Last week, I took part in a WQXR podcast about the current travails of the New York City Opera, a company that, after a season of great hopes, interesting but uneven programming, and extremely disappointing ticket sales, announced it is leaving its long-time home at Lincoln Center to perform in as-yet-unspecified premises next season. (The consultant Willem Brans and the soprano Amy Burton were other panelists; WQXR’s Graham Parker moderated.)
The situation at City Opera is becoming a portmanteau for a lot of excess baggage, and I think it needs to be unpacked. No, it’s not that the rotten economy has claimed another classical music institution; no, it’s not the case that New York can no longer support two opera companies; no, it’s not the case that programming unusual repertory means a company’s downfall. City Opera right now represents a perfect storm of mismanagement and bad luck -- most of their current problems can be traced back to some heavy-handed board decisions a couple of years ago -- in a climate where there’s no room for mistakes.
Above: New York City Opera’s promo video for its production of contemporary and 20th-century “Monodramas,” which gained critical enthusiasm but sold few tickets.
The interesting question right now is where this leaves City Opera, which, if it survives at all, looks to be positioning itself as the kind of small, flexible company that I keep saying is exactly what we need in the future. Will it find a single home, or become the equivalent of a pop-up opera company, finding venues around the city appropriate to different works? In practical terms, this is probably impossible, but theoretically, the idea has enough interest and appeal (witness Lincoln Center’s periodic forays to the Park Avenue Armory and elsewhere) to be worth exploring. Other companies are: the Berlin Staatsoper is hosting an entire festival of contemporary opera this year in part as a silver lining to an enforced absence from its theater due to renovations. And on Friday, the Opera Company of Philadelphia continues its very interesting new push into chamber opera with the American premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra. In short: using a smaller space makes a lot of exciting things possible.
Here’s another, tangential question: we greet each closure with a great wave of sorrow, as befits the loss of something we love. Yet it’s inevitable that some organizations close. The alternative is to have a landscape made up entirely of groups several decades to a century old, and that’s not a healthy landscape. If our business world were all about maintaining old institutions at all costs, we wouldn’t have a functioning economy; and yet in the music world we see it as a moral imperative to support each and every group, largely on the basis of its history.
I’m the last person to want to see any organization die, and yet we all know that some ebb and flow, some cyclical development is natural. In light of this, I think it’s more productive to ask what kind of opera organization would best represent American opera today, and how City Opera could become that, rather than focusing solely on defending or mourning a past status quo that had clearly, for whatever reason, lost its raison d’etre.
Edited to add: In this week’s New York Magazine, Justin Davidson had some similar thoughts.