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.