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News, Notes, and the NYCO

Notes from all over: The Friday Morning Music Club, Washington’s venerable presenter of (very good) amateur concerts, announced the winners of its Johansen International Competition for Young String Players in March; 8 teenagers took home a total of $66,000... The Metropolitan Opera announced that it will screen the documentary “The Audition,” which follows young singers through the 2007 National Council Auditions, on April 19 as one of its HD broadcasts (yes, there are screens in the Washington area)... The latest variation on the theme of condensed opera plots (see my Twitter post, and check out the links in the comments) comes courtesy of the Chicago Opera Theater's recent YouTube competition offering free tickets to the best video submission demonstrating why its creators should win free tickets: this one clearly should have won.

And the New York City Opera announced its 2009-10 season last night. The company will put on only five operas: a revival of Hugo Weisgall’s 1993 “Esther,” with Lauren Flanigan, a new “Don Giovanni” staged by Christopher Alden, and revivals of Handel’s “Partenope,” Chabrier’s “L’Etoile,” and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

This news is notable not because the company is mounting fewer than half of the productions it did in its last full season, but because a few months ago it didn’t look as if City Opera would have a season to announce. City Opera used to pride itself on being New York’s alternative, younger opera house; but recently, it became a poster child for how not to effect major transition in your performing arts organization, as it closed its theater for a year for renovations mandated by an executive director – the Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier – who then left before he had really taken over. Now, as the company’s new director, George Steel, tries to get it up and running again, the Washington National Opera and other opera houses all over the country will be watching carefully to see if he can hit on a formula that works.

(read more about City Opera)

The story, for those who haven’t been following it, is that Mortier pulled out because the board didn’t give him the budget they had promised him. It’s true that the economic downturn hit the company hard, but the board also had no business promising him such a large budget in the first place. The orchestra was still paid for doing almost nothing, and some key staffers departed before Mortier did. It was difficult to find anybody willing to touch this mess. The board hit on Steel, who had developed the Miller Theater at Columbia University into a pleasant haven for creatively curated contemporary music performances before taking off to run the Dallas Opera.

By picking Mortier and then Steel, the company was sending a signal that it was ready to move in a new direction. Mortier made his name by shaking up the Salzburg Festival with productions described by some as innovative, others as Eurotrash; while Steel’s interests to date have lain with contemporary music and early music, but not with mainstream opera. His four-month tenure in Dallas is said to have been less than rosy, though he wasn’t there long enough to make a mark. He is certainly beloved of New York critics, but it remains open to question how he feels about the standard operatic repertory.

The underlying question is how one goes about refreshing opera in the first place. There seem to be two principal models of opera administration in the US. The traditional way is to put on colorful pageants with nice music in the background. The new model – I’m looking at you, Metropolitan Opera – is to hire trendy directors and singers who are more or less suited to their roles and hope that they add up to some kind of satisfying whole.

Steel is certainly more interested in innovation than tradition. This first, short season was assembled hastily and comprised largely of extant productions, and many of the singers have yet to be named (or, quite possibly, hired). Still, it’s an interesting balance of new and old. “Esther," dense but critically acclaimed, certainly merits a second hearing, which it hasn't yet gotten; the company’s old “Giovanni” was overdue to be replaced; “Butterfly” is one of its best productions.

But even in straitened economic times, the real trick to making opera really exciting is to find the singers and the dramatic conceptions to support it. The question is whether Steel, or his staff, will ultimately choose to expand tradition or to reject it.

I’ve heard some people complain about the Washington National Opera’s conservatism; others, by contrast, have protested what they see as the company’s more modern works (“Peter Grimes”) and productions (last year’s “La Bohème"). So what do opera companies need to do to present opera effectively in the 21st century? What should George Steel try to do in New York – and what could the WNO do that it isn’t doing?

By Anne Midgette  |  April 2, 2009; 5:10 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , news , opera  
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Thanks for the thoughtful and balanced information and observations about the NY City Opera.

What was the NY City Opera thinking about with the Mortier selection? My wife and I saw many of his Salzburg efforts - as you note some really good (L'Amour de Loin) and many really terrible (the completely rewritten Fledermaus introducing drugs, sexual abuse of minors, Nazi storm troopers, etc etc.) Mortier is a spoiled brat who thrived on large government subsidies - state aid at a level far above anything seen in the USA, even in the best of times.

In response to your broader question of programming, a mix of traditional and innovative seems best and inevitable. People have different tastes, and it is tough to fill a big house with just one or the other approach - although the same production can successfully mix the two approaches.

Personally, I prefer the newer operas such as A View from the Bridge or Sophie's Choice and last year's Boheme, but a traditional production well performed is fun, too.

Posted by: BethesdaFan | April 2, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

However regrettable it may be that the Met administration sleepwalked through this season's Sonnambula, in the interest of presenting a balanced view of the institution I am mentioning that Mark Morris's recent production of Gluck's Orfeo was splendid.

The disintegration of NYCO's plans with Mortier is too closely linked to the general economic turmoil. There are many "What ifs?," not all of them negative. For example, the commission for Wourinen's Brokeback Mountain was a most exciting prospect, so far alas evidently Mortier-dependent.

Posted by: ScottRose | April 2, 2009 10:47 PM | Report abuse

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