by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 24, 2005.
New York City Opera opened in February, 1944, at the height of the battles of Anzio and Truk. If skeptics thought it frivolous to start an opera company in the middle of a world war, Fiorello LaGuardia straightened them out: the music-loving Mayor believed that opera was essential to city life, and he wanted lower- and middle-class New Yorkers to have it at affordable prices, without pretension. The company was then part of City Center, on West Fifty-fifth Street, which now concentrates on dance and musical theatre. The composer-critic Deems Taylor called the City Center Opera “democracy in action, a democracy realizing the work of the individual.” Tickets started at eighty-five cents—nine and a half dollars, in today’s currency—and topped out at $2.20. These days, you have to pay quite a bit more to get through the doors of what LaGuardia dubbed “the people’s opera company.” Tickets go up to a hundred and twenty dollars, which is more than most orchestra seats for “Spamalot.”
Don’t blame City Opera for falling short of its populist mission. The politics of Lincoln Center, where the company moved in 1966, killed that dream. The new complex had two large-scale theatres: the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theatre. The second was designed for New York City Ballet, but another tenant was needed to fill out the season. If City Opera had not used the space, Martin Sokol explains in his history of the house, the Met would probably have started a secondary company, driving it out of business. So City Opera had little choice but to move in, and, once it did, ticket prices shot up. Many great things have happened at the State Theatre since—Beverly Sills’s bel-canto tours de force, Christopher Keene’s explorations of modernist music drama, recent art-diva turns by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Lauren Flanigan—but the house has never found an identity as strong as the one that LaGuardia and other city leaders forged.
At the start of this season, City Opera made a gesture toward returning to its roots. It presented two shows under the slogan “Opera-for-All,” with every ticket priced at twenty-five dollars. One show featured the opera-friendly pop star Rufus Wainwright alongside City Opera regulars; the other offered “Madama Butterfly.” The people came: both shows sold out. How the company could permanently cut prices across the board without running a catastrophic deficit is difficult to imagine, but one thing seems fairly certain: a twenty-five-dollar-a-seat opera house wouldn’t have to work very hard to sell out.
Since 1996, City Opera has been led by Paul Kellogg, a courtly and canny administrator. Kellogg recently announced that he will retire at the end of next season. Now sixty-eight, he says that he lacks the energy to keep working fifteen-hour days, much of it spent on fund-raising and marketing. He may also be weary of the city politics in which the company became embroiled three years ago, after it bid to join an arts center at Ground Zero. That plan came to nothing, along with most high hopes for the site. City Opera is still looking to build its own house, perhaps on Amsterdam Avenue near Juilliard.
The Ground Zero setback aside, the Kellogg era at City Opera has been stable and successful—a model balancing act. Productions have followed a sensible formula, breaking down into approximately five categories: stagings of Handel and other Baroque operas, wavering between wit and camp; mildly revisionist productions of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, with young, gifted, good-looking American singers (Rossini’s “Il Viaggio a Reims” was a hit this fall); offbeat twentieth-century fare (Strauss’s “Capriccio,” Paul Dukas’s “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue,” and Richard Rodney Bennett’s “The Mines of Sulphur”); new opera of the not too demanding sort (Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince” arrives in November); and stylish incursions into operetta and musical theatre (Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience,” this fall).
“Il Viaggio a Reims” is the last and possibly the giddiest of Rossini’s Italian comedies. It depicts onstage the very occasion that it was commissioned to honor: the coronation of Charles X, in 1825, and the gathering of international notables to celebrate it. (Picture, if you will, a contemporary opera commissioned for a Presidential inauguration and set at the Inaugural Ball.) Allen Moyer’s sets evoked a goofy but stylish imperial spa, and James Robinson supplied fluid direction. The female leads—Cheryl Evans, Heather Buck, Allyson McHardy, and Maria Kanyova—were at the heart of the action, working hard to master Rossini’s florid style and enjoying themselves immensely in the process. Javier Abreu stood out among the men, with his richly ringing tenor. George Manahan, City Opera’s music director, led a performance of self-effacing excellence; the orchestra is a much sharper unit than it was a decade ago.
City Opera has done well by the operas of Richard Strauss in the past; in 1999, it presented a riveting production of “Intermezzo,” with Flanigan tearing into the role of a famous German musician’s wife. Last year, though, it put on a maddeningly grim version of Strauss’s “Daphne,” and the new “Capriccio” was even grimmer. The work is Strauss’s farewell to opera, a sublimely selfconscious meditation on the nature of the art. It was first heard in Nazi Germany, in 1942, a fact that the director, Stephen Lawless, did not let us forget. George Mosley, who sang the role of the Count, had to imitate Hitler’s oratorical gestures, and a bust of Gluck in one scene looked like the one that Goebbels sent to Strauss for his birthday. The sets were at once dour and tacky; we came to terms with the German past by staring at ugly furniture. Pamela Armstrong didn’t have the right soprano gleam for the central role of the Countess, but she lent warmth to a chilly show. Eric Halfvarson, as the director La Roche, ignored the “context” and revelled in the gruff, wise personality of his character.
The notion of reviving “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue” was lovely on paper. This is an opera that the Met is unlikely to revisit, unless Plácido Domingo embarks upon a new career as a French soprano. “Ariane,” first heard in 1907, tells the tale of Bluebeard and his dungeon of wives, but, unlike so many early-twentieth-century works, including Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” it allows its female protagonist a measure of freedom; Ariane, the sixth wife, walks free in the end, having tried and failed to liberate the others. The score takes off from Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”—the libretto is by Maurice Maeterlinck, the poet of “Pelléas”—but it finds an opulent sound-world all its own. It interested composers as various as Strauss (who conducted it in 1935), Puccini (the opening notes of “Turandot” can be heard here), and Dukas’s devoted student Olivier Messiaen (who admired the synesthetic color-coding of harmonies). Alas, the performance marched along where it should have glided. Leon Botstein conducted at too unvarying a tempo, and Renate Behle was miscast as Ariane; she sounded like Isolde with a power drill.
However the productions turn out, it’s satisfying to watch the progress of City Opera’s singers, some of whom are still making their way through the early stages of an opera career. One is Carla Thelen Hanson, who had taken several years off to start a family. She came to the house last year as a cover singer, and got a quick promotion to Tosca: her dark-grained, strongly felt “Vissi d’arte” sailed right up to the uppermost balcony, where I was sitting. The role of Bluebeard in Dukas’s opera is actually a small one, but Ethan Herschenfeld made the most of it, giving a sharp portrait of a dark, wounded spirit. And Kevin Burdette, playing the self-infatuated poet Archibald in “Patience,” showed off his plummy, Thomas Hampson-like voice—was he doing an impersonation, perchance?—and also his phenomenal agility. He held his own in a giddy song-and-dance routine with the West End veteran Michael Ball. I’m told that Burdette is deciding between a career in opera and law. As James Joyce’s wife once said of her husband, he should stick to the singing.