Looking at New York City Opera, in the Past Tense

By James Inverne on Oct 03, 2013 05:04 AM EDT

In a sad day for classical music in the United States, the resignation of Osmo Vänskä from the Minnesota Orchestra is joined by another calamity--the closure of New York City Opera. One supposes that the sudden largesse of a major benefactor could still turn things around, but even a desperate last-minute Kickstarter campaign has failed to save the ailing company. The crowdsource appeal raised an impressive $300,000-plus, but they needed at least a million.

And so, after 70 years and an apparently final production of Mark Anthony Turnage's opera Anna Nicole, City Opera will shut. Will someone, somewhere revive it at some point in some other form? It wouldn't be surprising if so. And perhaps NYCO's true legacy is in the growing number of smaller, often experimental opera companies around New York, many very much born from the pioneering spirit of City Opera. Because even if NYCO never pushed as far in the direction of theatrical experimentation as, say, the U.K.'s English National Opera (and I don't say that's a bad thing, every company must find its own approach), it still did much to break down a certain stuffiness around opera. It might have pushed further had Gerard Mortier not run before he even arrived as artistic director, a shock to the system that, in hindsight, looks like a crippling blow. Yet, perhaps even the Metropolitan, always City's senior cousin, would have taken longer to get 'round to employing some of the more really interesting directors around without City's willingness to look at opera as a living, breathing and still-developing art form.

Of course, many people judge an opera company by its great musical personalities, its singers and its conductors, more than its directors and its set designers. And the annals of City Opera can more than hold its own against most companies. They made their own stars, and those stars often stuck by them.

The defining NYCO star is Beverly Sills, perhaps the most visible ambassador the company ever had. Julius Rudel did for the company in the pit what she did on stage (succeeding the short-lived tenure of the great Erich Leinsdorf whose adventurous programming, perhaps ironically, was deemed unfinanceable).

But many great singers passed through the company before, and after, Sills on their way up--Sherrill Milnes, Jerry Hadley, Samuel Ramey, Carol Vaness, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Ramon Vinay, Regina Resnik, Dorothy Kirsten, Tatiana Troyanos, Catherine Malfitano, Lauren Flanigan and Shirley Verrett.

Was City savable? Look, opera doesn't make money. It doesn't even pay for itself, usually. The exceptions, like Glyndebourne, are just that. Exceptions. It will beggar the belief of many that the city whose name its "second" opera company bore, could not have found the wherewithal or will to rescue City Opera. I suppose what I'm saying is, there are times when public subsidy of the arts really makes sense. New York City Opera was not an unimportant company. It was doing important work. It should have been saved. It should have been.

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TagsNew York City Opera, Anna Nicole, English National Opera, Gerard Mortier, Metropolitan Opera, Beverly Sills, Julius Rudel, Erich Leinsdorf, José Carreras, Placido Domingo, Samuel Ramey, Glyndebourne

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