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How ‘A Mad Love’ of Opera Has Played Out From 17th-Century Mantua to 21st-Century New York

Category: Art & Culture,Books

“Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America,” by Heidi Waleson, is an intricate whodunit that seeks to find out who murdered the New York City Opera. The company was born in the middle of World War II, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Newbold Morris, the president of the City Council, realized that the Mecca Temple, a bizarre Moorish structure in Midtown Manhattan, now belonged to the city because its owner, the Shriners, couldn’t pay its taxes. Here was a chance to turn the dilapidated temple into a home for music, dance and theater. With pledges from philanthropists, theater producers, union leaders and artists, a private, nonprofit corporation was formed, the City Center of Music and Drama. As long as the group charged low prices the general public could afford, the Mecca Temple was theirs for $1 per year in rent.

But low ticket prices for opera, that astonishingly expensive art form, guaranteed that each production would operate at a loss. These, the board of directors believed, would be offset by revenue from plays and other less expensive attractions. In its first season, thanks to a profitable visit from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and Leopold Stokowski offering his services gratis to conduct the New York City Symphony (yes, there briefly was such a thing), the City Center actually turned a small profit.

It hung on for the next 20 years, counting each penny, overcoming crisis after crisis, yet still producing operas of great vitality, with superb young singers like Frances Bible, Beverly Sills and Brenda Lewis, who sang leading roles for as little as $75 a performance. Sills, who made her debut in 1955 as Rosalinda in “Die Fledermaus,” wore dresses at that performance made by her mother. Performers often had to supply their own costumes.

Things changed once Lincoln Center was constructed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It would contain a building for the New York Philharmonic, another for the Metropolitan Opera and a third, paid for by the State of New York, to be reserved for the ballet and opera companies of the City Center. Rudolf Bing, head of the Met Opera, was not eager to have a cheap-ticket City Opera next door, and wanted to dictate the company’s repertoire. He wasn’t the only one angling for power. Both William Schuman, president of Lincoln Center, and Morton Baum, who represented City Center, wanted control over the New York State Theater. Baum won, but Julius Rudel, who ran the City Opera, was far from happy. He didn’t like being so close to the Met, where his shoestring productions would be compared with the opulent ones next door.

Rudel also worried that being at Lincoln Center would bankrupt City Opera. At Lincoln Center it would have to pay for a share of both the theater and the entire complex. Add to that the cost of a bigger orchestra and chorus and more stagehands. Worse yet, the New York State Theater had been built for the New York City Ballet, and its architect, Philip Johnson, had been instructed to somehow muffle the noise of the dancers’ feet. He designed walls that threw sound back to the stage, rather than out to the audience. The sound at the State Theater would never be quite right, yet Rudel had no choice but to move. If he didn’t, Waleson writes, the National Company of Met Opera, which toured with young, untried singers, would move into the elegant new State Theater, and then who would travel down to the old Mecca Temple to see the City Opera?

The move was made in 1966. In spite of a brilliant opening presentation of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” starring the bass baritone Norman Treigle and the coloratura soprano Beverly Sills — “one of those legendary events of opera history,” Waleson says — it wasn’t long before operating an opera company for the nonrich, right next door to the opera house of the superrich, became a mission impossible.

In describing the unraveling of this noble civic enterprise, Waleson, the opera critic of The Wall Street Journal for 25 years, gives us a vivid description of each death-defying crisis and a sharp portrait of the ever-changing cast of would-be saviors who somehow always failed in their mission. One board chairwoman came from Goldman Sachs, where she had specialized in collateralized debt obligations. She used a similar high-risk strategy at City Opera. That ploy finally killed “the people’s opera.” It went bankrupt in 2013.

In her closing eulogy for City Opera, Waleson salutes those who are “tweaking the 400-year-old art form so that it can survive and thrive for another century. It will be up to them to capture the imagination of the next generation of opera lovers with the artistic verve and adventurous spirit that exemplified the old City Opera at its finest.”

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