New York City Opera Announces Plans To Leave Lincoln Center

The New York City Opera has announced plans to leave the New York Theater, the company's home since 1966.(Photo: saitowitz (flickr))
The New York City Opera has announced plans to leave the New York Theater, the company's home since 1966.(Photo: saitowitz (flickr))

The news that the New York City Opera may close after nearly 70 years due to devastating financial losses is hard to bear.

The City Opera was formed in 1944 by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia – the epoch’s most colorful mayor after Boston’s James Michael Curley in Boston, who was re-elected while in prison.

Accessibility may be an overused word today, but the concept was new in 1944, at least in the arts.

LaGuardia wanted the 4,000 seats in the Shriner’s Temple on West 55th Street to be filled. The building was renamed the City Center, and performances began with favorites: Tosca, Carmen, La traviata.

The New York City Opera soon became home to American singers and American operas.

Susannah, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Taming of the Shrew, Lizzie Borden, The Medium, La Loca and Regina are a few of the titles that the City Opera put on the map.

Some didn’t stay on the map and others entered the international repertoire. These operas were sung by the likes of  Beverly Sills, Phyllis Curtin, John Alexander, Eunice Alberts, Beverly Woolf, Adelaide Bishop, David Poleri, John Reardon, Donald Gramm, and Judith Raskin.

This was the opera company of great directors like Rouben Mamoulian, Tito Capobianco and Frank Corsaro. Julius Rudel - still active after forty years – was Music Director from 1944 to 1979.

Americans sang all the Italian and French bread-and-butter operas at the Shriner’s Hall.

Martin Sokol’s history of the company makes it clear that the coffers were never filled. Ambitious programming sometimes kept people away. But for the first time, American opera and American opera professionals were deemed important.

It was a worthy imprimatur, and even the august Metropolitan noticed.

In recent years the company hired and quickly lost a very pricey opera intendant, who never actually moved to New York. They continue to pay mid-six-figure salaries to administrators. The season’s offerings went from twenty shows to five.

The modern opera-warhorse formula remained in place, but with huge costs, and far fewer performances, the financial base now seems to be beyond recovery.

The company is leaving Lincoln Center, its home since 1966. The cost of rent and upkeep of the New York State theater is crippling.

What happens next? A nomadic gypsy caravan through the five boroughs? Why not?

Opera is related to commedia dell’arte – perhaps the tradition will continue. But don’t forget this was the company that welcomed everyone and hustled to produce ‘good opera’ back in 1944.

It’s too good a show to lose.