It Isn’t Over Because “the Fat Lady Wasn’t Singing”

Anna Nicole poster on Subway

The ads for Anna Nicole which appeared all over NYC including on subway trains were one of the few reminders in this town of a million distractions that opera might just be relevant to contemporary America even if it was in fact the work of a British composer and a British librettist.

Last week wasn’t a particularly stellar news week for people concerned about classical music in the United States, which in part overlaps with concern for the health of new music here. The latest tragedy in the ongoing 13-month stalemate between the management and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra was a painful one-two punch—the nearly simultaneous resignations of conductor Osmo Vänska (a champion of contemporary composers) and composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who ran the orchestra’s Composer Institute, a vital training ground for emerging orchestral composers for a decade. In Massachusetts, rumors have been floating around that the future of Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute might be in jeopardy. (On that matter, stay tuned.) And here in New York City, strained relations between management and labor (this time the stagehands) also led to the cancellation of the opening night gala performance at Carnegie Hall by the visiting Philadelphia Orchestra, which was to have included performances of music by Boston-based composer/pianist Leonardo Genovese and Grammy Award-winning Esperanza Spalding (for which she would have joined them on stage). But perhaps all of this bad news was dwarfed by the filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the New York City Opera which effectively dissolved the 70-year-old company.

Although its name was geographically specific, New York City Opera was an important champion for American composers from all over the country. The company produced the world premiere stagings of over 30 American operas, including works that are now acknowledged as 20th-century classics, such as: Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, William Grant Still’s Trouble Island, Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Crucible, Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, Ned Rorem’s Miss Julie, Thea Musgrave’s The Voice of Ariadne, Dominick Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire, and Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. Over 100 additional operas received an important boost by having excerpts featured in NYCO’s VOX Contemporary Opera Lab. And I must remind all the folks who claim that we don’t need City Opera since we already have the Metropolitan Opera of the more than two dozen year premiere hiatus at the Met between the final performance of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra in December 1967 and the world premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles in December 1991, during which time New York City Opera presented 12 world premieres of works by American composers. (Note: While Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach received its American premiere on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, it was not a Met production.) This season the Met is doing only one new opera, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys.

I bring up all this history about new American opera at the New York City Opera and the comparative lack of it over at the Met because I detected a troubling innuendo about contemporary opera in comments that were made to The New York Times by Tino Gagliardi, the president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, in the wake of the NYCO’s bankruptcy announcement (to which I’ve added bold to facilitate reading): “[M]anagement’s reckless decisions to move out of the opera’s newly renovated home at Lincoln Center, slash the season schedule and abandon an accessible repertoire have predictably resulted in financial disaster for the company.”

I will not speak to the reduction of the NYCO schedule or the move away from Lincoln Center here (since both of those issues involve economic complexities I don’t feel qualified to address), but it seems to me that, unlike the Met, expanding the operatic repertoire had been central to NYCO’s identity throughout its entire history. So to imply that new music (since “abandoning accessible repertoire” is usually coded language for “presenting new music”) was in any way responsible for the company’s demise seems outrageous. For the record, I tend to only attend performances of contemporary works. (For me, to reference the old cliché about opera, it’s usually preferable if “the fat lady isn’t singing.”) Most of the premiere performances of new works I attended of NYCO productions over the years, including the ones of the most recent seasons (such as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which I attended on September 25), were packed to capacity. If anything, NYCO would have better served American audiences by being even more committed to contemporary American operas. The same is true for every other opera company based in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera included.

14 thoughts on “It Isn’t Over Because “the Fat Lady Wasn’t Singing”

  1. David MacDonald

    I’m pretty sure I remember reading that Turnage was around 95% sold every night. It’s bad management that killed City Opera, not repertoire. This quote smells like the questionnaire from Local 802 that Rob Deemer addressed in his column a few weeks ago.

    Mistakes were passively made, but not in the programming.

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  2. Richard Kessler

    Frank,

    I don’t think this is “troubling innuendo.” The guy from 802 flat out blamed the demise on three things, one of which was an abandonment of accessible repertoire.” Mr. Gagliardi is ridiculous and I agree with the post above that the statement stinks like that survey 802 initially released that was gamed to be negative towards “contemporary” rep.

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  3. cunningfox

    20th century classics? With the possible exception of The Tender Land – but only just – these are all pieces that fell into oblivion five minutes after the final performance of their first run. This speaks volumes for NYCO’s quality control and for its incorrigible ability to waste money. That’s what killed it. An accessible repertoire would have saved it, and it’s highly disingenuous of this blog to claim otherwise.

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    1. bgn

      We are talking about a period of seventy years, during which the 20th-century classics Oteri lists were well balanced–some might say overbalanced–by lots of performances of Boheme, Carmen and Traviata. And the board mismanagement dates from only the last ten years or so. Please get your history straight.

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    2. Russell Platt

      Not so—”The Crucible” and “Lizzie Borden” are hardy survivors, and Argento’s “Miss Havisham’s Fire” became a hit when it was revised about 12 years ago with James Robinson for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. (Argento is inarguably a master of the genre.) And Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” really took off, even though many of us critics hated it. “Anna Nicole” sold out despite many bad reviews (not from me; I loved it); so, I’m sure, would Messiaen’s “St. Francis.”

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    3. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Stephen,

      Your claim that all of the works I cited “fell into oblivion five minutes after the final performance of their first run” hovers somewhere between a gross exaggeration and a blatant untruth.

      Of course, success and oblivion are ultimately relative terms. But honors such as a Pulitzer Prize bestowed well more than “five minutes” after its final performance must connote some level of positive acknowledgement for Robert Ward’s The Crucible, a work which continues to be revived all over the country. (If you had taken “five minutes” to Google it you would have even found YouTube video clips from an excellent production of it done in Knoxville in 2010.) A nationally televised broadcast of Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden aired more than “five minutes” after its final performance as well as a second nationally televised broadcast of a subsequent production of it more than 20 years later (a lot more than “five minutes”) must connote some level of notoriety. (A new production of Lizzie Borden is coming to Boston this fall.) Critical acclaim for commercially released recordings of Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Ned Rorem’s Miss Julie, and Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X–all of which were released more than “five minutes after the final performance of their first run”–must surely count for recognition that is of a level above oblivion. The fabulous performance I attended of Dominick Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire last April at the University of Maryland was one of the highlights of my concert going experiences last year, which was decades after the “five minutes after the final performance” of its first run. But I’ll stop there for now.

      It’s easy to castigate less familiar repertoire, but it’s far more interesting and worthwhile to seek out new experiences. For example, I just watched your short film A Love Story in Milk which I found very moving. Had I been as dismissive of it as you’ve been of all of these operas, which could have been an easy temptation not having ever heard of you before, I would have missed out on something truly extraordinary. I look forward to viewing more of your work.

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  4. Phil Fried

    I agree. Obviously this has nothing to do with style and everything to do with under-capitalization. For example: How does an institution manage to sell out every performance and yet not bring in any money or maintain a loyal audience?

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  5. john Porter

    It seems to me that Ward’s Crucible, Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, Bernstein’s Tender Land, are all presented pretty often. The NYCO did lots of canonical operas and during Kellogg’s tenure lots of wonderful baroque opera. To have anyone, let alone the president of the local musician’s union blame the end of the City Opera on rep choices is simply the statement of someone uninformed. You would think the head of the musician’s union would be pro music, of any kind that gets work for his members. Odd…

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  6. Eric Huebner

    On balance it’s hard to say Tino’s wrong about City Opera. City Opera always featured far more traditional operas than newer ones. Steele altered that balance dramatically. it was exciting at first but it clearly didn’t pan out.

    Anyway, this is hardly the week to jump on the musicians union even if their comments seem not particularly enlightened. What’s the point? If they understood the value of new work better they would…what? agree to crappier contracts for musicians?

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    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Eric,

      While I completely empathize with everyone’s need for an equitable contract, I can’t agree that the balance at NYCO was altered in favor of contemporary opera all that dramatically.

      A quick look at what would have been NYCO’s 2013-2014 season, which surprisingly is still online, shows that Anna Nicole was the only opera by a living composer scheduled for performance. While Bluebeard’s Castle was composed during the “dreaded” 20th century, it is hardly a new work and has safely entered the repertoire all over the world. And no convoluted excuse in the world can make Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro into an “inaccessible” contemporary work. In fact, the most obscure and perhaps hard-to-sell ticket of this season is the largely unknown Endimione, a 1772 opera by Johann Christian Bach (a son of Johann Sebastian whose operatic output rarely gets revived nowadays). These were the only four operas scheduled. And note that not a single work was by an American composer.

      The 2012-2013 season’s offerings included works by Rossini and Offenbach, hardly new music, plus a 20th century classic by Benjamin Britten and the NYC premiere of a very successful opera by Thomas Adès, again only one work by a living composer and no Americans… Hmmm, maybe they actually should have programmed more works by living American composers….

      Reply
  7. Pingback: Stop Blaming New Music, Please! | scorestreet

  8. Fred Kolo

    It is a bit of an illusion to consider that the NYCO was deeply committed to contemporary operas and producing the prremieres of new works THROUGHOUT ITS EXISTENCE. This aspect grew to be paramount in their years at City Center, in the later years of which their Spring seasons were devoted entirely to works of the 20th Century. They opened the State Theatre with a similar Spring season with all contemporary works (Ginastera, von Einem, Menotti, Moore, Shostakovich and many more).
    The following Fall with Handel’s Giulio Cesare they found themselves with a long time company member who became overnight a major international star. They took a sharp turn in their repertory to more conventional works, some of them admittedly not in the standard repertory, but still by Donizetti. Their box office soared on the bankability of Ms. Sills, and they NEVER AGAIN mounted a season of contemporary works.
    There were occasional premieres, but what had been the deeper purposes of the company (new works, contemporary works, popular prices, and a true ensemble company) were all betrayed quickly and they became a kind of junior version of the Met. They floundered artistically right from that moment, and never recovered. What we witnessed was simply a slow, long and inevitable collapse.
    F.Kolo, NYC

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  9. Fred Kolo

    P.S.
    In the first two decades of it existence the NYCO staged more than 25 American works. In 1959 alone there were 12 American works presented. Among the American composers whose work they presented are William Grant Still, David Tamkin, Aaron Copland, Robert Ward, Douglas Moore, Carlisle Floyd, Gian Carlo Menotti, Marc Blitzstein, Hugo Weisgall, Robert Kurka, Ned Rorem, Jack Beeson, and many others in later year–this is far from a complete list.

    Reply

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