THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER, 1991
John Adams’s opera, about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the murder of a passenger, an appliance manufacturer from New York, touched a nerve when it arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for its U.S. premiere. Jewish organizations protested that Adams had humanized the terrorists, the Klinghoffer family accused the production of being anti-Semitic, and the opera received pained reviews. But it contained ravishing music—not least the aria sung by Klinghoffer as he sinks to his death.
THE DEBUT OF SUPERTITLES, 1983
In 1983, when City Opera introduced supertitles (terse translations projected on a strip of screen above the stage), all operagoers finally understood what was being said. The Met’s James Levine said his company would follow suit “over my dead body.” Twelve years later, in an opening-night performance of Otello, the Met introduced a more private and discreet system of titles on the seat backs, which remains the gold standard. Bonus: That was also the show, now immortalized on DVD, that launched Renée Fleming unto bona fide divadom.
AUDRA MCDONALD, 1998
Audra McDonald had already won three Tonys when she made her first solo CD, and launched it with a killer concert at Joe’s Pub. The set list consisted only of smartly sentimental new music by the new generation of musical-theater composers: Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown. The event made it clear that big Broadway had more to offer than reheated Lloyd Webber, and McDonald saw herself as a creative muse.
New York is where young opera singers go to temp, and New York City Opera exists in large measure to help them out. Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and countertenor David Daniels arrived for their debuts with ready-made reputations, but their meeting in Handel’s Xerxes made them both stars. They never recorded it together, but each made a CD that includes highlights.
THE EMERSON STRING QUARTET’S SHOSTAKOVICH MARATHON, 2000
When they decided to tackle Shostakovich’s string quartets, the Emerson’s members knew they’d be criticized for not being Russian, soulful, or oppressed enough. Performing all fifteen quartets at Lincoln Center (and recording them), they made a powerful argument that four comfortable New Yorkers knew their way around distress of the soul.
THE PHILHARMONIC’S EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM, 2001
A little more than a week after 9/11, the New York Philharmonic opened its season with a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem that rediscovered the depths of succor that classical music can offer. Afterward, audience members didn’t applaud but simply rose in silence and filed out onto Lincoln Center’s plaza, where the final notes of the concert they’d just heard were still playing on a giant screen, and then the scene repeated itself: tears, silence, and the crowd drifting gratefully home.
ZANKEL HALL OPENS, 2003
Dug out of the bedrock beneath Carnegie Hall, the 650-seat Zankel Hall affected the city’s musical life way out of proportion to its size, starting with its inaugural festival curated by John Adams. The concerts had the quality of an inquisitive musician’s CD carousel: wild Latin jazz, medieval motets, high-gloss European avant-garde, and some regular old classical music. It announced that Zankel would be a bazaar of tastes, joined in spirit with the sanctum upstairs. Even the subway rumble that periodically filters in is endearing—after all, it reminds you where you are.