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Classical 101

Book Review: 'Mad Scenes and Exit Arias' at the New York City Opera

Jake Hall
New York City Center's auditorium

Heidi Waleson has been the opera critic for The Wall Street Journal for 25 years. Her new book, Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, gives an overview of the New York City Opera (1944-2013).

Most of the book — to be published Oct. 2 by Metropolitan Books — details the excruciatingly slow death of the company. Misguided management, clueless board members and a loss of the company's identity were a perfect storm. A once thriving artistic venture was destroyed.

I began reading this book knowing that the New York City Opera had been the home of American operas and exciting premieres.

Its artistic legacy included not only Beverly Sills, but Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Placido Domingo, Gianna Rolandi, Frank Corsaro, Tito Capobianco, Julius Rudel, Jose Carreras and repertoire the Met wouldn't touch.

In my day, the top price was $20, and you could get a decent seat for three bucks.

The New York City Opera died a slow and agonizing death until its final performance in 2013. The opera on that occasion was a new work, fitting the company's history: Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole. The story of the zaftig, Texas-born socialite who married too well, and her tawdry death, proved that sex sells.

But alas, it didn't sell enough to save America's "People's Opera," as the company was branded from its first performances in 1944.

The New York City Opera was the brainchild of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, along with businessmen Newbold Morris, and especially Morton Baum. The idea was to put musicians to work and offer a low-price alternative to the great Metropolitan Opera, which sat majestically on Broadway at 39th Street.

These were the waning days of World War II. Everybody remembered the Depression. The idea of popular-priced entertainment that put people to work was appealing. Helpfully, the opera company could inhabit the white elephant of a theater on West 55th Street, a former Shriners temple christened the New York City Center. 

Everybody was happy.

Credit Harold Holt

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The New York City Opera earned a reputation for casting fine young American singers and presenting adventurous repertoire. Sure, the Met had great stars. But City Opera performed new works and presented an attractive roster of artists. More to the point, the best seats in the house were $3, and the top price never moved much past $10 for many years.

In 1966, the New York City Opera moved uptown to the glamorous Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, sharing tenancy with the New York City Ballet at the beautiful New York State Theater.

That move may have begun the company's slow decline. Encased in a magnificent new setting, the cheap sets and costumes would no longer serve. Expenses mounted dramatically.

Still, conductor and artistic director Julius Rudel started big and well.

The new theater opened with the American premiere of Alberto Ginastera's Don Rodrigo, starring a young Placido Domingo.

A few months later, the City Opera had a smash hit, and everything changed forever. Rudel conducted a new production of George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare. Norman Treigle made a tremendous impression in the title role. But it was Beverly Sills as Cleopatra who was the overnight sensation.

That was some long night. Sills had been singing with the company since 1955. As she said later, her career had been "good reviews, no handstands."

After 1966, the lady had handstands, fireworks and raves. The Sills phenomenon was born. It far outlasted the end of her singing career in 1980. 

Sills became the voice and the face, not only of the New York City Opera, but of opera in America. She served as general director of the company all through the 1980s.

She inherited a good artistic legacy and a financial mess. Often she'd leave on fundraising trips on a Tuesday and fly back on Friday with the company payroll for the week. The early 1980s were a turbulent time for the New York City Opera, but by mid-decade, the worst seemed to be over.   

Sills left the company in 1989. She joined the Lincoln Center and later the Met's management and had little time for the New York City Opera. Later managements suffered from the loss of Sills' peerless fundraising ability.

The company launched a campaign for a new theater. It's true the company's longtime home at Lincoln Center, the New York State Theater, was not built for opera. The acoustics were bad. Tell that to the public who didn't remember the great days of Rudel, Sills and Treigle, and why should they buy tickets?

The post-Sills era brought new managements. Conductor Christopher Keene brought an esoteric repertoire — even for the New York City Opera. He died in 1995. Paul Kellogg produced good opera but sabotaged himself by publicly criticizing the theater's acoustics (to which Sills, over at the Met, remarked, "Nobody had any trouble hearing me").

Things go dark indeed when a clueless board chair imported a pricey European impresario. Gerard Mortier was the product of a European aesthetic and state-funded theaters. He did not believe money should be an object. He left town — he never really arrived — when the New York City Opera couldn't come up with the $60 million budget he demanded for his first season in New York.

Fatally, a decision was made to shut down the New York State Theater for a year's worth of renovations. The company would have no home and no ticket revenue. Waleson writes:

"The company had been through several key turning points, but the decision to shut down for the year of the dark season was widely thought to be the most catastrophic. With one stroke, City Opera lost its audience, its endowment, and its place, however tenuous it may have been, in New York City's cultural life."

From there, it was all downhill. The model of the New York City Opera as a shoestring company presenting new repertoire and the hits, performed by a core company of American artists, was considered outdated. 

When the company left Lincoln Center, there was nothing but a nomadic existence throughout all five boroughs — a 600-seat theater here and there. But the public had moved on.

Waleson spoke to many people directly involved in the operations of the company. (Not Sills, who died in 2007): choristers, featured artists, administrators, orchestra members, many of the people on stage, backstage and in the pit who had made the New York City Opera a company, and by 2013 were left without a home. 

Too many people had tried to reinvent the wheel. The scrappy people's opera had grown, thanks to Sills' box office and fundraising clout, to a model the board couldn't understand. 

There is a New York City Opera giving performances today. Their choices of repertoire have been admirable. What's lacking is the full-time chorus and orchestra that makes an opera company a company. Impresarios who bought the New York City Opera name are producing good opera. What's gone is the New York City Opera's heart.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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