The Tragic Lesson of the NYC Opera


Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 1.06.36 PMThe New York City Opera was, for many years, the only home of the greatest soprano the world has ever known, and ever will know – Beverly Sills.  Due to the viciousness of Rudolph Bing who ran the Met like a malicious dictator, Bubbles was held back, to across the plaza, at the New York City Opera, instead of the Met. When she finally made her debut, my history professor gave all of his classes a day off and everyone received a major quiz “A” to celebrate.  I walked into class that day, and there was a huge poster of Bubbles, along with have a great day.  He was canceling his test and giving everyone that grade.  (FYI:  I had an A in the class already, finished the semester with one).

Those were the glory days of the NYCO, Bubbles and Julius Rudel.  Bubbles was their treasure.  If Bubbles wanted the trilogy of Tudor queens by Donizetelli, then she would get it.  If she Baby Doe, she got her.  If she wanted to be Violetta, she was Violetta.  She was the be all and end all.  A supporting cast was assembled to highlight her perfect voice. When she wasn’t singing, the NYCO produced good, solid, basic not-to-heavy operas and the Met did the Grand Opera thing.  It worked beautifully.  When Bubbles took over running the NYCO, she did a great job.  She did a great job at the Met.  Then, she was gone.  I still mourn her passing.

Once upon a time, the NYCO was like Triple A Baseball and the Met was the Major Leagues.  Along with Bubbles, the NYCO was where the greats began their careers: Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, Maralin Niska, Carol Vaness, José Carreras, Shirley Verrett, Tatiana Troyanos, Jerry Hadley, Catherine Malfitano, Samuel Ramey, David Daniels, Renee Fleming and so forth and so on.

When Bubbles took over in 1979, the NYCO was over $3 million in debt.  She took care of that, moving the company’s budget from $9 million to $26 million and left the opera company with a $3 million surplus. How did she do it?  She reduced ticket prices!

Then, it all went bad around 2008.  The NYCO has always been dedicated to American composers and bringing new productions to the stage, but it went terribly wrong.  In 2011 a critical error was made to leave Lincoln Center and just become a minor opera company.   Sorry, but I just don’t do modern.

“...New York City Opera’s 2010–2011 season included a new production of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place directed by Christopher Alden; Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo directed by Leon Major; and a new production titled Monodramas which consisted of three solo one-act works: John Zorn’s La Machine de l’être, Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and Morton Feldman’s Neither. The company also staged the American premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the first opera by Stephen Schwartz, the veteran composer of Broadway musicals.

In addition, the company presented several concert performances that included: An Evening With Christine Brewer; Lucky To Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein; John Zorn & Friends (with Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Mike Patton, Marc Ribot, Dave Douglas and Uri Caine); a family opera concert of Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are with a libretto by Maurice Sendak; and Defying Gravity: The Music of Stephen Schwartz with Kristin Chenoweth and Raúl Esparza….”

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 1.09.31 PMThen came the abject disaster of Anna Nicole, which was an abject disaster, basically destroying what was left of the NYCO.  Unless they raise $7 million in the next few days, the NYCO is going to be bankrupt, as dead as a the late Anna Nicole herself.

“...While Anna Nicole the opera has been well-attended, it’s been critically panned as “cold and heartless” and “a piece of terrible garbage.” Not great news for the New York City Opera’s future—having raised a mere $1.5 million of the $7 million they need by September’s end to run their scheduled productions, they are poised to enter bankruptcy proceedings just after the show ends.  Presenting the tragic bombshell’s opus as the hail Mary pass to attract a broader, non-opera-going audience, while praying for a windfall, feels a bit like Smith’s efforts to revive her career in the late 90s, selling wedding photos to People magazine, and welcoming cameras into her baby daughter’s crib. Sadly for the New York City opera, it looks like fueling America’s celebrity fetish still won’t save them any more than it did Anna Nicole….”

I think the two photos, one of Bubbles and the other of the dubious ‘opera’ Anna Nicole says it all.  The very nature of the production limits the number of people who would see it.  Sure, there are opera goers who will flock to something like this, but you see how badly the company has fallen – because of productions like this.

ABC News
ABC News

It’s not just the NYCO.  People don’t really like modern productions and new operas – unless they are truly well done.  What we have a tendency to forget is the numerous operas that were composed during the golden ages of Rossini, Verdi, and Wagner are now completely forgotten.  Like they said about the Met’s 2013-2014 season:

“...The Met marked the 2013 bicentennial of Verdi and Wagner’s births, and the relative popularity of their operas with ticket buyers, even with new concepts around old stories (though pretty much everyone agrees the LePage Ring Cycle was an experience best not repeated). Furthermore, the works of Verdi and Wagner, while beautiful, can be very expensive to produce (especially given Wagner’s predilection for pieces that run over five hours), but it seems the opera company is giving both composers a production break following years of (pricey) stagings, favoring newer works (Two Boys, for instance) and older, popular (read: profitable) favorites. Puccini’s work is always a dependable crowd-pleaser, as is the frothy fun of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus), set for a traditional December 31st opening (though notably, with a new translation). It’s a rather eclectic mix that the Met hopes (/prays) works magic at the box office, especially with the widely reported news of ticket sales being down this season. In response, the Met will be reducing some of its ticket prices for next season, with more than 2,000 of its 3,800 total seats enjoying a lowered price.. The average cost will drop roughly 10%, although the $20 seats in the rear family circle will go up by $5….”

In other words, read into this:  If the Metropolitan Opera keeps up with it’s modern agenda, high ticket prices, and staging works that might not be crowd-pleasers, but critics like, it too, could end up going the way of the NYCO.

There is a place for new operas, new productions, something flashy and modern, but not necessarily as a steady diet, on a major operatic stage.  Oh, you can, but do opera companies want to survive or go out in a blaze of critical glory?  People want Verdi.  They want Rossini.  They want the so-called tired old warhorses, appropriately staged with as little or no nudity as possible.  You don’t need an S&M version of the Tales of Hoffman. Oh, they do it in Europe, but when they do, it’s all about the director and not the Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 1.27.10 PMsinger.

Opera is about the singer.  It is about the magnificence of a Sherrill Milnes or a Dmitri Hvorostovsky or the sublime beauty of a Beverly Sills or Anna Netrebko. It is about the comedic genius of Erwin Schrott as Leporello.  Opera is about a beautiful Don Giovanni, not something that turns the stomach. It isn’t about setting the Ring in Motel Hell on Route 666 like they did in Bayreuth this year.

I don’t like modern, but THIS works, trust me.   Opera is about beauty, power, and perfection.  It is also about a deep underlying sensuality of voice, where the listener is seduced into a moment of pure beauty.  You don’t get this with the in your face of something ugly and modern.  There’s nothing beautiful about it.  And – people have rejected it.

One of these days, opera companies need to realize they can either stage productions that critics (who know nothing) will gush over, not daring to admit that there is nothing to it.  They can turn opera over to stage directors who are nothing but ego, and proving that they are more ‘artistic’ (read ill informed, brutal, stupid, and ignorantly opinionated) or they can go the way of Zeffirelli and give the unwashed masses (of which I am obviously one) what we want: BEAUTY!

As long as the sophisticates are in control, holding their noses as they look down on us, telling us we just don’t understand their outrageous and degrading productions, well, people aren’t going to bother.  Opera companies need to take a page from the Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.  No one’s going to bother if something worthwhile isn’t built.

Of course there could be another logical explanation of why the NYCO is failing.  What was once known as the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center is now known as the David H. Koch Theater.  I think that says it all.  Who the hell would go to any performance in a theater named after one of the Koch Brothers? No wonder they had to find other pastures in which to attempt to survive.