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The New York City Opera (NYCO) is an Americanmarker opera company and the second largest opera company, after the Metropolitan Opera, in New York Citymarker. The company was founded in 1943 with the aim of making opera financially accessible to a wide audience, producing an innovative choice of repertory, and providing a home for Americanmarker singers and composers. In addition to producing a busy opera schedule, the company has extensive education and outreach programs, offering arts-in-education programs to 4,000 students in over thirty schools.

During its more than sixty year long history, the NYCO has helped launch the careers of many great opera singers including, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, Carol Vaness, José Carreras, Renée Fleming, Jerry Hadley, Catherine Malfitano, Bejun Mehta, Samuel Ramey, Gianna Rolandi, and Beverly Sills, the latter of whom served as the company's director from 1979-1989. Internationally acclaimed American singers who still call NYCO home include Carl Tanner, David Daniels, Mark Delavan, Mary Dunleavy, Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral, and Amy Burton.

NYCO similarly champions the work of American composers; approximately one-third of its repertoire has traditionally been American opera. The company's American repertoire ranges 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., Rachel Portman's The Little Prince, Charles Wuorinen's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and Mark Adamo's Little Women). NYCO's commitment to the future of American opera is demonstrated in its annual series, VOX: "Showcasing American Opera," in which operas-in-progress are showcased, giving composers a chance to hear their work performed by professional singers and orchestra. The company also produces non-traditional operatic repertoire such as works by Stephen Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan.

The early years with Halasz:1943–1951

In its early years, the NYCO's home base was at 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, Mack Harrell, Eva Likova, Dorothy Kirsten, 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 United States 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, and Polyna Stoska as the composer. 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 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 run the NYCO: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. This decision was ridiculed by the Press but Rosenstock felt justified as the production played to a packed house. Meanwhile the company's production 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 1966 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. The production was a critical success with both audiences and critics, and the opera went on to become an American classic.

Rudel directs the NYCO: 1957–1979

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. With the help of the Ford Foundation, the company did three full spring seasons entirely devoted to American opera. 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 (later to be named 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.

Sills leads the NYCO:1979-1988

The Promenade of the New York State Theater.
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.

As an artistic director Sills also proved to be astute, offering unusual repertory and making the company a haven for talented younger American artists. Under her, the repertory significantly diversified, with productions of rarities like Richard Wagner’s early opera Die Feen, Verdi’s Attila and Thomas’s Hamlet as well as new operas like Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

In 1982 a $5.3 million renovation of the New York State Theater occurred to improve the look and efficiency of the building. In 1983 the City Opera became the first American company to use supertitles. Sadly a 1985 warehouse fire destroyed 10,000 costumes for 74 of NYCO's productions.

Keene runs the NYCO:1989-1995

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.

Mr. Keene's first season as head of the company was aborted by a musicians' strike, and later seasons were troubled by financial deficits, with the shortfall amounting in 1992 to $2.9 million of a $26 million budget. The company managed to get back into the black though in time for its 50th-anniversary in 1993. However, during the company's 50th season, Keene was admitted to the Betty Ford Center to be treated for alcoholism. He returned somewhat better but continued to seek treatment at an outpatient clinic in Manhattan where he finally overcame his drinking problem. The City Opera remained supportive of him through this period, renewing his contract to 1997. However, the NYCO board did name an executive director, Mark Weinstein, to take over some of Keene's administrative responsibilities, a decision which Keene objected to.

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 also instituted several restructurings within the City Opera's organization. In 1994, he removed the company's summer season creating a more conventional fall and spring format to the company's annual season, a change intended to attract the more serious operagoers needed to support the more serious repertory. James R. Oestreich in The New York Times commented that, "Even in the standard repertory, Keene cleaned up many directorial excesses. He also reduced the number of productions, performances and cast changes each season and tightened up performance and rehearsal schedules to allow for better stage preparation and a greater ability to accommodate singer cancellations."

The Kellogg years to the present day

Keene was succeeded in 1996 by Glimmerglass Opera's artistic director, Paul Kellogg. Under his leadership, the NYCO added 62 new productions to its repertoire, including several world premieres by 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 an modern production by Chas Rader-Shieber that starred countertenor Bejun Mehta and the soprano Amy Burton. Kellogg announced his retirement in 2008.

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 has been 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 1 February 2009.

The David H.marker Koch Theatermarker is currently undergoing major renovations, so the New York City Opera is not presenting a season of staged opera productions this year. The company presented a concert version of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra at Carnegie Hallmarker in January 2009, and it continues to make classroom presentations in New York City's public schools.

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.

List of world premieres at the New York City Opera







References

  1. Southern, 417
  2. Philip Boroff (June 1, 2009): "New York City Opera Ran Up $11 Million Deficit as Sales Dropped", Bloomberg L.P.. Retrieved on June 6, 2009.


Sources

  • The Music of Black Americans: A History. Eileen Southern. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0-393-97141-4
  • The New York City Opera, by Martin L Sokol, Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc, 1981. ISBN 0-02-612280-4
  • New York City Opera Sings, by New York City Opera Guild, Richard Rosen Press, Inc, 1981. ISBN 0-8239-0544-6


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