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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Time Running Out for City Opera

Doomsday clock ticks for New York's second opera company.
by Paul Pelkonen
If only this were a production design for L'heure Espagnole.
A series of decisions and disasters may spell "das Ende" for the New York City Opera.

The opera company has locked out two unions: Musicians' Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists in a dispute over a new contract that has turned ugly.

City Opera was founded in 1943 by then New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Hizzoner wanted an opera company that was the working man's alternative to the Met, with its ritzy Opera Club and Diamond Horseshoe. The company originally performed at City Center.

In 1967, NYCO moved to the then-new New York State Theater on the south side of Lincoln Center Plaza. They continued to offer an eclectic mix of repertory favorites, with Verdi, Puccini and Bizet mixed in with lesser-known works like Boito's Mefistofele and Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe.

The opera company also served as the launching point for a number of great careers, featuring tenor Plácido Domingo, soprano Beverly Sills, and basses Norman Triegle and Samuel Ramey. Many of these singers went on to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and to international careers, but some, like Ms. Sills, and later, Lauren Flanigan, made City Opera the center of their New York careers.

The City Opera was also where a young future opera journalist had his first encounter with the art form. I saw everything from Turandot (my first opera) to Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, The Mikado and Sweeney Todd in that burgundy-and-bronze theater. It was a diverse mix of operas, operettas and the occasional musical, a dizzying flow of laughter, tears and music that helped form me into the writer I am today.

I ran through its corridors, rode in its elevators, and sat with Mom and Dad in our subscription seats, located in the Third Ring with a nice view of the whole house. A lonely kid--I read books (and libretti) at intermission. I well remember missing the entire second act of La bohème once because I was engrossed in the "Mines of Moria" section of The Fellowship of the Ring.  And I remember how thrilled we all were when City Opera introduced super-titles in 1983.

Those were good days. I saw stagings by Hal Prince and Maurice Sendak. We were thrilled by Sam Ramey in Attila. Even after my father died in 1985, Mom and I still went to City Opera. (She preferred orchestra seats.) Partially in his memory, but we had also become addicted. We still went there in 1990, which was when Mom bought her first subscription to the Met.

In 1996, I completed my education and started working in this industry as an Associate Editor at, formerly MetroBeat. I was covering Opera, Sports, and Fitness. (Classical Music came later.) I well remember the first City Opera performance I wrote about in those days, Der Rosenkavalier with Gwendolyn Jones as Octavian. I was even more shocked when an up-and-coming heldentenor who wanted some publicity brought Ms. Jones with him to our office. I think the word "gobsmacked" applied.

Ten years ago, following the horrors of 9/11, it was City Opera that started the ball rolling again at Lincoln Center, with a curiously grim and zombie-like revival of The Mikado. The date was September 15th. I guess we were all feeling a little shell-shocked.

Now, City Opera has left that home at Lincoln Center, opting for a "run-and-gun" approach, marketing themselves as a "leaner" and "fitter" operation. Now that they've locked out its chorus (and starting on February 1) its orchestra, it may starve to death. There's one month until the scheduled premiere of La Traviata at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Let's see if they can find a way to stay alive.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats