The New York City Opera (NYCO) was an American opera company located in New York City that was active from 1943-2013.
The company, called "the people's opera" by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, was founded in 1943. The company's stated purpose was to make opera accessible to a wide audience at a reasonable ticket price. It also sought to produce an innovative choice of repertory, and provide a home for American singers and composers. The company was originally housed at the New York City Center theater on West 55th Street. It later became part of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from 1966 to 2010 during which time it produced autumn and spring seasons of opera in repertory and maintained extensive education and outreach programs, offering arts-in-education programs to 4,000 students in over thirty schools.
In 2011, the company left Lincoln Center due to financial difficulties, moving its offices and archives to 75 Broad St. in Lower Manhattan. In the 2011–2012 season NYCO performed four operas at various venues in New York City, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
During its nearly 70 year history, the NYCO helped launch the careers of many great opera singers including Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, Maralin Niska, Carol Vaness, José Carreras, Shirley Verrett, Tatiana Troyanos, Jerry Hadley, Catherine Malfitano, Samuel Ramey, and Gianna Rolandi. Sills later served as the company's director from 1979–1989. More recent acclaimed American singers who have called NYCO home include David Daniels, Mark Delavan, Mary Dunleavy, Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral, Bejun Mehta, Robert Brubaker and Carl Tanner.
NYCO similarly championed the work of American composers; approximately one-third of its repertoire was traditionally American opera. The company's American repertoire ranged from established works (e.g., Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah and Leonard Bernstein's Candide) to new works (e.g., Thomas Pasatieri's Before Breakfast and Mark Adamo's Little Women). NYCO's commitment to the future of American opera was demonstrated in its annual series, Vox, Contemporary Opera Lab, in which operas-in-progress were showcased, giving composers a chance to hear their work performed by professional singers and orchestra. The company also occasionally produced musicals and operettas including works by Stephen Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan.
In 2013, financial difficulties increasingly loomed. During the last week of September, the Board of Directors voted to shut down the company at the end of the month unless seven million dollars could be raised. On October 1, 2013, the company announced that its emergency fund-raising appeal had fallen short, and that it would begin the process of dissolving itself and filing for bankruptcy.
The early years: 1943–1951
The NYCO was founded as the New York City Center Opera and originally made its home at the New York City Center on West 55th Street. Laszlo Halasz was the company's first director, serving in that position from 1943–1951. Given the company's goal to make opera accessible to the masses, Halasz believed that tickets should be inexpensive and that productions should be staged convincingly with singers who were both physically and vocally suited to their roles. To this end, ticket prices during the company's first season were priced at just 75 cents to $2, and the company operated on a budget of $30,463 during its first season. At such prices the company was unable to afford the star billing enjoyed by the Metropolitan Opera. Halasz, however, was able to turn this fact into a virtue by making the company an important platform for young singers, particularly American opera singers.
The company's first season opened in February 1944, and included productions of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, Friedrich von Flotow's Martha and Georges Bizet's Carmen, all of them conducted by Halasz. Several notable singers performed with the company in the first season, including Jennie Tourel, Martha Lipton, and Hugh Thompson, who were all immediately poached by the Met after their NYCO debuts. Other notable singers Halasz brought to the NYCO included Frances Bible, Adelaide Bishop, Débria Brown, Mack Harrell, Thomas Hayward, Dorothy Kirsten, Brenda Lewis, Eva Likova, Leon Lishner, Regina Resnik, Norman Scott, Ramon Vinay, and Frances Yeend among others. In 1945, the company became the first major opera company to have an African American performer. This was in the production of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with Todd Duncan's performance as Tonio. Lawrence Winters and Robert McFerrin were other notable African American opera pioneers to sing with the company during this period. The first African American woman to sing with the company was soprano Camilla Williams as the title heroine in Madama Butterfly in 1946. Winters and Williams later went on to sing the title roles in the most complete recording made up to that time of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, for Columbia Masterworks Records in 1951.
Halasz had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with the company's board of directors, given his strong opinions about what the NYCO should be. For one, he supported the idea of performing foreign language works in English to make opera more accessible to American audiences. He insisted on offering at least one production in English every season. The area that brought the most tension between Halasz and the board was Halasz's commitment to staging new works by American composers and rarely heard operas at the opera house. The first New York City premiere presented by the company was Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos on October 10, 1946 with Ella Flesch in the title role, Vasso Argyris as Bacchus, Virginia MacWatters as Zerbinetta, Polyna Stoska as the composer and James Pease as the music master. The production was described by the contemporary press as "record breaking", and it put the company "on the map". The NYCO subsequently toured Ariadne to His Majesty's Theatre, Montreal, so giving the opera's Canadian premiere.
The first world premiere at the house was William Grant Still's Troubled Island in 1949. It was notably the first grand opera composed by an African-American to be produced in a major opera house. In the fall of 1949, the NYCO revived Prokofiev's comic opera The Love for Three Oranges, which had not been seen in America since its unsuccessful Chicago premiere in 1921. The new production, directed by Vladimir Rosing, turned into a smash hit and was brought back for two additional seasons.
Also in 1949, Halasz scheduled the world premiere of David Tamkin's The Dybbuk to be performed by the NYCO in 1950. However, the NYCO board opposed the decision and ultimately the production was postponed for financial reasons. Halasz, however, rescheduled the work for inclusion in the 1951–1952 season. Uneasy with Halasz's bold repertoire choices, the NYCO board insisted in 1951 that Halasz submit his repertory plans for their approval. As a result he resigned, along with several members of his conducting staff, including Jean Morel, Thomas Martin and two of his eventual successors, Joseph Rosenstock and Julius Rudel. Faced with the resignations of most of their creative staff, the board reluctantly backed down and The Dybbuk was given its world premiere at the NYCO on October 4, 1951. But tensions remained high between Halasz and the board and they fired him in late 1951 when Halasz became involved in union disputes.
Rosenstock and Leinsdorf: 1952–1957
After Laszlo Halász was fired, the NYCO board appointed Joseph Rosenstock, who was already working as a conductor with the company, as the new director. He served in that post for four seasons, during which time he continued in Halász's steps of scheduling innovative programs with unusual repertoire mixed in with standard works. He notably staged the world premiere of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land, the New York premiere of William Walton's Troilus and Cressida, and the United States premieres of Gottfried von Einem's The Trial and Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. Rosenstock was also the first NYCO director to include musical theatre in the company's repertoire with a 1954 production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat; a production which starred Broadway musical veteran and operatic soprano Helena Bliss. This decision was ridiculed by the Press but Rosenstock felt justified as the musical played to a packed house. Meanwhile the company's staging of Donizetti's rarely heard opera Don Pasquale that season only sold 35 percent of the house seats.
In January 1956 the NYCO board accepted Rosenstock's resignation, who stated that he left because of too much non-musical work such as bookings and business negotiations. The board appointed Erich Leinsdorf, who had worked as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Rochester Philharmonic, to take his place. Leinsdorf stayed with the company for only one season, being fired after his ambitious program of contemporary and unusual works for the 1956 season failed to sooth financial problems at the NYCO and drew harsh criticism from the press. The press particularly did not care for his new productions of Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and the American premiere of Carl Orff's Der Mond. However, Leinsdorf did have one major triumph with the first professional production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah with Phyllis Curtin in the title role, and Norman Treigle as the Reverend Blitch. The production was a critical success with both audiences and critics, and the opera went on to become an American classic.
After Leinsdorf was fired, the NYCO board canceled its 1957 spring season and eventually appointed Julius Rudel as the new general director of the company. Rudel had been hired by the NYCO straight out of college in 1944, and had worked on the conducting staff there for the past 13 years. Under Rudel's leadership, the company reached new artistic heights, drawing critical praise for its performances of both standard and adventurous works. The company became known for its cutting-edge stage direction, largely due to Rudel's willingness to poach renowned directors from the theatre who had not necessarily been involved with opera before. By the mid-1960s the company was generally regarded as one of the leading opera companies of the United States.
During his tenure at City Opera, Rudel displayed a stronger commitment to American opera than any other opera director in the history of opera in the United States, commissioning 12 works and leading 19 world premieres. He also led a large number of United States premieres, including Alberto Ginastera's Don Rodrigo with tenor Plácido Domingo for the inauguration of the NYCO's new home at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (now called the David H. Koch Theater) on February 22, 1966. That same season the company presented the New York premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.
Like his predecessors, Rudel had an eye for young American talent and was responsible for helping to cultivate a couple of generations of American singers. Among the singers whose careers he furthered were Samuel Ramey and Carol Vaness. One of his most apt decisions was in forming an artistic partnership with Beverly Sills, making her the NYCO's leading soprano from 1956 until her retirement from the stage in 1979, although Joseph Rosenstock deserves the credit for hiring her in 1955 for her first performances with the company. With the NYCO Sills had her first major critical success in the first Handel opera staged by the company, the role of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare opposite Norman Treigle in 1966. At that time Handel operas were rarely produced and the production drew a lot of attention from the international press. Sills was soon making appearances with all the major opera houses around the world. While Sills was busy with her international career, she remained a regular performer with the NYCO until her retirement. In 1970 John Simon White was appointed managing director of the NYCO in order to free up Rudel's schedule for the more artistic side of his job. White remained in that position until 1980.
Upon Sills's retirement from the stage in 1979, she succeeded Rudel as General Director of the NYCO. Initially the plan was for Sills to share the post with Rudel and slowly phase him out. However, Rudel decided to resign in 1979 in order to take a position as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Sills took the post over entirely.
At the time Sills assumed her position, the NYCO was in a bit of a slump, being burdened with a three million dollar debt and coming off a few seasons with less than favorable reviews. On the business side, Sills proved to be a godsend to the company, showing a prodigious gift for fund-raising. By the time she retired from her post in early 1989, she had grown the company's budget from $9 million to $26 million, and left the company in the black with a $3 million surplus. She was able to achieve this while still reducing ticket prices by 20 percent with the hope of attracting new and younger audiences.
Sills retired as General Director in 1989 and was replaced by conductor Christopher Keene, largely due to Sill's strong recommendation. Keene had previously worked as a conductor at the NYCO since 1970 and had served as the NYCO's Music Director from 1982 to 1986. He held the position until his untimely death from lymphoma arising from AIDS at the age of forty-eight. His last performance, at the City Opera, was of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler in September 1995.
Yet for all his challenges, Keene consistently presented innovative opera seasons that were successful with critics during his tenure. His last season with the company alone included the United States premieres of Toshiro Mayuzumi's Kinkakuji [The Golden Pavilion] and Jost Meier's Dreyfus Affair. Just a month before his death Peter G. Davis wrote in New York that "Keene is one of the few authentic cultural heroes New York has left, thanks to his many recent acts of courage, personal as well as artistic."
Keene was succeeded in 1996 by Glimmerglass Opera's general and artistic director, Paul Kellogg. Under his leadership, the NYCO added 62 new productions to its repertoire, including several world premieres by American composers, and inaugurated the series, Vox: Showcasing American Composers. He was also instrumental in establishing the NYCO as an important producer of operas by baroque masters such as Handel, Gluck, and Rameau, sparking a renewal of interest in these long-neglected works. A particular triumph was a highly lauded production of Handel's Orlando in 2007 in a modern production by Chas Rader-Shieber that starred countertenor Bejun Mehta and the soprano Amy Burton. In keeping with NYCO's "people's opera" tradition, Kellogg inaugurated NYCO's "Opera for All" event, with reduced priced tickets, in 2005. Kellogg announced his retirement in 2007. Anthony Tomassini, in The New York Times, commented that Kellogg had "a record of innovation and achievement to be proud of. Few leaders of performing-arts institutions have been as effective at defining and carrying out a company mission". Tomassini called Kellogg's decision, at the urging of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to open its season on September 15, 2001, "the most meaningful day of music in 2001" and later used NYCO's opening day in 2001 and its 2009–2010 season as symbolic bookends for New York's music scene in the first decade of the 21st century.
A note of uncertainty about the company's future emerged in November 2008, when Gérard Mortier, who was scheduled to begin his first official season as General and Artistic Director of the company in 2009, abruptly resigned. The company announced that "The economic climate in which we find ourselves today has caused us both to reconsider proceeding with our plans." Mortier had reportedly been promised a $60 million annual budget, which was cut to $36 million due to the economic climate. Michael Kaiser was appointed to advise the board on a turnaround strategy, including the recruitment of a new general director.
In January 2009, the company announced the appointment of George Steel as general manager and artistic director, effective February 1, 2009. The David H. Koch Theater (previously known as the New York State Theater) underwent major renovations during the 2008–2009 season. During the construction the company did not stage opera in its home at Lincoln Center.
Instead, New York City Opera presented a concert version of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra at Carnegie Hall in January 2009, as well as other concerts and programs around the city, and it continued to make classroom presentations in New York City's public schools. The company presented three concerts at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2009, I'm On My Way: Black History at City Opera, One Fine Day: A Tribute to Camilla Williams and a 60th Anniversary concert production of William Grant Still's Troubled Island.
In June 2009 Bloomberg reported that the company had incurred a $11 million deficit for the year ending June 2008. Revenue fell 23 percent to $32.9 million, expenses rose 11 percent to $44.2 million.
Under Steele during the 2009/10 season, the company returned with an opening night program called American Voices consisting of excerpts from American opera. The season also included a revival of Hugo Weisgall's Esther and a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni directed by Christopher Alden. The spring season opened in March 2010 and included Emmanuel Chabrier's L'étoile directed by Mark Lamos and Handel's Partenope directed by Andrew Chown; original production directed by Francisco Negrin. The company also continued to collaborate with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Opera Noire of New York to highlight the role of opera in African-American history including the programs Opera at the Schomburg, A Tribute to Robert McFerrin, and X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. In 2010 NYCO's VOX Contemporary Opera Lab featured new works of emerging and established composers at New York University in late April.
The company's 2010–2011 season included a new production of Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place directed by Christopher Alden; Richard Strauss's Intermezzo directed by Leon Major; and a new production titled Monodramas which consisted of three solo one-act works: John Zorn's La Machine de l’être, Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung, and Morton Feldman's Neither. The company also staged the American premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the first opera by Stephen Schwartz, the veteran composer of Broadway musicals.
In addition, the company presented several concert performances that included: An Evening With Christine Brewer; Lucky To Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein; John Zorn & Friends (with Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Mike Patton, Marc Ribot, Dave Douglas and Uri Caine); a family opera concert of Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are with a libretto by Maurice Sendak; and Defying Gravity: The Music of Stephen Schwartz with Kristin Chenoweth and Raúl Esparza. In May 2011, the company announced that it would leave Lincoln Center to conserve costs and present its upcoming season in different venues throughout the city.
On October 1, 2013, the company announced that it would file for bankruptcy, citing an inability to raise sufficient funding to continue the 2013-2014 season. The company's last production was the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole.
In an article in the New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini notes one of the reasons for the company's failure (as well as relating it to other failed arts organizations):
- In short, artistic excellence is not enough. Any institution, big or small, old or new, must have a clear artistic vision, a purpose that connects with audiences and the community. But the performing arts have never been profit-making endeavors. It is more important than ever that all institutions, from a fledgling string quartet to the lofty Metropolitan Opera, have an effective business model.
Vox, Contemporary Opera Lab
Vox, Contemporary Opera Lab (formerly known as Vox: Showcasing American Composers) was an annual concert series dedicated to the development of contemporary American operas. Founded by New York City Opera in 1999, the festival offers composers and librettists the opportunity to hear excerpts of their works performed with professional singers and musicians. Up to twelve excerpts of previously un-produced operas are performed at each festival. Many of the operas that have been presented at Vox have gone on to be presented in full production by New York City Opera and various other opera companies, including Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner. Since 2006, the Vox performances have been presented at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
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- NYCO Schomburg Press Release
- NYCO VOX Press Release
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- Anthony Tommasini, "Lessons in a Year of Crises", The New York Times, January 8, 2014
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- New York City Opera official website
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- Biography of Laszlo Halasz