproduces the original Adolfo Hohenstein costumes from Rome, 1900, in a modern staging. Kaufman’s rather sketchy proposal involves two productions a year, reflecting NYCO’s balance of staples and challenging works; for 2015–16, Glimmerglass’s production of Carmen would be paired with the world premiere of Andrea Clearfield’s Mila; for 2016–17, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in a coproduction with Pesaro’s Rossini Festival, would be matched with Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, by way of Glimmerglass. Kaufman has offered to foot the bill of producing opera during those first two seasons all by himself. The works would be performed in the 2,500-seat Hammerstein Ballroom at Manhattan Center, a non-union house. There is plenty of operatic history in this site: Oscar Hammerstein I founded the Manhattan Opera Company there in 1906, but the venture lasted only four years, and the space has not been used for opera since; at present, the Ballroom lacks both a pit and a stage. Kaufman’s proposal promises “a small artistic and administrative staff” and states that until such time as NYCO assembles its own administrative team, Kaufman “shall manage it, without remuneration, and shall provide all the administrative staff, offices and operating expenses.” There is talk of using NYCO rejected suitor SUNY Purchase as a key site for rehearsals and development, since the university owns a state-of-the-art costume and set shop, and rehearsals could conceivably be planned for summertime, when school is not in session. 

The Kaufman plan includes only an oblique reference to the NYCO Orchestra, suggesting that other guest orchestras will be invited to perform in the pit, “giving the public a range of orchestras to hear” — an idea that seems highly problematic, since the backbone of any company is its resident orchestra and chorus. All told, Kaufman envisions a budget for each of the first two seasons at $1.2 million, with an average ticket price of less than $100. To date, the NYCO board has refused to meet with Kaufman, who considers it “perplexing” that the NYCO board has favored the Niederhoffer camp’s cash bid, despite the fact that Kaufman’s was higher.

Kaufman believes that the NYCO board’s shunning of him was rooted in the fact that he never had a strong connection to the company. “I donated money to NYCO. But frankly, I don’t understand why, if the board was interested in reviving City Opera, they didn’t make an effort to get a consortium of people who were interested to do that. They took the opposite approach — they precluded anybody sitting on it from talking to each other.” 

But those in the NYCO Renaissance camp insist that Kaufman was forced into a higher bid because his overall plan was less persuasive, and that Kaufman is merely prolonging the process. “As you can see from the plans,” says Niederhoffer, “it doesn’t take much to decide between them.”

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Rudel in rehearsal
© Beth Bergman 2015

One name that comes up often in the debate over the future of NYCO is Julius Rudel, who as general director of the company from 1957 to 1979 devoted his career to instilling the highest possible standards in the company. In March 2014, Niederhoffer and Capasso paid Rudel a visit, just three months before his death. The ailing conductor lamented the demise of the company to which he had given so much over his lifetime. Rudel looked over the Renaissance plan, made some suggestions for rebalancing the repertory, then wished Niederhoffer and Capasso luck. “Can I honestly say he endorsed their plan?” says the conductor’s son, Anthony Rudel. “He said, ‘This is the best plan I’ve heard.’ And he told me, ‘I was very impressed with that young man Roy.’”

Few people seem to question Niederhoffer’s zeal and commitment, but one perceived liability is that he was serving on the NYCO board during the company’s painful decline. Still, Renaissance mostly represents a new broom: Niederhoffer is quick to point out that Susan Baker, NYCO’s former chairman during seven extremely troubled years for the company (2003–10), has nothing to do with his group, which includes only one other former NYCO board member, Jeffrey Laikind, who served there in the 1970s and ’80s, long before the company was in deep trouble. 

Many in the opera industry continue to question the choice of Capasso as proposed company leader. In a private e-mail to Kaufman written on January 11, Chris Fecteau stated that he had written to Niederhoffer “expressing my concern about having Michael Capasso in any capacity with a reconstituted NYCO.” At the outset, was Capasso’s track record perceived as an issue by the Renaissance board? “It was an issue, but it wasn’t the only issue,” Capasso said during a phone interview in early February. “They were more concerned initially that my projections were so different from the ‘historical’ City Opera. I said yes, they are, because the ‘historical’ City Opera was spending too much money, and my plan doesn’t have a half-million dollars in rent for an office. The cost of our venue is far less, and the minimums are far less than the ones in the Koch Theater, which is an expensive venue to perform in. The Rose, while not free, is less expensive and more manageable. What happened at Dicapo is not as catastrophic as people think it is. The company did not go bankrupt. We are in the process of making good on the debt. It’s taking time, but it is happening. People say the musicians’ union sued me, and yes, that’s true. I told them to go ahead and sue me and get the judgment — just don’t enforce the judgment, and I will make you whole.” Capasso claims that Dicapo’s debt to Local 802 has been paid by more than $25,000, and that he is making steady progress toward repaying the full amount — a statement confirmed by Catalanello. 

There remains the matter of NYCO’s staggering pension debt, and Niederhoffer confirms that of the total of $30 million in the company’s bankruptcy proceeding, at least $20 million consists of Local 802 obligations. “Most of that is future contributions,” says Niederhoffer. “Our cash payment for the name of the former company is only a small piece of what we plan to do for creditors. Because of his long experience working with the musicians of Local 802, Mr. Capasso was able to reach an excellent agreement with Local 802, who have been our strong supporters and partners throughout this process.” In other words, the musicians’ union will receive a portion of the $1,250,000 that is being bid for the asset. “The secured creditors are going to get their money,” Capasso states. But Kenneth Rosen, legal counsel for the NYCO board, told OPERA NEWS that there was no understanding that anyone has ever promised that all of NYCO’s unsecured debt would be paid in full. And given Local 802’s opaque response to the matter — OPERA NEWS contacted the organization repeatedly — it appears to some observers that the union has agreed to forget about a large portion of the pension debt in exchange for Capasso’s promise to perform in a union house, using union musicians. Maya Kremen, a spokesperson for Local 802, said simply that the matter is under litigation, and that the union declines to comment. 

At the moment, it remains for the court to choose the winner of the NYCO Sweepstakes; a decision is expected before the end of February. On March 9, the Rose Theater will be the site of a gala concert and dinner honoring Julius Rudel. Artists scheduled to perform include Plácido Domingo, David Daniels, Mark Delavan, Christine Goerke, James Morris, Samuel Ramey, Diana Soviero and Frederica von Stade. Many of these artists, significantly, were not associated with Rudel, whose general directorship of the company ended in 1979. This gives the gala the appearance, at least, of being more of an NYCO Renaissance booster than a Rudel tribute.

Perhaps the struggle to revive City Opera comes down to one question: is it really worth it? In a city as densely populated and overflowing with musical events as New York, memories and loyalties can be shorter than expected; once an institution has faded from view, it’s often surprising how easily everyone manages to get along without it. Perhaps the current economic climate is more suited to the creation of other, smaller companies, closer in scale to Gotham Chamber Opera or San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle. Capasso takes exception to this point of view. “I think the City Opera is missed,” he says. “I don’t think anyone is going to miss the last few years, to be honest. But I think people do miss the fact that there is a less expensive alternative [to the Met] for high-quality opera. Other companies do things wonderfully, but they’re site-specific or chamberish. We want to do something on a grander scale, but a lesser scale than the Met, all in the mold of what the company was — affordable prices in a wonderful venue.” spacer 

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