New York City Opera, having disastrously tried to launch one new era, is now picking its way into another. To one side is a fiscal abyss; to the other a gentler, more cautious slope toward extinction, strewn with cut-rate Verdi. In between are several paths to a flourishing future, if only the company can be honest, humble, and radical enough to find one.
To begin with, it has to find a leader, fast. Last month, Gérard Mortier, the convention-scorning Parisian hired in 2007, bailed out before moving in, driven away by a shrunken budget. So for the moment, City Opera is operating deep in debt, with no immediate plans, no long-term strategy, and no clear sense of its own identity. This week, the company will present its sole big event of the season, a Carnegie Hall concert performance of Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra. That work was a disaster when it opened the Metropolitan Opera’s Lincoln Center home, in 1966; let’s hope it doesn’t herald City Opera’s farewell.
Saving the company will require a deft and fearless hand. Mortier, for all his recklessness, analyzed the situation astutely and had ideas worth building on. He wanted to replace the frenzied repertoire system, which means keeping large numbers of often underrehearsed operas in constant rotation, with a stagione setup, which allows the company to focus on one production at a time. He rightly assumed that the Metropolitan Opera could monopolize the city’s appetite for La Traviata, Carmen, and La Bohème, and that there isn’t much point in offering flimsier second-tier versions. He correctly figured that it’s better to sell out fewer performances than fill half the seats night after night. His big misstep was to undercut those innovations with a banquet of large-scale operas, including a pair of five-hour extravaganzas, Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Whoever takes on Mortier’s mess would do well to adapt his philosophy for these straitened times.
The new boss ought to dismantle City Opera’s current apparatus and reorganize it into a flexible roving troupe. The company, which has had to vacate the State Theater during renovations, can move back in next fall, but its home (rebaptized the David H. Koch Theater) is becoming a liability. It’s too big—an XL house for a company that is slipping toward S. Lean productions have looked shriveled there, and young voices sounded muffled. A chamber opera (Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, say, or Haydn’s L’Isola Disabitata, or Adès’s Powder Her Face) demands a compact ensemble and a cozier room. So, ideally, do operettas (Lehár’s The Land of Smiles), baroque works (Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Lully’s Atys), monodramas (Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine), and Weimar shows (Weill’s Threepenny Opera). A reduced and nomadic City Opera could perform all of that work in an assortment of spaces, including Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center, the freshly revamped Alice Tully Hall, the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or Broadway’s growing list of vacancies. And once or twice a year, the company could mount a blowout production of Walter Braunfels’s The Birds, for instance, or Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk—operas that can really make use of the State Theater’s generous stage and pit, and can fill its 2,700 seats.
Forging a migrant opera company would force changes that a ruthless economy may demand anyway: simple but ingenious sets, a repertoire of intimate pieces, and an orchestra that can shrink and grow as the music, rather than the union, demands. City Opera will in any case need to renegotiate its relationship with the Met, which is crowding its junior rival. The Met’s new HD movie-theater broadcasts make its performances—live, large, loud, and up close—available for $23, undercutting City Opera’s role as an inexpensive alternative. At the same time, the juggernaut next door can no longer be counted on to deliver a stodgy product, leaving City Opera to do the innovating. The Met has expanded its turf from standby spectaculars into American opera, historical rarities, and modern psychodramas. Shostakovich’s satire The Nose, directed by the South African artist William Kentridge, would have been a perfect City Opera project. So would Janácek’s dark parable From the House of the Dead. The Met will do both next season.
So who’s going to bring all this change about? A couple of weeks ago, optimists were jazzed when speculations whipped around that the job would go to George Steel, a brave and canny darling of new-music enthusiasts with slender opera experience. Steel spent eleven years running Columbia University’s Miller Theater, then took over the Dallas Opera last October. A move back to New York would leave sore feelings in Texas, but City Opera is in distress, and Steel might just have the skills and the stomach to rescue it. He says he hasn’t been offered the job, and isn’t considering it; we’ll see if that’s still true in the coming days.
Whoever dares to take the job of general manager will inherit truckloads of trouble but also find a company capable of mustering charm, freshness, versatility, and a line of young and malleable singers waiting to incandesce. In this Darwinian atmosphere, City Opera will have to imitate the best of those artists, and make itself nimble, versatile, and very good. Boldness has its dangers, but mediocrity is lethal.