Magical Thinking Dims Beloved Opera Company: Manuela Hoelterhoff

George Steel
George Steel, general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera. Source: New York City Opera via Bloomberg

In a popular opera about a clown and his traveling theater troupe, “I Pagliacci,” the sad-sack hero roams Calabria in a wagon, pitching up in provincial towns.

Leoncavallo’s masterpiece used to be performed by the New York City Opera before the company’s board began favoring silence or obscure repertoire.

Almost two weeks ago, the company voted to depart the recently and handsomely renovated David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. To save money, they wish to roll through New York’s boroughs like Canio the clown shaking his tambourine and begging bowl.

Since opera goers have not been coming to see them -- box office is 40 percent on a good night -- they will go to, say, the Bronx, where there is a huge, unmet desire for that ur-rap master, Arnold Schoenberg, in situ.

For comparable magical thinking, you’d have to go back to Hitler dreaming of rescue in that bunker in Berlin.

No alternate theaters or venues were mentioned; no plans divulged, no funding disclosed.

The announcement startled some in the music community who expected the company might finally present its fall season -- or possibly declare bankruptcy. (The board has raided the endowment and has run a deficit of around $5 million these last seasons).

In fact, as it turned out, the board plans to dramatically downsize a once great company that has resided at Lincoln Center since 1966 when Beverly Sills adorned herself in Cleopatra’s glittering robes.


I grew up in this theater and became friendly with Sills when she assumed the directorship, which involved eating several shakedown meals a day with donors and those who might write about the transaction.

In the 1980s, when I was at the Wall Street Journal, she whimsically invited me to cost out a day in the life of the company, everything from the Entenmann’s coffee cake she ate in the morning and the costume being fitted on Tamino to the mattress cushioning Tosca’s suicide jump. I came up with about $115,000 a day. Even the ebullient Sills, who traded on her television talk-show fame, had to work like the devil to make payroll.

Young Domingo

Looking back, happy memories are mine from “Lucia” with Sills, to “Louise,” “Mefistofele,” “Die Tote Stadt” and “La traviata” with Patricia Brooks and a young Placido Domingo. Ming Cho Lee, Tito Capobianco and Frank Corsaro opened my eyes with their modern production styles, while Julius Rudel opened my ears.

In later years, Paul Kellogg built on the company’s tradition of offbeat repertoire with a popular series of Baroque operas. If you saw Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Stephen Wadsworth’s poetic staging of Handel’s “Xerxes,” you will remember it forever.

The recent decline was speeded up by the awful decision -- at the behest of an arrogant European manager who never took up his job -- to close the house two seasons ago for renovations without securing an alternative performing theater. People stopped thinking about the opera company.

Perhaps moving to a smaller house is ultimately a solution for survival. Some 2,500 tickets are a lot to sell, especially next door to the Metropolitan Opera, which is successfully promoting big names, edgy glamour and live telecasts.

Really Sorry

But the very group that’s sunk the company is possibly not the one to save it. Who would fund the move from Lincoln Center? Patrons don’t like uncertain futures and tainted pasts. That the new chairman, Charles R. Wall, who has been there only a few months, thinks he has the right to radically change the company’s trajectory, strikes me as rather grand.

Here’s what I think the board should do next: Write an open letter of apology to the dwindling number of people who still work there (about 80) and the equally shrinking number of patrons who still care about the place. Like this:

“We did not mean to harm this company and are very sorry. Since we are rich and you are not, we are writing large checks to erase the debt, and have asked Lincoln Center to replace us and general director George Steel. We will now turn our beneficence to animal shelters. This opera stuff just isn’t for us.”

That is a good idea, actually. The Lincoln Center board oversees the 11 constituent organizations that are part of the large performing-arts complex. The board keeps the center running smoothly and has some highly compensated, competent people on it, beginning with President Reynold Levy, whose pay was boosted to $1.5 million in 2009.

Hopefully, Levy & Co. are coming up with a plan right now to retain the company and install professionals.

Possible Savior

I doubt there are many volunteers for the top job. But as it happens, there’s a possible savior right on campus: Joseph Volpe, the smart, high energy ex-general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, who is currently assisting the present manager, Peter Gelb, deal with looming union contracts.

Volpe, as I recall, actually offered to help NYCO not so long ago, only to be turned down. Now is a good time to step forward. As Canio sobs: “La commedia e finita.”

How about it, Joseph?


(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)

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