The collapse of the once illustrious New York City Opera has opened a chasm in New York’s cultural life, leaving the mighty Metropolitan Opera with a near-monopoly. For a city that has long prided itself on diversity of choice and repertory, that looks dangerous, not to say unhealthy. But this week a degree of optimism was revived by the Gotham Chamber Opera. In a courageous if sometimes frustrating presentation titled Baden-Baden 1927, the enterprising little company proved that stimulating alternatives are still available, even if they are more modest and sporadic than the seasons once promoted under the City Opera banner.
The New York City Opera began its adventurous life in 1943 at the oddly gaudy City Center on West 55th Street – and ended it filing for bankruptcy earlier this month. Originally described by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia as “the people’s opera”, it offered honourable if rather simple presentations of singalong favourites – in contrast to the Met’s big splashy productions, usually old-fashioned, of big, splashy operas, usually old-fashioned. It also explored neglected masterpieces and novelties. The system provided valuable exposure for young American talents and, long before Marian Anderson broke the shameful colour-barrier at the Met in 1955, the smaller company engaged singers whose skin happened to be dark. Despite aesthetic fluctuations, the City Opera cultivated ensemble values and, possibly most important, courted audiences deterred by Met ticket prices.
In 1966, the City Opera made a bid for unaccustomed glamour when it moved – lock, stock and optimism – to the New York State Theater, literally next door to the Met at Lincoln Center. With Julius Rudel providing enlightened leadership, both administrative and musical, and with such extraordinary artists as Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle enlivening such disparate challenges as Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel, advancement was assured. Opera in English, not incidentally, remained a frequent if hardly inevitable practice.
Vicissitudes notwithstanding, the City Opera carried on respectably, often imposingly, until 2008. Then disaster loomed. The State Theater underwent drastic renovation and became the David H. Koch Theater, renamed after the ultraconservative oil-and-gas mogul who footed the bill. Although the co-resident New York City Ballet continued to perform during the transformation period, the opera board chose a year-long hiatus. Gerard Mortier, the quirkily progressive Belgian impresario, was hired at outlandish cost to revamp priorities. Not surprisingly, funds shrank, and Mortier quit before he started.
The situation might still have been salvaged if the board had hired a seasoned expert to replace Mortier and pick up the tatters. One of the most promising candidates was Francesca Zambello, who now enjoys remarkable success with the Washington National Opera and at the Glimmerglass Festival. But the authorities chose George Steel, whose credentials were, to put it politely, questionable.
He had run an engaging programme of musical esoterica for a tiny non-profit theatre at Columbia University. Subsequently he spent a few strife-torn months at the Dallas Opera. At the City Opera he inherited disarray, and promptly made it worse, mustering only a few isolated productions annually. By 2011 he decided to abandon Lincoln Center. The City Opera became homeless, mustering occasional performances of odd pieces in odd places. At one point Steel held a rummage sale to raise mini-funds and get rid of the sets and costumes in storage. His not-so-grand finale took the slickly sensational form of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, presented to relatively small audiences and limited acclaim in Brooklyn six weeks ago. When desperate pleas for new financial aid went largely unheeded, bankruptcy beckoned.
Can the scrappy, ambitious and idealistic Gotham Chamber Opera make a credible bid for the precarious honour of filling its place? This month, with Baden-Baden 1927, the canny conductor and artistic director Neal Goren assembled a stimulating evening of tough one-act operas at the intimate Lynch Theater of John Jay College. This, in essence, was a reproduction of the historic programme of premieres presented by Paul Hindemith in the distant days when the provincial German town accommodated musical adventure along with gambling and spa indulgence.
Gotham’s quadruple bill was, or should have been, a tribute to sociopolitical Zeitoper experiments, spanning Darius Milhaud’s L’enlèvement d’Europe, Ernst Toch’s Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse, Hindemith’s own Hin und Zurück and, most notably, Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel. The idea was intriguing, clever, original. The execution was bright, smart, polished. The interpretation, alas, was arch, pretentious and hyperactive.
Not content to stage the mini-operas simply and directly, the celebrated director Paul Curran added modern embellishment, irrelevant commentary, pretty projections and stagey gimmickry. Contemporary mufti mostly replaced period attire. Between numbers, cast members chatted, strolled the aisles, encouraged audience participation. Everyone kept asking each other, and us, the eternal fatuity: “What is art?”
The basic set featured a pair of vast canvases dominated by a crimson arm and fist, painted by the neo-expressionist master Georg Baselitz. His images were abetted, sometimes contradicted, by a co-designer, Court Watson. Although the scenic locale began as an art gallery, that visual conceit went and came.
Milhaud’s eight-minute essay on the abduction of Europa emerged jazzy, fussy and fuzzy. Toch’s brightly trashy retelling of the old princess-and-pea tale was interpreted as a reality-TV laugh-riot, lasting 35 minutes. Mary Rodgers’ Once Upon a Mattress is still funnier. Hindemith’s amusing and bemusing 12-minute voyage literally takes the viewer “there and back”; here it became a mildly beguiling silent-movie comedy of love, murder and suicide, swiftly enacted and instantly re-enacted in reverse. Andy Warhol made an inexplicable guest appearance as “a wise man”. Weill’s Mahagonny preview, lasting a half hour, sacrificed sensual decadence for cartoon cuteness. The original setting, a boxing ring, was not invoked.
The nominal star on display was the once wondrous soprano Helen Donath, who tended to over-act and under-sing. Now 73, she modelled an incongruous flapper-biddy gown, complete with awful fox stole, as she warbled and yelled Weill’s “Moon of Alabama”, the iconic song created for the languorous Lotte Lenya when she was 28. John Cheek, Met veteran, grumbled knowingly in several bass roles. Others in the eager casts were Michael Mayes, Daniel Montenegro, Maeve Höglund, Matthew Tuell, Jennifer Rivera, Jessica Ann Best and Rachelle Pike – good musical sports confronting bad theatrical odds.