Whatever Happened to New York City Opera?

Beverly Sills as Cleopatra in “Giulio Cesare” at New York City Opera, 1967.

An Overture Sadly

I just left an interview with a temp agency. I’m looking for work. One of the recruiters used to be an opera singer. We chatted for a bit about my skills (it turns out I will need to foreground my administrative rather than managerial experience in order to be a better candidate for the kinds of positions that this particular agency receives: assistants) before turning inevitably to the melodrama that has been the spectacular fall of the New York City Opera. The gossip is on everybody’s tongue. Well, everybody who actually has an interest in opera in the first place, and in City Opera, at, it seems, a distant second.

Despite the fairly well documented “missteps” the company has taken on its way from being the second major opera outfit in New York City to nonexistence, there persists—in virtually all of the reportage and absolutely all of the conversations I have had with friends and colleagues—a subtext of disbelief. Everyone is asking: How could this have happened? What could have been done to prevent it? Why doesn’t New York City have the second opera house that it, according to some estimations, deserves?

When I began preparing to write this article, the fate of NYCO was hanging in the balance. Their last-minute do-or-die campaign to raise $7 million by the end of September was failing. Of the seven, one million was allocated to a Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter is a crowdsourcing platform generally used by individual artists and smaller companies with none of the institutional history or heft that organizations like City Opera have. This move drew ridicule from some circles and was lampooned by a withering daily countdown on James Jorden’s queer opera zine parterre.com. The closer the deadline approached, the further success seemed to recede into the horizon. Both campaigns failed, and, at the time of publishing, the company has filed for bankruptcy, and is in the process of liquidating what little is left of the once-great house.


Da Cappo, or, The Dirt

Part of this, obviously, if grossly, comes down to money. Financial woes were not a recent phenomenon at NYCO. As Fred Cohen reported in Opera News back in February, the company was on shaky economic footing prior to Beverly Sills’ tenure as General Director and lead fundraiser in the 70s and 80s, then again, after. The nineties were none too nice to NYCO’s finances, and most performing arts centers suffered major funding setbacks after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Then came the global “fiscal crisis” of 2008, which cast its temblor through the arts at the exact time City Opera was experiencing both a leadership embroglio (and that is, indeed, quite an abbreviation of what happened) and renovations to the State Theater, their once home at Lincoln Center. The confluence of crises and construction led to the dark season of 2008-2009 (at the behest of Gerard Mortier, whose brief tenure as General Director, some believe, caused considerable damage to the company’s reputation). During that season, the company lost all revenue from ticket sales while still being forced to pay singers, orchestra members, and an entire administrative staff. After that came the raiding of the company’s endowment by the board of trustees, its chair Susan Baker, and then Executive Director Jane Gullong, who, with the help of New York State Supreme Court Judge Peter O. Sherwood and then Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, twice tapped the well as market forces were driving stock values down, ultimately reducing an endowment of around $57 million to, by the end of the binge, just $4.8 million—fumes, really, for a company of City Opera’s size. In early 2009, George Steel was appointed General and Creative Director. He would be the company’s last of either.

Steel, in one sense, was ambitious, programming difficult works, new operas, and, by most accounts, marvelous productions worthy of City Opera’s legacy as a champion of daring and innovative new American operas. Notable is the 2012 production of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, which City Opera poached from The Met after a dispute between that organization and the artist. Steel also oversaw a redesign of the company’s brand, marked by a heightened emphasis on promoting the organization as “the people’s opera,” a moniker bestowed upon the company by former New York City mayor Fiorello Laguardia (an operatic name if there ever was one). By many estimations, these were positive developments.

Yet Steel’s sometimes cavalier attitude wasn’t to everyone’s liking. His decision to leave Lincoln Center was decried by patrons, fans, singers and critics alike. The company had been nomadic since 2011, presenting performances on stages throughout the city; notably the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where they performed what would become the company’s final production, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s spotty romp through the life of Guess model, Playboy Bunny and buoyant, even campy, bombshell Anna Nicole Smith (more on this later). The dislocation of the City opera from its house also led to a reduction in the number of productions offered seasonally, further reducing the opportunity to generate significant income through ticket sales.

It is doubtful that the company’s crisis in charitable fundraising can be fully removed from these decisions. After all, money is a product of social factors, and many critics cite the leadership/fiscal helterskelter of 2008 and the company’s move from Lincoln Center as huge PR blunders that soured patron and public support for what appeared to be an increasingly shaky investment of money and emotion. The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout’s final, hardened word on the closing of the company was literally: “So what?”


A Coup de Criticism?

One thing that seems to have slipped through all the hoi polloi—and by that, I mean, mostly, music journalism—is the fact that during the pivot of the 2008-2009 season/crisis, in the precarious window between Gerard Mortier’s resignation and the board’s appointment of George Steel, I was leading a guerrilla campaign to take over the New York City Opera.

Marshaled from the command center of my blog, countercritic.com (in hibernation since 2010), the campaign lasted about six weeks, picking up along the way media endorsements from writer and critic Claudia La Rocco and Culturebot.org, plus, after-the-fact, an “honorable mention” from The New Yorker’s Alex Ross. We—and I use the first-person-plural not only because that was the way I voiced Counter Critic, but also because several others were included in the campaign in ways enough truly to merit a royal “We”— developed a “Way Forward,” a precocious manifesto of sorts, which was delivered at a press conference attended by about a dozen people and a camera crew from Fox 5 news. Conducted largely from outside of, and often directed pointedly at, the inner sanctum of power that was tasked with solving the very crisis it had created, the campaign ultimately “failed,” if only in its effort to appoint me as the next captain of the organization.

At the time, one might have said that our campaign won in its effort to draw attention to the distress signal New York City Opera was sending out, and to address, if sometimes ironically and other times defiantly, the state (if there can be such a thing) of opera in a contemporary context. “CC4NYCO” showed, if nothing else, that the plight of City Opera could draw support, if not from the populace, then at least from a community of people who wanted it to survive, even attracting new recruits to the opera beat (and there were some), who were influenced by our arguments and began, if only for a limited time, to care about the company’s—and by extension, opera’s—fate. There’s something about opera, it seemed, that had the power to concern people.


Wherefore Art Thou “The People’s Opera”?

To reflect now on the ideas we proposed is inevitably to reflect upon the company’s eventual collapse. George Steel’s City Opera implemented several of our suggestions: the redesign of the company’s online image, the poach of Prima Donna, collaborating with BAM, generally working with a more lean model of producing opera—even leaving Lincoln Center. Whether these choices were inspired by our campaign or not seems moot. They didn’t help. And maybe, we couldn’t have either. We had such enthusiasm, but how could we have predicted the outcome of many of those suggestions, based largely as they were on creative risk, fiscal austerity and institutional transformation? It’s worth saying that we had also advocated for a thorough revision of the company’s leadership, especially the board of directors, who should function, at minimum, as the organization’s fiscal lifeline. Whether this revision happened or not is not within my ability to know at the present time. Critics seems to serve the board a fair helping of blame. As James Jorden wrote to me rather bluntly in email, “They failed at their job, miserably.”

Of all the things our campaign and the company’s teetering cabaletta shared, the emphasis on City Opera’s identity as “the people’s opera” is one that feels, in retrospect, the most dubious. During our campaign, we took this identity for granted. The homey populism of “the people’s opera” was fun to use and easy to play up as political parody. The company placed particular weight on this sentiment in its failing last gasp appeals for public and private support. And in virtually all the media coverage that has chronicled the demise of New York City Opera, the trope of “the people’s opera” dutifully appears, like the eldest daughter who is brought out of her attic bower to be shown, year after year, to a new suitor who, really, has only agreed to meet her to verify the rumor he’d always heard about the town’s notorious old spinster.

After all, this tropological claim—“the people’s opera”—was wreathed upon the company during, perhaps, the height of American populist socialism, something that, in the era in which City Opera has folded, has all but vanished from the political landscape (at the time of this writing, we’re at Day 10 of a Republican Party-led shutdown of the federal government). The only real period in which NYCO could have been considered an opera for the populace was when it offered more affordable tickets than it did in its final days. One must also question NYCO’s ultimate statement, Anna Nicole, in relation to its identity as an opera for “the people.” James Jorden was in dissent from mainstream critics when he observed of the opera, “As [the curtain] goes up, it’s clear that the creators are looking down their noses at America’s lower class in general, and at the main character in particular.” In this vein, one scene that portrays the employees of Walmart as expressionless, gray-faced zombies came off obnoxiously shallow. Representations like this are not critical, not in any rigorous sense, nor are they likely to shed light on a subject that is anything other than a recasting of the glare of public opinion that the makers of the opera purport to critique. Beyond the quality of the production itself, which is to be commended, Anna Nicole resonates largely as a bitter, even cynical swan song of an opera project that didn’t necessarily fail to live up to its own vision of itself, nor to the vision that “the people” had for the company, but, rather, it sings of the failure to understand a distinction between the two.



As a hybrid of both classical music and theater, opera is prone, perhaps, to having a relationship with the figuration of endings, some of which I have already deployed above. Such a lexicon would also include, among others, the following: cadence/cadenza, coda, fin/finale/final act, bow, bar, lobby, close/closing, ovation, scene, and, the belated review. Tragedy, with its particular way of ending, has a strong association with opera. It is rote, at this point, to draw a correlation between the fate of New York City Opera and the tragic foundering of its ultimate anti-heroine upon the shores of stardom. I would like to add that Anna Nicole, especially in the back half, reads as a sustained, juvenile riff on opera’s closing “fat lady.”  It isn’t over, or—Don’t go home yet!—until her arrival. Here, we can link opera’s association with closings to notions of domesticity, where the end of the former opens onto the latter. One thinks of the harbinger par excellence of theatrical closure: Curtains!

Perhaps the operatic voice is, for our present cultural moment, a rhetorical way of marking a distinction between the sublime and the domestic; opera as an always homeless, if rapturous voice, ultimately unlocatable. Every now and then, it seems, a media sensation is made of an unknown singer who surprises us, out of the blue nowhere of our daily entertainment intake, with a stirring performance from the opera repertoire (or from Les Mis). I’m thinking of Susan Boyle, here, but she is not alone. These sensations, starting on the TV and funneling intravenously onto the internet as must-watch video clips, emerge as sugar cubes of inspiration and seem, sadly, to draw this inspirational force from the foregrounding (by the show’s producers; among the prime masterminds, the unctuous Simon Cowell) of some aspect of personhood that, for reasons that truly escape me, are presented as criteria that would predispose an audience against believing that said person could ever be capable of singing opera. Such criteria have been geekishness, physical largeness, homeliness, and pointedly, on the Korean version of America’s Got Talent, homelessness.

On one hand, I am encouraged by the popular responses to the Susan Boyles of the world. It does evince a kind of pop awareness that A.) opera exists, and B.) it embodies a truly marvelous if seldom heard vocal technique. On the other hand, the emphasis of these phenomena as unexpected demonstrations of individual talent and aesthetic achievement against a background of quotidian chaff continues to reproduce an imperative for opera to remain exceptionally itinerant. It’s almost as if these incidents, rather than being instances of opera, function instead as hyper-signifiers of the very notion of the operatic, occasionally breaking through the skein of pop songs to remind us that there is something else out there, some thing—“Opera”—in a place and time that is not only always already elsewhere, but now and forever nowhere; a cultural space that is permanently delayed by this sensationalized recurrence of inspirational reminders. To wit, the question that the popularity of these supposedly spontaneous game show operants proposes—Where did this voice come from?—seems to be accompanied by a tacit prohibition against ever finding out.

I would like to nominate these popular sensations of the operatic as something of a true “people’s opera,” understanding such, broadly, as an opera that is appreciated by a popular audience; an opera that isn’t necessarily sequestered in the work of a single company, nor produced exclusively within the occult halls of the classical industrial complex. It is not altogether distinct from the kind of opera that New York City Opera was in the business of producing, but there are differences.

The operatic dislocation of voice that the TV game show aspirants effect does echo, in a way, the experience of watching opera live from, say, the far reaches of the top balcony of an opera house. The singers are so distant, you can’t even make out their faces. But the voice you recognize. In this way, the operatic voice uniquely demonstrates how the voice is limited by the body, and also, how the voice can function as the body’s extraordinary limit. Anyone who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not to mention many other neighborhoods in New York City might recall the enchanting experience of walking down the street when suddenly catching a phrase of opera trilling through the air; a calling voice, disembodied from the practitioner hard at work in her (no doubt) studio apartment; or perhaps in the midst of a period of psychic agony, or, what is all too casually referred to as “a lesson.” I had another experience just like this a few weeks ago, in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived on and off for five years. In all that time, I had no idea an opera singer lived here.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek explores what he articulates as the “traumatic dimension of the voice,” that is, the alien quality of the voice in relation to the psychic body. Perhaps we can imagine opera, or maybe only the operatic, as a flourishing fetishization of “this voice which freely floats around…the ultimate moment-object of anxiety which distorts reality.” Many fans of professional opera no doubt could identify with this as a succinct characterization of the experience of great opera. A sea of freely floating voices, distorting reality in relishing waves. We might also link this to the euphoric ovations that surge through the audience every time a Susan Boyle comes along to demonstrate exactly what “the X factor” is all about.

But for the opera lover—that is, the fanatic, the professional singer, the composer, the conductor, and yes, even the patron—opera is an art that belongs to a house. And these houses are charged (or charge themselves) with the task of producing operas on a large scale, employing numerous soloists, a chorus, a full-time orchestra, a ballet, and an entire company of designers, directors and, on the rarest of occasions, a living composer. The opera lover leaves her house, and goes to the opera house; both to make opera, and to be made by opera. With the demise of New York City Opera, the world (if only the opera world) has lost one of the few institutions that was capable of, and dedicated to, providing a home for this kind of opera. The lover’s opera, perhaps. And that is a loss profoundly to be regretted.

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