Manhattan Music

More Opera Is Best for Opera-And Less Works, Too

In Johanna Fiedler’s Molto Agitato , we learn that during the formation of Lincoln Center, Sir Rudolf Bing, who ran the Metropolitan Opera, wrote to Anthony Bliss, then chairman of the Met’s board, declaring his opposition to City Opera’s planned move into the State Theater, next-door to the new Met. “I was under the impression that Lincoln Center aimed at the highest cultural achievement,” Bing wrote, “and the constituents … belonged to the highest class in their field. The City Center Opera has no place in that group.” To which Bliss responded: “I had the happy delusion that more opera is the best thing for opera on the whole.” Bliss won that battle, but Bing’s maledizione has hung in the air ever since.

For years, City Opera has been Lincoln Center’s troubled child on a doorstep-forced to make do in a house that was built not for lusty young voices but for the flying feet of the New York City Ballet, and stymied in its plans for a new home on the campus, thanks to the opposition of the Met’s fiercely territorial general manager, Joseph Volpe, and the complex’s hear-no-evil chairwoman, Beverly Sills. “There just isn’t a good place at Lincoln Center for City Opera,” a Met official recently said to me. “They should get away from here as far as possible.”

Paul Kellogg, the infinitely tactful general and artistic director of City Opera, who has injected so much artistic éclat into the once-floundering company, seems to agree. Spurred by the offer of $50 million toward a new home by the arts philanthropist Robert Wilson, Mr. Kellogg has been quietly looking all over town for a site that would, as he told me, “allow us to realize our full potential in a theater that suits our particular production style.” Since Sept. 11, his focus has increasingly been narrowed to the possibility of becoming a linchpin in a new arts complex planned in the redevelopment area around the former World Trade Center. Although voices from various influential quarters have endorsed the idea, in this time of fiscal doom the plan may well come to nothing. Nonetheless, Mr. Kellogg said that the house-hunting process has prompted a “lot of rethinking” about City Opera in general, though he hastened to add, “At this point, I don’t know how much change any such move would mean.”

City Opera’s spring season has just begun, and as its lineup of productions suggests, the company’s artistic profile is as multidirectional as a Picasso head: an American classic (Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess ), a Baroque rarity (Handel’s Agrippina ), a splendid staple (Mozart’s Don Giovanni ), an American rarity (John Philip Sousa’s The Glass Blowers ) and a verismo heart-tugger (Puccini’s Tosca ). “We have to constantly keep in mind that we have so many different audiences,” Mr. Kellogg said, sounding both pleased and beleaguered by the fact.

“So many different audiences” is the cultural cri de coeur of the moment, and though I can’t deny that the split between high and low, older and younger, seems more pronounced than ever, the paradigm needs a little kick in the pants. What if our cultural gatekeepers were to stop thinking about trying to appeal to this group or that group-or, as so often happens, trying to bring them all together under one roof through a deplorable leveling process? What if they were simply to say, “Hey, this is a damn good piece. Let’s put on a show!”

As it happens, that was the animating spirit behind three recent evenings which took me about as far from Lincoln Center as you can get. The first, some weeks ago, was at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abron Arts Center on Grand Street, where the fledgling Henry Street Chamber Opera produced a vibrant twin bill of Darius Milhaud’s Les Malheurs d’Orphée and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas . It was the second outing for this valuable, spunky group, whose purpose under its founder, the conductor Neal Goren, is to mine a repertoire that is unsuitable for the Met’s and the City Opera’s large auditoriums-small-scale, perhaps unfamiliar chamber operas that require relatively modest forces and flourish best in halls the size of Henry Street’s 375-seat jewel box of a theater. Both productions, which were directed by Laurence Dale, showed the virtue of minimal means. The Milhaud, a goofily haunting updating of the Orpheus myth set in the 1920’s, was done, appropriately, as a jaunty pop-up book. The Purcell production cleverly made the most of its monumental Dido, the opulent-voiced Camellia Johnson, by turning the Empress of Carthage into a totemic Easter Island–type goddess. But then the show lost its whimsical cool in displays of drag-show camp involving mincing witches and cavorting sailors. The full house, which included quite a few regulars from the big-league uptown venues, cheered the intrepid young singers and musicians as though we were all at the dawn of a bright new era, and-who knows?-maybe we were.

More recently, I ventured up to the old Schubert Theater in New Haven for the Yale Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute . With a cast composed of students in the graduate School of Music, a pickup orchestra, and a barebones staging borrowed from a design by John Conklin for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, this makeshift affair was the most magical Flute I’ve seen in years. There were no live animals, no acrobatics, no special effects. Good, ardent voices, led by Kevin Hill’s nimble Tamino and Jennifer Black’s luscious Pamina, singing in impeccable Italian and speaking in amusingly contemporary English; buoyant playing under the conductor, Randall Behr; and above all, a palpable feeling that Mozart had written a helluva good show, were enough to keep me and a large, cough-free audience entranced.

For 12 years, the Dicapo Opera Theatre has provided the culturally deprived Upper East Side with a model of “alternative” opera. I attended a recent performance of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene in the company’s handsome, 204-seat auditorium in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church at Lexington Avenue and 76th Street, and was astonished by the intensity and purity of the enterprise. Handsomely staged on a multilevel set by Dicapo’s general director, Michael Capasso, who founded the company in 1981, this 1946 adaptation of Elmer Rice’s forerunner to A View from the Bridge and other bittersweet odes to New York grit was delivered with a strength of conviction that cut through the work’s uneasy mixture of Weimar bite and Broadway mawkishness. Mr. Capasso (whose next production, Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz , opens in April) is a believer in the get-up-and-belt school of opera, and his irrepressible cast, led by Peter Gage Furlong and Amanda Winfield as the ill-starred young lovers Sam and Rose, delivered and then some. A note in the program read, “Please be advised that there will be gun shots heard in Act 2.” If the warning was intended to discourage dozing-no one likes to be awakened by gunfire-it was unnecessary.