Less intimidating and more accessible than the Met, City Opera challenged audiences with unconventional productions and repertoire
They finally did it. They finally killed my opera. The fateful decision made last week by the board of New York City Opera to shutter the storied company and to file for bankruptcy protection in the wake of a failed appeal to raise a desperately-needed $7m not only leaves a void on New York's cultural scene. From my side of the Atlantic, it also feels like a personal loss. When I was five years old, my grandmother took me to see my first opera, Don Giovanni, at the New York State Theater, City Opera’s long-time home at Lincoln Center. A dozen years later, as an undergraduate at Columbia University with aspirations of becoming a music critic, City Opera challenged me with unconventional productions and repertoire on which I sharpened the blades of my music criticism skills.
To be honest, when I signed on as a critic for The Spectator, Columbia’s daily newspaper, the lure of free tickets was more powerful than the desire to see my name in print. I was always thrilled when Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan or City Opera would grant me a pair of seats to a concert or opera I was dying to see, to say nothing of the unconventional date night activities it provided.
If the Met was the epitome of the classical opera experience – grandly historical productions, world famous divas, tuxedos and evening gowns – City Opera was less intimidating and more accessible, a place where you could show up in t-shirt and jeans and not stoke the ire of some Fifth Avenue matron. The productions themselves were overall more joyous, spontaneous and energetic. If City Opera lacked the high gloss and polish of it well-heeled neighbour, it more than compensated in spunk and enthusiasm.
Let’s not forget that City Opera was founded by then-mayor Fiorello La Guardia as a populist alternative to the more tradition-bound Metropolitan Opera. In the company’s 70-year history, 'the people's opera' presented 29 world premieres and 61 American premieres of works like Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. The company also launched the careers of many now-famous American singers through their commitment to showcasing young artists. The roster includes Beverly Sills, Renée Fleming and Samuel Ramey. There have even been some minor European talents, like Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. New York has been robbed not only of one of its most storied artistic institutions, but also of one of its most prized incubators of vocal talent.
When I started covering City Opera, the company had just turned 60 and was aging gracefully, presenting an exciting mixture of standard repertoire in modern productions, Sondheim musicals with big stars, valuable Handel productions and the little-performed 20th century works. City opened me up both to different philosophies of opera production and repertoire, exposure that became an incredible asset when I began reviewing opera in Europe, where outlandishly revisionist productions have long been the order of the day.
At Berlin’s three opera houses, I am overjoyed whenever I encounter a singer who began their career at City Opera when I was reviewing for The Spectator. One such singer is Maureen McKay, a bright young soprano who sang a sassy Despina in 2006’s Così fan tutte, one of the final productions I reviewed at City Opera. For two seasons she has been part of the ensemble of Komische Oper, where I’ve heard her in works by Mozart, Beethoven and Poulenc. The Komische Oper is very much the Berlin equivalent to the City Opera I knew circa 2005. The wild card in a city of three opera houses, the Komische presents a mix of opera, operetta and musicals sung by a young and energetic troupe of singers. The productions tend to be outlandish and daring. In the past season under the guidance of artistic director Barrie Kosky, the Komische has emerged as the house with the most imaginative productions and exciting programming. It is exactly this sort of inventive and energetic alternative to conservative – or at least conventional – opera as represented by the Met that New York deserves.
I left New York for Berlin at a time when it seemed that City Opera’s fortunes would continue to rise with incoming general artistic director Gerard Mortier. I followed from a distance the long series of artistic disputes and financial difficulties that led to City Opera becoming a shadow of its former self as a nomadic company performing around the borough and eventually to its demise. I’m glad that I can remember City Opera at the height of its strength. And the next time I hear a City veteran take the stage in Berlin, I’ll raise my champagne at intermission to silently toast 'the people’s opera'.