(That title is a reference to The Rake’s Progress, for those of you who don’t have the Stravinsky opera running through your head 24/7.)
You may have noticed that the New York City Opera has been in the news a lot, recently. I’ll assume we don’t need to talk about the General Director drama of years-gone-by (though I think it is definitely related to the current problems). Here is a chronological sampling of what has been going down as reported by the NY Times:
I do think it is a shame that the City Opera is in dire straights, but I completely agree with Tommasini that moving out of the Lincoln Center is a good move on the City Opera’s part. Or… it would be a good move if Steel would treat the move as an interesting artistic challenge rather than a kind of poverty. I respect Catherine Malfitano and her petition of stars and acknowledge their authority regarding the identity of the City Opera, but surely they can see that the City Opera needs to find a new identity?
The New York City Opera – the “people’s opera” – has been about new singers, new works, and newcomers to opera. What does that mean today? Many opera companies have “Young Artist” programs these days, producing more young artists than can be employed; and while many important artists began their careers at the City Opera – a 25-year-old Placido Domingo being a favorite example, can you imagine any singer nowadays making a significant premiere at age 25? It seems like every opera company has a children’s outreach program as well. I’m sure many cannot compete with the caliber of the City Opera programs, but we can’t all raise our children in New York City (and, as far as I’m concerned, there is way too much focus on reaching out to children when they should be focusing on teenagers and 20-somethings). A newcomer to opera is probably better off going to a broadcast (or watching a free streaming opera online!), which are available all over the world and provide excellent views and behind-the-scenes information for the cost of a standing-room ticket. (They may not be getting the full aural experience, but newcomers are generally not that discriminating. I certainly wasn’t.) New works always have a place, but finding a really good new opera these days is like finding a needle in a haystack. And all the world premieres (I would even take US premieres) seem to be happening in other companies.
The petition and the Rudel piece point to a significant contingent of people who continue to hold on to what the City Opera was decades ago when the space was new, when the Met had a distinctly patrician air, and when opera was more of a cultural force in America than it is today. The response to the Rudel op-ed represents the worst of this kind of sentimentality and old-guard conservatism that continues to poison opera. (Okay, I’m being dramatic, but the argument that we should listen to Rudel’s advice regarding arts administration because of his baton technique and the accolades of a Frenchman infuriates me. He has more relevant credentials, for chrissake!) Change is hard, but it is time to move on.
I think it’s time for the City Opera to stop being the “people’s opera” and start being the city’s opera. Instead of hopping from small theatre to small theatre, develop some productions in unconventional spaces! Site-specific opera! Please direct your attention to the Birmingham Opera Company in England. This. This is the kind of stuff I wish the City Opera would do. There are so many unique spaces in New York! Experiment with the music and chamber arrangements! As much as I hate to admit it (because I’m a professional opera malcontent), opera has come along way since the 60s, and it’s time to explore new frontiers. Opera itself is changing.
Unfortunately, I’m not convinced Steel is prepared to take that kind of risk, and what the City Opera needs is a leap of faith.