Why City Opera May Bite the Dust, and What That Means for New York

quietplace0026 Why City Opera May Bite the Dust, and What That Means for New YorkLooking 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.

And no one really came to the rest of the season, either. City Opera struggled again and again to half-fill the 2,600-seat Koch Theater, its home at Lincoln Center. A Strauss rarity, Intermezzo, was charming in the fall, as was Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore in the spring. Elisir even featured an exciting debut from the tenor David Lomeli, the kind of up-and-coming artist City Opera used to support, and eventually turn over to the world’s major houses. But no luck.

A trio of 20th-century monodramas, inventively directed by Michael Counts, was a critical success, but didn’t have much traction. More devastatingly, neither did Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Seemingly engineered to attract fans of Mr. Schwartz’s Wicked and Pippin, it was scheduled for a 10-performance run (26,000 seats!). It was panned as a vanity project and failed at the box office. Fiorello LaGuardia famously called City Opera the “People’s Opera,” but this season it was far from popular.

It is one thing when an opera company struggles while packing the house. Ticket sales account for less than half of most revenue streams, so even selling out doesn’t guarantee a balanced budget: the economics of opera are ridiculous. I was told recently by an artist manager that the best opera house heads are the ones who “lose money responsibly.”

What selling out does mean is that people are interested in seeing a company’s work. And donors like supporting performances that people want to attend. Simply put: when no one comes to see your performances, it becomes difficult to convince rich people to give millions of dollars to so you can make more of them.

Unable to sustain itself financially, City Opera’s board has determined that its only option is to abandon the Koch Theater in favor of floating between different halls. In the next week or so, City Opera will announce its 2011-12 season. It will present a few operas in a few venues, some larger and some smaller. This will be done on a very tight budget, and the organization will squeeze by. The real question is the 2012-13 season, and the company’s long-term future. Barring a major fund-raising effort—and why and how would $50 million or $100 million be raised for a foundering company?—it seems unlikely that City Opera will survive.

Should we care? Certainly—and first of all, because a great many people stand to lose their jobs. (Many already have.) But also because it seems reasonable for a city that presumes itself one of the world’s cultural centers to have two opera companies. Then again, a city is a living, changing ecosystem. Companies come and companies go. City Opera may not be in a position to remain the “other” company.

City Opera’s Trajectory over the past five years has been depressing especially when compared to that of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met got a new general director who in short order guided it out of decades of ossification: freshening the marketing, bringing in (some) more modern productions, partnering with the Museum of Modern Art when William Kentridge’s retrospective overlapped with his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose.

Even if certain of the Met’s stolid ways remained unchanged, things felt different. The Met has made opera feel closer than it has in years to the center of the city’s cultural life. Through student and rush tickets, it’s possible to pay $20 or $25 for an orchestra seat. Its Live in HD broadcasts have filled a niche for many; making it to Lincoln Center for an opera feels a little less of an imperative.

Theatrical vibrancy; young, attractive singers; affordable prices: the Met has savvily made itself known for the very things that were once City Opera’s exclusive province. And while the Met was making these advances, City Opera was embroiled in a misadventure with one potential general manager and closed entirely for a season The financial crisis provided the fuel for the perfect storm, and the company, once the nimble underdog, has been unable to emerge from years of mismanagement and lack of responsible financial planning. Now City Opera is the sclerotic one, with oddly dense graphic design and little sense of purpose except—in a comically brief season—to be all things to all people.

“This city has supported two opera companies and a scattering of smaller outfits for generations, and there is no fundamental reason why it can’t continue to do so,” Justin Davidson wrote optimistically in New York magazine, espousing the potential virtues of flexibility.

There may not be a fundamental reason, but there are a lot of logistical ones. The goal should—must, I think—be a permanent home in a smaller theater. The question is whether such a space exists, and whether it’s financially plausible. (The Hammerstein on 34th Street near Eighth Avenue, an old opera house, would be perfect if we’re dreaming big.)

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.

editorial@observer.com

Comments

  1. Nobody came because they were used to not coming. It’s very easy for people to get along without you, and that is what NYC did as a result of the dark season.

  2. Operalover says:

    Why does no one come to city opera?  It’s an easy answer.  They don’t promote the singers.  At ALL.   I don’t go to the opera to see a director’s vision or a pretty set.  I go because I have heard about a great new singe that I have to see liver-you will notice that the website and all marketing of city opera is almost devoid of this information.  City opera was the place you could hear Carreras sing his first US Tosca, Domingo, Sills, etc-you know the story.  You think the articles about the 1966 Giulio Cesare were about the set?????  The singers there now may very well be up and coming but the powers that be at that opera house in particular don’t seem to think that has any real bearing on whether an opera fan is going to see their opera.  When in fact it is the ONLY reason.  Market and promote your singers and you will have a very different story.  The operas are artifacts-antique, out-of date really to the the contemporary ear.  It is the singer who makes it connect to the audience. Not the history.

    1. phoenix says:

         Promoting singers is probably a good idea, to a certain extent, but then with singer’s contracts and the ensuing legal hassles, by promoting singers City Opera could wind up like that status-symbolized bastion of the American Operatic Dream, the Metropolitan Opera: media hyping performers who are long past their prime singing years.  It is just plain fraudulent to advertise a 2nd-rate has-been singer as sensational simply because that singer is still under legal contract to sing the role for the company.  However, with a singer who has traditionally proven great artistry worldwide, such a maneuver could be valid advertising.  I very much enjoyed the opportunity to see Victoria de los Angeles as Carmen in Newark, although I understand her City Opera Carmen was not such a success.  However, the Met’s style of ‘promoting’ 2nd-rate veteran singers debuting in a role long past their prime and giving mediocre performances does nothing to support the aesthetic artistic values of opera itself as art form, as demonstrated by their embarassing ‘promotion’ and HD telecast this last season of Wagner’s Die Walküre.
         As Zachary says in this article, expenses have increased greatly.  It is no wonder the City Opera is going under.  The middle class has traditionally supported second opera houses in large cities like the English National Opera in London and the Komische Oper in Berlin.  However, every year the gap between the rich and everyone else in the U.S. gets wider and wider, the middle class is diminishing just like the City Opera, more & more would-be patrons are getting priced out the market.
         The demographics of NYC have changed drastically since the glory days of City Opera.  When I was young and going to City Opera, I remember performances where almost the entire section I was sitting in was occupied by young émigrés from eastern Europe.  Now, the statistics reveal traditionally non-european culturally-influenced groups moving into NYC.  Can they acquire an interest in opera?  Of course they can.  We all ‘acquired’ it, why not the new émigrés of the 21st century?  The answer is again financial, who can not only afford to go, but find the time to go when they are working 3 jobs?   When I was in college, NYC was the place to go if you were from another part of the U.S. simply because 1) you were able to immerse yourself in the arts (such as opera); 2) jobs were plentiful; and 3) you could live fairly cheaply in rent-controlled apartments.
         But now the situation has changed.  Because of the expense of living in NYC, it is no longer the draw it once was for Americans in the lower financial bracket from other parts of the country.

    2. Henry Holland says:

      “The singers there now may very well be up and coming but the powers that
      be at that opera house in particular don’t seem to think that has any
      real bearing on whether an opera fan is going to see their opera.  When
      in fact it is the ONLY reason”

      Speak for yourself, not me.  I don’t care about singers, I care about the operas themselves and composers.  I don’t care if the best singer in the history of singing was advertised, if they’re singing Donizetti or Handel, I’m not getting within 10 miles of the opera house.  You canary fanciers are a small but vocal (ha!) part of the opera audience, most people go because “Oh, look dear, they’re doing “La Boheme” tonight, let’s go!” not because “Oh, look dear, there’s a really good singer doing Marcello tonight, let’s go”. 

      As for NYCO, what a sad turn of events, they’ve done some great work in the past (the production of “Die Tote Stadt” is incredible, for example) and the rep was miles better than the mausoleum across the plaza, but as Phoenix’ excellent post below notes, the financial situation has changed drastically since even the 1990′s.  I can see them becoming like a smaller German house, doing 5-6 productions a year, but nothing on the scale they’re used to.

  3. Lesaltoids says:

    Good… I hope the shut down immediately. No diversity within the organization.

  4. NYCOdeathknell says:

    Stating that New York would become a one opera company town like Minneapolis is highly disingenuous.  There is a plethora of smaller companies like Di Capo, Brooklyn Repertory Opera, Gotham Chamber Opera etc. which are well supported, healthy and that’s where the folks who want to hear moderately prices live opera.  (Those who are not heading to a movie theatre)  George Steel is wet behind the ears and is far from a qualified fundraiser.  (That work was done for him at Columbia.)  He has no idea how to lead a major arts organization.  Columbia made up every shortfall at the Miller Theatre during his tenure.  Adios NYCO, bad choices by the board has sealed your fate.