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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Domino Theory

A Reflection on World AIDS Day.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

(Ed. Note: The inspiration for this article was Fred Cohn's excellent The Ballad of NYCO first published in Opera News in 2007.)

Today is World AIDS Day, and Superconductor woud like to take a moment to reflect on the death of Christopher Keene, and its ultimate effect: the 2013 demise of the New York City Opera.

For six years, Mr. Keene was at the helm of New York City Opera, steering that company into the 1990s with productions of classic operas and rarities like Zimmerman's Die Soldaten, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. Following in the footsteps of the last general manager Beverly Sills, Mr. Keene was tabbed as the man who would ensure a long future for Lincoln Center's 'other' opera company into the next century on beyond.

Mr. Keene died Oct. 8, 1995, from lymphoma caused by AIDS. He was 48, and had contracted the HIV virus ten years before. His death marked the beginning of the 18-year death spiral of City Opera. Following his loss, the company hired Paul Kellogg, general manager of the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY.

This hiring forged an artistically successful but costly alliance with the Glimmerglass Opera, transporting new productions from that company's facilities in Cooperstown, NY down to Lincoln Center--thus ensuring that the new shows at Lincoln Center (Tosca, Falstaff, Madama Butterfly) were in essence Glimmerglass revivals, re-imagined for the larger, more unwieldly stage of the then-New York State Theater.

The Kellogg years were followed by an even bigger disaster, the hiring of Gerard Mortier as general manager. Mr. Mortier's brief reign is chiefly noted for the decision to darken the State Theater for its transformation into the new "David Koch Theater." Without an alternative venue, City Opera was stuck paying its union contract obligations without income from ticket sales, subscriptions or donations. This was the second blow of fate against the already reeling company.

The next general manager was George Steel, who tried to save money by extracting the company from its union obligations and the cost of staying at Lincoln Center. Taking the now ragtag troupe on the road, City Opera presented itself as a leaner, fitter organization. Unfortunately, the decision to slash the schedule to just sixteen performances per season (another cost-conscious gesture) made the company a diminished presence in the New York operatic world, especially at a time when its onetime neighbors at the Met were upping the ante with Live in HD broadcasts and aggressive marketing campaigns.

City Opera declared bankruptcy on Sept. 30 of this year, following the last performance of the Mark Anthony Turnage opera Anna Nicole. The chorus and orchestra are no more, freelancers struggling for work like thousands of other New Yorkers. Instruments, props and costumes are being sold off. And it was Mr. Keane's death, as a victim of this country's AIDS epidemic, that started the company's downward slide. On this World AIDS Day, reflect on that: that the loss of a talented individual to a disease which was met by government indifference in the 1980s can cause a toppling of dominoes: the destruction of a valued arts institution and the disemployment of hundreds of talented individuals.

Yes. The loss of one life can make a difference.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.