The failure of the New York City Opera stands as a cautionary tale for other performing arts companies.
Veteran Wall Street Journal opera critic Waleson (Music Criticism/San Francisco Conservatory of Music) makes her book debut with a thorough recounting of the tumultuous history of the New York City Opera, from its hopeful founding as the People’s Opera in 1943 to its sputtering demise in 2013. Championed by New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the opera was meant for audiences who could not afford the ticket prices charged by the Metropolitan Opera. Housed in a dilapidated former temple on Manhattan’s 55th Street, the NYCO rented out space to other arts companies and borrowed scenery and costumes in order to keep ticket prices low. Since opera is “the most notoriously expensive of all art forms,” the NYCO knew that it risked financial loss. Throughout its history, it scrambled for funding from foundations, philanthropists, and grants. Since it could never afford the major stars who sang at the Met, the NYCO hired beginning singers, who were grateful for employment and the chance of being discovered. By the 1960s, one performer shone: soprano Beverly Sills, who became a “repertory driver, with new operas mounted to showcase roles she wanted to sing.” In 1979, Sills took on the directorship of the NYCO. By then, she was famous, but she was hardly ready to confront the company’s severe financial deficit. Changing demographics (the company’s older audience was dying out), “threadbare artistic level” (even after a move to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center), and erratic programming reduced the number of ticket holders. Waleson documents the productions, financial struggles, changing roster of ineffectual directors, and boards comprised “of mostly well-intentioned people who were paralyzed by inertia” as forces that led the NYCO finally to declare bankruptcy. She notes with cautious optimism that festivals, art centers, and small, nimble companies—including a recently resurrected City Opera—are striving valiantly to keep opera alive.
A cleareyed examination of the economic fragility of cultural institutions.