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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Obituary: New York City Opera (1943-2013)

Opera company to file for bankruptcy Oct 2.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Quote by Puccini. Graphic made on
The New York City Opera, founded in 1943 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia has announced that it will file for bankruptcy on Oct. 2. This is the end of a 70-year run for the financially troubled company, which began as the "People's Opera."

The company also announced that it would close its planned $1 million fund-raising effort on KickStarter, which was part of a last-ditch September effort to fund the remainder of its 2013-14 season. The company needed to raise $7 million in order to fund planned Spring 2014 productions of Endimione, Bluebeard's Castle and The Marriage of Figaro. All of those are as of this writing, cancelled.

City Opera, which started its existence at the New York City Opera with a 1944 production of Tosca evolved into a house where classic operas mixed freely with presentations of modern works by important American composers. A subscription in the 1980s could include Norma, Mefistofele alongside modern works like Philip Glass' Satyagraha and Akhnaten and Anthony Davis' X.

It was also a fertile ground for young singers. Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Catherine Malfitano and Samuel Ramey were just a few of the singers who got their early New York stripes on the wide stage of the company's Lincoln Center home, then called New York State Theater. Productions like Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe and Giuseppe Verdi's Attila drew acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and City Opera was firmly established as the feisty and funky alternative to the Met.

The 1990s brought transition, with the 1995 death of general manager Christopher Keene and a long (and largely successful) artistic partnership with the Cooperstown NY-based Glimmerglass Opera. But turmoil followed. Gerard Mortier proved to be a general manager in name only for two years and renovations to the State Theater forced City Opera to go dark (while still having to pay expenses) just as the 2008 financial crisis decimated donations.

The board responded by raiding the City Opera's endowment in order to meet its obligations (including paying the chorus and orchestra) a move that proved to be disastrous. New general manager George Steel elected to vacate Lincoln Center, revamping the company to break its unions and play just sixteen operas a year with musicians and choristers treated as freelancers. Although these moves led to loud claims from management of balanced budgets, it was difficult for the newly "liberated" company to find donors and audiences as it moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back again.

The last stand of City Opera ended Sept. 28, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the fourth and final performance of the opera Anna Nicole. The controversial opera, about the Texas model and Playboy Playmate who married a billionaire only to die from a drug overdose might be an apt metaphor for the death of a great arts institution. Like Anna herself, City Opera zipped itself into its own body bag.

The rest is silence.

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