by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 1, 2002.
What is wrong with Lincoln Center? The problem goes deeper than the virtuoso bickering over redevelopment which, to judge from reports, fills the corridors of what is called "the world's largest cultural complex." The chief personalities of the place—Beverly Sills, Joseph Volpe, Paul Kellogg, and the rest—make entertaining copy, and it would almost be a pity if the soap opera were to end. But, no matter who is in charge, Lincoln Center will remain Lincoln Center, and that is not entirely a positive thing. A nimbus of corporate blandness hangs over the institution. With the exception of the mighty Met, which still brings forth wonders, the major resident musical organizations—City Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Society, New York City Ballet—have a faintly spiritless air. They put on good shows, they draw good crowds, but, to quote Bertolt Brecht's libretto for "Mahagonny," something is lacking. It's telling that Great Performers at Lincoln Center has lately created a buzz by staging events outside Lincoln Center. It's also telling that City Opera, buoyed by a fifty-million-dollar donation, may move out of the complex altogether, possibly to a new arts center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site.
Given that there is now a $l.2-billion renovation plan on the boards, New Yorkers might want to ask how well Lincoln Center has done its job. Robert Moses conceived the complex as a shining city of the arts, taking the place of neighborhoods that he called "dismal and decayed." It did succeed in sprucing up the Upper West Side and placing the companies in a secure cocoon. But Lincoln Center has never been able to foster an ideal cultural populace that delights equally in opera, ballet, and symphony. In my experience, opera people, ballet people, and symphony people seldom overlap comfortably. The lumping together of such distinct art forms has made it harder for each company to define itself crisply in the public eye. Ensconced in the limestone fortress, they have become subspecies of "the performing arts," whose main characteristic, the curious onlooker might decide, is an edifying stuffiness. For whatever reason, a lot of well-educated younger people of my acquaintance do not often make the trip to Broadway and Sixty-sixth Street. I once waited in vain for a friend from the East Village because he was unable to find Lincoln Center.
One great difficulty is the look of the place. Even purists have to admit that what they hear is affected by where they are and what they see. Lincoln Center is an environment with little warmth. You might call it an airport terminal for the performing arts, except that most airport terminals offer better spots to sit and wait. (When I have time to kill in the area, I look for a comfy chair at the Barnes & Noble across the street.) City Opera, the most sprightly of the constituents, is stuck with the most soulless of the spaces; the State Theatre is not so much acoustically bad as acoustically null. The music sags and dies in front of you. Attempts to support the singers with amplification have done little more than give the hollowness a ragged edge. Also, the configuration of the seating—endless rows, no center aisle—stifles communication among the listeners. You cannot move around and talk to other patrons; there is no sense of a shared experience. Instead, you shuffle awkwardly to your seat, sit for the duration, and shuffle out.
Compare the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark. N.J.P.A.C., to use its grim acronym, is, after Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall, in Boston, the best orchestral space in the Northeast. With its classic horseshoe shape, glowing dark-wood interior, and warmly resonant acoustic, it exudes the personality of a nineteenth-century room. On a recent visit, I found myself wishing that it could be transported in one piece to Lincoln Center, preferably to occupy a vacant lot left by Avery Fisher Hall. New Yorkers may also feel a pang of envy upon visiting Philadelphia's new Verizon Hall. Like N.J.P.A.C., Verizon (how much uglier can these names get?) was designed by the firm of Artec, which understands the weird science of psychoacoustics. The acoustic itself has problems—the sound is vivid but hazy, suggesting an incredibly good but not quite lifelike stereo system—but the hall seduces the eyes with its mahogany veneer. There is a glorious open-air lobby to beckon the public inside. The most ambitious of the Lincoln Center renovation plans called, similarly, for an enclosure of the entire plaza, designed by Frank Gehry, but this has been voted down. Too bad: the pizzazz of a Gehry design, or any kind of design, might have seeped out onto this stretch of upper Broadway, which gets very sleepy after ten o'clock.
City Opera should jump at the chance to leave this rudderless ship. It has always been in the Met's shadow; there was never a good reason to have the two opera companies side by side. Lincoln Center's plaza is Met-centric, giving visitors a self-important thrill as they stride toward the Met's pompous façade. City Opera needs to angle itself toward the public in a completely different way. Its best bet is to be small and think big—the exact reverse of the prevailing Lincoln Center philosophy.
Since Paul Kellogg took over as general and artistic director, in 1996, City Opera has become markedly more stylish and distinctive. It has done excellently with Baroque opera and tuneful twentieth-century fare. Last season it presented a beautiful, meticulous revival of Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt," an opera that haunts the mind in ways that its twenty-three-year-old composer could never have anticipated. Coming soon is a new version of Handel's "Agrippina"—the sort of freewheeling rewrite of the Baroque that City Opera has managed well in the past. If the company were to move into a considerably smaller theatre—one that contained, say, eighteen hundred seats—it would be able to give this repertory an intimacy that eludes the Met.
Despite the talk of moving downtown, Kellogg's City Opera remains a decidedly uptown institution. It is not the sort of place where a younger audience might go to seek adventure. If City Opera wanted to blaze a new trail, it could radicalize its repertory, delving seriously into contemporary opera. So far, however, the Kellogg regime's most successful contemporary offerings have been of the safe, neo-Romantic variety—Tobias Picker's "Emmeline," the three-composer omnibus "Central Park." Last fall, the company presented "Lilith," by Deborah Drattell, which began with a powerful, mysterious choral scene and then proceeded to move around in circles for a very long time. Next season will bring Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," which, to judge from a new recording of the San Francisco Opera's première production, is a flashy treatment of a gripping subject. In part, City Opera is captive to the torpor of American opera, an art form that has never quite broken free of the nineteen-forties populism of Aaron Copland and seems perpetually lost in that well-travelled prairie. There are other worlds waiting to be explored, and the company's admirable commitment to the American repertory should not limit its field of vision. What about the minimalist classics of Reich, Glass, and Adams? Or such spiky new masterpieces as Thomas Adès's "Powder Her Face" and Osvaldo Golijov's "St. Mark Passion"? Or European conceptual works by HK Gruber and Heiner Goebbels? Why not open dialogues with pop musicians who are incorporating classical elements into their work—the likes of Radiohead, Björk, and Rufus Wainwright?
City Opera also lacks a sharp profile in the standard repertory. Decades ago, the company billed itself as a people's opera, a place where neophytes could get their first taste of "La Bohème." Today, with so many seats in the ninety-dollar range, City Opera can no longer be called a bargain, and the Met, with its wider range of ticket prices and its introduction of high-tech subtitles, has an equal claim on the populist franchise. A new production of "Don Giovanni," directed by Thor Steingraber, looks fatally like a junior version of the austere bombast that has often passed for innovation at the Met. Huge doors going nowhere, window frames hanging in space, a gigantic mirror: it's a cool, spare, Lincoln Center-ish aesthetic, and it swallows up the lusty life of Mozart's masterpiece. A few years ago, at Glimmerglass Opera, Kellogg presented a fresh take on "Don Giovanni" in which the title character was a dirty old invalid, and, whatever the merits of that approach, the audience went out talking. City Opera chose the path of no comment.
A young, gifted cast struggled to find drama in this arid setting. The Don was sung by the Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright. He was a lively, confident presence, spitting out recitative at breakneck speed. Amy Burton, one of the company's most accomplished regulars, delivered a warm-toned, richly detailed portrayal of Donna Elvira. Alexandrina Pendatchanska, as Donna Anna, showed a dusky, forceful lyric voice. Kevin Burdette brought high spirits and a booming bass to the role of Masetto. Nathan Berg and Raul Hernandez also sang well. George Manahan, in the pit, gave a strong shape to the music, even as the acoustic defeated him at every turn. In the end, these singers failed to send out any psychic shivers, but they might have had more impact if they had simply been somewhere else. I pictured them in an atmospheric little theatre on a bustling downtown street, where the audience could walk in and be clobbered by the demonic force of Mozart's tale.
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