Heidi Waleson’s Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America (2018) is a challenging and enlightening work—one which dares much and succeeds remarkably well. We must concede that we do not often find a work of expository prose to be as appealing as this one is. I particularly relished Waleson’s short list of the names of those who refused to respond to her inquiries, but I appreciated even more her emphasis on various mismanagements. Having seen how irresponsible people can be as “trustees,” I was alert, as many another will be, to the grim implications of having perverse leaders—ones who cannot or will not properly lead. As the years passed for the opera, there was a routinization of debt.
In Waleson’s book, the operatic subject is never neglected, but the treatment is something distinctively different, being a tour of errors and an accounting of distortions in the area of management—or, as we might otherwise put it, of business. Heidi Waleson has reminded us of the old saying: “There is nothing more expensive than opera, except war.” A symphony orchestra is the same from week to week, but an operatic stage must change the soloists and the costumes from day to day, and that is only the beginning. There had been decades of studied neglect that eventually led to the bankruptcy of 2013, and the reformulated City Opera that has emerged since. The story is not yet over.
There were inherent difficulties from the beginning of the New York City Opera, and not only the usual problems of subsidy, but also an inherent rivalry with the Metropolitan Opera (founded in 1883), which had been a venue of world class since the days of Enrico Caruso. The competition and comparison between the two opera houses—one which had its productive side—was dramatized and made more fraught with difficulty by the later imposition of the Lincoln Center in 1966, which only added to the problems.
Founded in 1943 with the support of Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, the New York City Opera was supposed to be “the People’s Opera”—for those who could not afford the Metropolitan Opera. But by 1966, juxtaposed to the Met in Lincoln Center, the New York City Opera was in conflict and contrast with the Metropolitan Opera itself, sometimes to its own advantage in terms of repertory and of performing artists as well. Indeed, a look at some notable names reminds us of how much we have owed to the City Opera; and these names were related to particular roles. Samuel Ramey, to cite but one, was always welcome but never more so than during a performance of Verdi’s Attila. Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Patricia Brooks, June Anderson, and many another show how effective and productive the City Opera could be. We remember compelling voices, most of which were American: Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Phyllis Curtin, Judith Raskin, Tatyana Troianos, Carol Neblett, Johanna Meier, Richard Stilwell, Alan Titus, Olivia Stapp, Justino Diaz, Diana Soviero, Pablo Elvira, Willard White, Catherine Malfitano, Frederica von Stade, and Mariana Niculescu are some of those individuals.
There were many opportunities for American singers in the New York City Opera, as well as for singers from abroad. There was also a place reserved for American composers, or to put it another way, for American operas. This reservation was a balanced one, since standard repertory was indeed standard. And there were only a limited number of American operas that were clearly successful onstage. There were also a confusing number of substitutes for “American operas,” such as musical comedies from Broadway.
Back in the late 1950’s, the Ford Foundation helped fund the presentation of American operas through the auspices of the City Opera. One example was The Dybbuk by David Tamkin, a world premiere and a hit. Marc Blitzstein’s Regina, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida were presented side by side. By that time, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah was acknowledged as a classic American opera, as was Porgy and Bess in its operatic, as opposed to Broadway, presentation. One of the particular arrangements of the early days was the juxtaposition of Monteverde’s Orfeo of 1607 with Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero of 1948! But even such remarkable memories do not efface the continued presence of Avery Fisher Hall and the Metropolitan Opera in their particular ugliness—an unpleasant subject for another day.
Waleson has an effective way of conflating the difference and the similarity of European and American wealth and the results for opera. “With the 1970s oil boom, a number of fledgling opera companies had appeared in Texas.” This hilarious statement is also the truth, and leads on to other truths: “[T]he Houston Grand Opera, under the visionary leadership of David Gockley since 1972, was beginning to challenge NYCO’s status as the leading champion of American works.” Waleson keeps the New York City Opera in context as one of many in the nation, and not always the best supported or best organized.
As Waleson relates, Esther Nelson, the Boston Lyric Opera’s general director, told a radio reviewer,
Those older theaters are really a kind of a holdover of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theater culture. And let’s face it, most of them were Europeans and it was a system of elitism. That’s not the world we live in anymore. We live in an increasingly diversified society. The theater needs to reflect that.
But I find Esther Nelson’s statement to be highly questionable. Was it a matter of diversity when some Florentines, more than four centuries ago, decided to synthesize and reveal materially as well as imaginatively what little they knew of ancient Greek tragedy?
Heidi Waleson is optimistic about the future of opera in a way that is at least questionable. I don’t see how contemporary social values—if such they may be called—can be effective or compelling platforms for operatic construction. She seems to think that “identity politics” is some kind of opportunity for opera—that members of one group will be captured by another group’s ethos or agenda on the operatic stage. But women are not discriminated against in the operatic environment, at least as far as voice-types and characters are concerned onstage, nor in the orchestra offstage. Would the LGBTQ community be anxious to see an opera about the mistreatment of Latinos, or vice versa? I don’t see how the categories and obsessions of identity groups can be fittingly united in the conflicts necessary for opera to work its problematical magic. Ultimately, today the audience of opera is self-chosen and self-identified; and its diversity is more than a contemporary slogan or fad, but a fact that all opera houses must deal with.
Looking back at opera as it was “sold” or “put over” back in the dear dead days beyond recall, I found enjoyment, consolation, and perspective in The Victrola Book of the Opera: Stories of One Hundred and Twenty Operas with Seven Hundred Illustrations and Descriptions of Twelve Hundred Victor Opera Records, by Samuel Holland Rous, Fourth Edition, 1917. The book is a shill for old 78s, that’s for sure—but it is also an education about opera, with details about the languages as well as the music and the drama. And there is a “more” that is a “less.”
There were no conflicts of value in The Victrola Book—there was instead harmony, and everything was positive. The book is trying to promote the sales of those artists of the day: Enrico Caruso, Titta Ruffo, Amelita Galli-Curci, and all the rest of them. Even in 1917, the account of German opera was undistorted by the political and military aspects of the events of those days—knowledge of German, Italian, and French was taken for granted, as was a general historical education. So even if The Victrola Book was a tool for record sales, it was also a cultural statement, and an impressive one. The book seems to say that, if you want to know something, you have to do your homework—and the book itself would be only the beginning. The next step would be the operatic one, in live performance.
The melodramatic plots of various operas from the 19th century have within their compass assertions of assimilated experience, of considerations of honor, of social obligations, and even of fate—perhaps Ernani is an example, by way of Hugo and Verdi. The difficulties and distinctions are the mechanisms of the plot, and they take their toll. Aristocratic hauteur collides with passion, and if that is not quite satisfactory, then a wealth of music is an antidote.
Musically speaking, we are as wealthy as we want and need to be.