R.I.P. New York City Opera (1943-2013)

One of the first New York City Opera posters from 1944.(Photo: New York City Opera/Pinetrest)
One of the first New York City Opera posters from 1944.(Photo: New York City Opera/Pinetrest)

The New York City Opera was formed 70 years ago at the behest of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who realized that the arts community was an important economic engine and good for morale in the midst of World War II.  The mandate was to present opera at ‘popular prices,’ in other words cheap. The new company would move into a derelict Shriner’s temple of West 55 Street that housed a 3,000 seat theater.

And that’s what happened. The first season was one week. Three weeks ago the New York City Opera gave its last performance-ever-Turnage’s hot Anna Nicole at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And therein lie several tales.

It’s safe to call 1956-1980 the glory days of the New York City Opera. The company moved to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in 1966. It brought along a roster of terrific American born singers and a reputation for fostering new operas. It was an exciting company. They functioned on nothing, with a daredevil quality of will they or will they not make it.

There were plenty of flops and plenty of Madama Butterfly and Carmen held together with duct tape.

There were also astonishing successes, becoming the envy of the arts world: Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, with a little known Beverly Sills; the American premiere of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; a production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte with Phyllis Curtin that Salzburg and Vienna tried to replicate but couldn’t. Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden.  Carlisles Floyd’s Susannah with peerless Phyllis Curtin and the magnificent bass-baritone Norman Treigle. Treigle was a bantam weight chain smoker who became THE singing actor of a generation. And so on.

The move to Lincoln Center put the New York City Opera in the public glare. The powerful and world-class Metropolitan Opera was next door. The New York State Theater had been built for George Balanchine and the New York City ballet, and was an acoustic nightmare for opera. The company’s expenses quadrupled but the mandate for cheap seats couldn’t be touched.

Any yet: NYCO gave its first Lincoln Center performance, a new opera (of course) Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo Julius Caesar that made a mega-star out of Sills.  Treigle rocked the heavens (literally) in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. Sills went from hit to hit. She became the most visible highest paid singer in the world, but City Opera was her home base. There she retired from singing in 1980, and for the next 10 years was general manager of the company.

All this time one man did one hundred jobs for the company – Julius Rudel, Music Director, General Director, Principal Conductor, Boss. A musician with impeccable skills and taste, he was also a good administrator. There were plenty of bumps in the road and plenty of iffy performances. There was also a lot of new repertoire and American-born American trained singers who sang at first for peanuts and went on to splendid careers. The New York City Opera was a home.

Now its gone. Several management stumbles and a clueless board set off a perfect storm. The company left Lincoln Center two years ago, and roaming homeless through three of the five boroughs. The Lincoln Center imprimatur had become important – and was attractive to funders- was gone. The board hired pricey directors who stormed off, taking hefty severance with them. The company dissolved the excellent standing orchestra and chorus. What the hell is an opera company without an orchestra and chorus? Hundreds of people out of work after years of loyal service.

Now then. There were some great recent performances, but last week the blonde and stacked lady sang her last, when the company’ gave its last performance of an opera about Anna Nicole Smith. Even this T&A wasn’t enough to save the company. The announcement that NYCO needed $7 million “by Monday” was laughed at. A kickstarter campaign went nowhere. The board had bailed. Nobody ever takes responsibility for mistakes. Nobody.

The current general manager became a whipping boy. The point is, the company was gone. A cultural gem, a signature for New York, the home of Treigle, Rudel, Sills, Domingo, Troyanos, Curtin, Cassel, Alexander, Rolandi, Hale, Fredericks, all gone, baby gone. To me, renaming the New York State Theater after David Koch, who provided $100 million for the naming rights was a bad omen.

I’m sorry if you never heard a City Opera performance in the New York State theater. If you missed Sarah Caldwell’s staging of The Barber of Seville, or Alan Titus and Carol Neblett cavorting naked – to the delight of the galleries – in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. I’m sorry if you never saw the statue of St. Sebastian, shot through with arrows bleeding wine in Frank Corsaro’s staging of Faust.

If you missed the second act of Madama Butterly where the heroine wore western dress and had a crucifix on the wall in he a pathetic attempt to become American;  I’m sorry if you never saw Beverly Sills as Anne Boleyn slap Samuel Ramey, playing Henry VIII in Anna Bolena. Ramey became the bass of the age. His bare chest in Attilarivaled Alan Titus’ bare tush in the aforementioned Poppeafor in-house delight.

Julius Rudel was the shepherd for so many years. Read his recent memoir, First and Lasting Impressions. It was sad that Mr. Rudel,  today in his 90s,  told the New York Times “I never expected to outlive the New York City Opera.”

Sills is thundering in her grave. That the company lasted seventy years is a miracle. That the company has closed through apathy and mismanagement is a shame. Don’t get me started on the New York City Opera!

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