Sadly, the fat lady did you-know-what for you-know-who.

Broadway operaAbout two and a half years ago, I blogged about New York City Opera’s shocking move out of Lincoln Center to . . . nowhere.

It didn’t take a Harvard MBA to know what that meant . . . that fat lady was taking a big old breath and getting ready to sing one helluva note.

Two and a half years later, she let ‘er rip.

And that’s the end of my feeble attempts at humor, because this ain’t that funny.

New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy last week, ending an era of “affordable opera” for NYers, and leaving a ton of people without jobs, and an already beaten-up art form, up against the ropes again.

While articles like this one point to a whole bunch of missteps by the opera management over the years, there’s a bigger issue that those of us in the theater should pay attention to.

The opera audience just ain’t as big as it used to be.  And for the ones that are around, there’s not much for them to see anymore that they haven’t seen before.

How many Toscas can one see?  How many Bohemes?  Aidas?  Traviatas?

Sure, there are new productions and new stars, but they are the same ol’ operas done again and again and again.  New operas are still written, of course (NYCO’s last production of Anna Nicole was one of their most courageous works . . . ever), but they are not done nearly at the frequency of other artistic mediums (plays, musicals, novels, movies, etc.).  Partly because there isn’t the audience for them, and partly because it’s exceptionally difficult for authors to make money writing them!

So, opera companies put on the same ol’ productions or the same ol’ operas that they have been seeing for . . . centuries.  And well, that gets . . . old.  Literally.

The same could happen for the theater.  We’re a decade and a half away from the 100th anniversary of the modern theater (I peg its birth around the time of Show Boat) . . . and doesn’t it feel like we’re running out of revivals?  How many times can you see Oklahoma?  Or go back further . . . how many productions of The Seagull can we take before audience members stop going?

I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons why our attendance has been waning over the years.  Too many revivals, and not enough interest . . . unless, of course, they’ve got massive stars (but even those productions don’t run long enough to make a difference in attendance).

Takeaways from the New York City Opera story?

If you’re a theater company just focused on revivals, you’re in for a bumpy ride . . . unless you’ve got a ton of Hollywood stars on speed dial.

And while producing revivals is an important component to keeping the tradition of theater alive . . . it can’t be all that we do.  Our own fat lady will be belting out something as well . . . and it won’t be a show tune.

 

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  • Kevin Morales says:

    But name all the musicals being revived this season …

  • Anthony Porter says:

    I’ve got to disagree with you a little bit. There is something magic about opera that is different than a musical. Stay with me for a minute and I’ll explain. How many companies are doing opera compared to companies doing musical theater? Opera is spectacle. It is big, it is loud, it is flashy. Even small opera companies bring the spectacle. I live in Utah where we have two professional opera companies: One (Utah Opera) that produces four shows per season and one festival company (Utah Festival Opera) which does two operas and two musicals in summer rep. Utah Opera has never been more successful. And audiences keep coming back to the same old operas because they bring the spectacle and the young talent.

    They have an incredible education department that gets young people into the opera (every opera) and they keep coming back. They have a group called the Vivace Society that gets young professionals into the opera and symphony and make it more of a social activity as well as an arts appreciation group. With these two groups there a the maybe four or five college opera productions.

    There are 400 years of material to draw from. Not all of it is great, but those operas that are still around are pretty spectacular! Most opera companies are not like the Met, where you may have the same operas being produced year after year. Utah Opera usually goes about 7-8 years before they repeat an opera that has been done before. And while they are not doing the most arcane qand unusual operas, they have been part of 2 world premiers, and have an ongoing program of bringing new and American operas to the stage in little old Utah.

    I have been part of the opera chorus for this group for over 20 years, and have been in almost 60 productions in that time. I have done my fair share of Bohemes and Traviatas, but each production still brings something new. And if it’s not, there not much reason to do it again.

    Opera isn’t dead, yet. I’m disheartened by the closure of NYCO, but from all accounts it was due to poor management. That does not mean that opera is doomed. Much in the same way that the rather foolish management of the Minnesota Orchestra right now is close to spelling doom to that great organization is no death knell for orchestras world-wide. Every arts organization is under tougher circumstances at this time, but it doesn’t mean that were headed to that long sleep from which we won’t soon wake.

  • This really is sad. I art form is so moving and powerful, as much for the singer as it is for the those hearing it. I sang with the New Jersey State Opera Chorus and learned that companies often do “Cav Pag”-which is Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci as a double billing b/c they were short. I wonder if someone could take the helm and morph the art form could (modeling it in new shows like Ana Nicole) such that there would be intrinsically shorter productions. Or maybe even vignettes of new works, which then could be billed with another art form such as art exhibits, web series, benefits or other concerts-and would thus solve the problem of dying audiences as well. The younger audiences would get used to being exposed to the singing as a style (which again, so so royally moving) and get used to it in quotidien places. It’s survival mode. Then, if more and more people understand that opera is not just for snobs- but, as in Europe, it is to be enjoyed in a hale and hearty, earthy way, the audiences would build up again and we could have all the productions: new works on the scale of vignettes, smaller productions, and the whole Fan Tutti Fruiti.

  • Good piece, Ken. I’ve attended some of the live from the Met movies and at 54 I feel like the baby of the crowd. Ironically, at Carmen at San Francisco Opera there was a somewhat younger crowd.

    I used to work the coatroom at NYC Opera, so this is especially sad for me. They were pretty adventurous, producing a wonderful Candide and I hear their Sweeney Todd was great, too.

    And opera is the only place these days to hear singers without amplification– and even more sadly, orchestras that aren’t miked. Plus it’s always exciting to hear large 30 to 40 piece orchestras, with the same number of singers on stage.

    But we are also in trouble with theater. Many high schools that used to produce full-scale musicals with orchestras now don’t even have an orchestra program at their school. A piano replaces the pit band and all those kids who would have fallen in love with musicals from playing in the pit are left out of the process. That’s 30 kids by who knows how many schools over the last twenty years.

    At the same time, the bigger regional theaters here in the Bay Area drag busloads of kids for special performances. That helps a little.

  • My Dad was an operatic baritone, in the company of Beniamano Gigli, and so on. There was always a Sunday afternoon chorale at someone’s home. Starting as a kid it was always pretty much the same music. It musta been my Italian heart that let itself be pushed up into my throat by the emotional, espressive “Un bel di” no matter how many times I heard it. Opera is opera. It is unique. To go to the heart, it must come from the heart. What magic gift must it take to do this? As a playwright I wish someone would show me how. Unfortunately, the jingle of coins go with tin ears, and the two of them have nothing to do with opera.

  • Ken, I did a small job that involved the orchestra and staff at NYCO (just before George Steele’s tenure). The saddest thing is exactly as you point out, that a whole raft of really talented people no longer have the opportunity to grace us with their skill and passion. One area not to forget: do you know how specialised a job a good opera music librarian is!

    The problem with Opera, at least in my view, is not the canon of work (although, some of them ‘really’ need to be permanently retired) is the lack of absolute, resolute, a whole-nine-yards-commitment to new opera (whatever form that takes) and finding new works to produce. And by that I mean going out and FINDING new work.

    Therein, I take issue at the lack of expertise in artistic curatorship (for want of a better expression) in very many of the American opera companies that produce new operas that have no likelihood of audience takeup. It’s pretty much the same issue wherein we are starting to see certain people in the sector beginning to speak up about the lack of innovation and artistic programming expertise in American orchestras.

    This is not a uniform criticism per se, as there are numerous opera companies in the USA whom have invested heavily in producing new Americian operas for more than several decades now that have, by-and-large, got it right. Although not every new opera that has been produced by the likes of the Houstons, Chicagos, Minnesotas etc., (there are other opera companies I aware) have got much traction as yet, by and large the works they have invested in to date are worthy of any number of re-mounts or new production by other companies.

    When you are so fortunate in America to have composers like Jake Heggie, Susan Kander, Kevin Puts, Mark Adamo, John Corigliano and many others – not forgetting the recent passing of the wonderful Daniel Catán – what in the hell are American opera companies doing relying on the tried and tired operas? The real truth is that they don’t want to do new work as the reason they exist. Ugly isn’t it, and I am happy ot defend this accusation as I’ve done the research.

    Waning interest in the artform globally by new generations of audiences whose parents did not take their offspring (or themselves for that matter) to the opera as a common occurance is a matter of fact. The Gen Xs and Ys; and whoever we are up to now, are not going to take to the Bohèmes, Traviatas etc. unilaterally, because the storytelling principles involved in these works are not easy to re-position for younger audiences that resonate with time-shifting, non-linear, and multiple-perspective storytelling approaches which they both respond to and have come to expect.

    And lastly, where do you find the true young American maestri (yes, I also know who the few of you are – and I love you dearly!) who are prepared to go to bat for getting a chance to promote contemporary American opera. The problem here, to be fair, is that with few exceptions, they’re not the folk calling the shots at the opera companies and therein lies a core and untenable problem.

    Basta.

    Oh, I am going to get creamed for this diatribe Ken!

    Cheers,
    Kevin

  • George Rady says:

    Ya, I have to go a little further… I completely disagree with the evaluation of Opera and why people – like Moi – go to the Opera with the same enthusiasm – but DIFFERENT expectations – as when I go to Broadway.

    First, NYC Opera died because there is the MET! At one time, the Big Apple could support two Opera companies as it can (still) support tow basesball teams… but no longer.

    Stuck in LA, the annual NYC City Opera visits to the West Coast were the oasis in the Cultural Dead Land for Bella Canto… and I studied with Bill Chapman from the NYC Opera company back in the 70s… so I had a close knowledge of how that institution worked.

    What really killed NYC Opera – years ago – was the passing of the GREAT Beveryl Sills… not only a great singer… and (unusual for opera at that time ACTOR) she also became the ambassador for the troupe when she retired from the stage… and would bring in NAME Singers at cut rates… all that stopped when She passed away… and NYC was in Life Support ever since.

    The “product” wasn’t bad… it just wasn’t the MET! So why pay top dollar for 2nd best?

    More to the point – Opera Fans are rarely – also – Broadway fans (like me) and you probaly have 90 Broadway Fans to 1 Opera fan….

    Why – because Opera is about Music and Singing.

    Despite attempts to make Opera more “theatrica” (like this year’s “Rigoletto” set in Vegas… and having young, more attractive singers… who are also better actors…) Opera remains about GORGEOUS Music and GLORIOUS SINGING… and – quite frankly – these Arts are lost on most of the population… even people who like Musicals have only a vague interest in going to the opera (unless it is made more like “theatre”)

    NO one goes to see the same “shows” – Opera lovers know the stories (if they even care) – and only the rare-est of opera lovers wanna hear anything “new” (mostly pushed by muscians who become bored with playing the same “old” stuff) I could see Mozart/Verdi/Pucci’s works a 100 times… because the music is so deep and rich and – composed – as if out of the “Mouth of God” – AND because there are but a hand full of singers – WHO DON’T NEED MIKES!!! who can let out their voices… producing sounds that NO microphone or amplifier or synthsizer can “fix” – and, to be quite, frank, while I have been attending opera since I was a kid (which is WHY I can appreciate the art… as it is no longer passed on by parents or taught in socialized schools) it is only in my later years (50s) that I can actually hear the minute differences between one voice and another… and how one singer’s attempt to conquer a demanding Aria… is Pavarotti… while another sounds like Hugh Jackman trying to sing for a camera…

    Yes, Opera is Elitist…. which is why it is LAST on the list of Public Support and even ridiculed by the likes of “Natash, Andrei and Comet of 1812” – but the “noise” that plays behind that (otherwise very theatrical and enjoyable work) is exactly WHY I can NOT attend – that – or Matilda or most other “musicals” beyond the first hearing… once I got the story… I’m done. Like a popcorn movie… it’s comsumable and comsumed.

    Just came from a performance by the Delaware Opera Company’s production of “L’Elisir d’ Amore” – must have seen this opera a dozens times in my Life… last year’s Met with the Diva of Our Time, Anna Netrebko, was the DEFINITIVE production… but You know what… Sharin Apostolou sang a sprightly “Adina” and William Davenport (no relation I trust) brought down the Grand Opera House with “Una furtiva lagrima” and I stood and cheered like I had never heard it before….

    And that is Opera!

    (Luv’d Kinky Boots – don’t have the slightest interest in going back and seeing it again… forced throaty rock singing and easily forgetable music.., but GREAT dance numbers and wildly lively cast… that, for the most part is Broadway)

    g

  • Clair Sedore says:

    I agree totally with your article, and like yourself fear for the lack of new plays and new musicals. At 75 I have seen all the great ones, and look forward to something new in theatre. I realize the upcoming generations have NOT seen all the important shows, and revivals need to be done. I do admire the works of the newer composers, and hope in the future there will be more revivals of the newer shows like Ragtime, Songs for a New World, and of course Wicked, and Kinky Boots. Fortunately we have off-broadway and a new group of talented folks coming up in the wings. But alas off-Broadway is also getting expensive to mount shows, and out-of-town tryouts are also too expensive. At the moment I am a great fan of Disney trying out Aladdin in Toronto. We used to get so many shows prior to Broadway but those days of Camelot seem long gone

  • Ilene Argento says:

    Very sad, Ken. This is where I agree with you, whole heartedly, from a Broadway Theatre standpoint. Yes … FAR too many revivals, and not enough new material. For me, the ‘star power’ doesn’t usually cut it either. I’d pay money NOT to go to anything starring, say, Brooke Shields! It only works if the star has stage talent. If they don’t, it has the opposite effect. The other worry for me is, everything “New” seems to be a movie convert to stage. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed many, MANY of them, and can’t wait for “Somewhere In Time” to be on Broadway (truly, I can’t wait … hint, hint, hint!). That said, they aren’t ‘original’ ideas, they are stories that have been told, in great detail. Where are our writers out there?

  • Lois Jacobs says:

    Ken,
    You hit it squarely and cleanly. This article is not just about opera though Ken has nailed the problem of the opera audience. Locally, here in the Boston area, there are two companies who only do Broadway revivals. My group of four patrons have stopped going to these two venues. Not that they don’t do a good job, but how times do we want to pay to see the same old revivals? The company loses patrons and ticket money. One of these venues is in trouble though there is more to the story.
    I want to see more current works mixed in these companies. The consequences mean I will look at new venues for my dollar.

  • The Mint Theater does only revivals, and I believe it is very successful. But it’s reviving plays that are from way back, not repeats of stuff we’ve all seen five productions of already. Also, they really go for quality. (No,I have no affiliation at all with them, except I’m on their mailing list.)

    I know nothing about opera, unfortunately. But I’d like to add that revivals of plays with stars do serve a purpose. When Brian Bedford played Lady Bracknell in New York not that long ago,we went to see “The Importance of Being Earnest” and had the most wonderful experience. We knew the famous lines and the twists, and Oscar Wilde is always worth listening to, but we were in an audience many of whose members had clearly never seen, heard, or read this play before. They were experiencing it as FRESH. laughing with surprised delight. We felt like time-travelers. We got to sit in a virgin audience for this great play!

    Finally, the real problem seems to be that
    many producers can’t tell from reading new scripts what constitutes a hit. (Yeah, I know.
    Easily said, and it’s not MY money.) That made Ken’s analysis of “House of Cards” fascinating. But revivals will continue and continue until great new plays can find their way to production in a less circuitous and Byzantine fashion than now seems to be the only way in (short of finding a massive amount of natural gas or oil in your backyard).

  • alex says:

    So true, Esp about plays — this season on Broadway is such a “meh” for me – how many times can I see Glass Menagerie? I know this is supposed to be THE BEST version ever, but I am not one of those who are into star actors, even great ones, when I already know the play. And Romeo and Juliet, again? Great works all, but seriously I would like to see new plays. I saw Betrayal in London – a great play to be sure..but I guess if you like stars then you should see it. And Lincoln Center is doing Macbeth again? I’ve seen 3 or 4 Macbeths on Broadway… this is an unfashionable opinion, I know… but I’d rather have new plays.

  • Rialtolover says:

    Yes, audience maintenance is a challenge. Yes, many of the classic operas are done frequently. But the major problem with the NYC Opera, was a Board of Directors that was asleep, and the subsequent allowing of fiscal irresponsibility. An excellent commentary was written by Manuela Hoelterhoff in one of the Bloomberg news publications October 7th, “City Opera’s Board Should be Pillored.” It can be found online; it should be read by all. The Board also never sought creativity as it relates to venturous undertakings to BUILD interest and expand audiences, thus generating additional income. Look at what the MET has done with their National HD live Broadcasts. Millions of more people exposed to the art; significant cash flow as a result. The lack of focus with the NYCO Board signaled impending doom for several years…that had donors turning the other direction, another blow to funding. A sad, sad implosion in the making, all leading to the end last week.

  • Joe says:

    I have to disagree a lot with this piece. NYCO made a series of poor decisions, some of which could have been avoided with armchair quarterbacking — and some of which could have just been avoided *without* any. However, the decisions they were confronted with are not radically different than those that face many performing arts organizations, regardless of discipline: board leadership, quality of board-staff engagement, balancing a need for capital improvements with economic realities, over-reliance on the vision of a single artistic leader, inflation, union labor relations, programming balance, etc… that NYCO made more errors than wins across all of those areas led to their downfall. It is *not* because their discipline was that of opera.

    Good opera companies recognized decades ago the risk of being seen as a “rarefied” art form and have been actively taking measures to ensure that new audiences are constantly being developed and cultivated. Market-by-market the success has varied, but across the nation, but looking at the aggregate, you simply need to read the NEA’s Public Participation in the Arts study. As late as the 2002 study, opera was the only discipline studied that recorded growth in participation nationwide. In 2008, opera suffered a decline along with all disciplines in response the economic downturn. But in 2012, the percentage of Americans attending was again at least flat – a stark comparison to theatre, which as an art form saw double digit percent declines between 2008 and 2012. Because of the smaller number of professional opera companies in the US (probably around 200) and the many implicit barriers to participation created by folks who reinforce it as an art form that is expensive, elitist, old, and foreign, it will never have the market share of other disciplines. But, interest in it is far from waning. And the development of new work a hallmark of most *regional* opera companies. It’s a shame that it’s not the hallmark of companies of the same or greater size in New York proper.

    However, great new American opera is regularly premiered in Minneapolis (“Silent Night” which won the Pulitzer Prize for music, and more recently “Doubt”), St. Louis (“Champion” by 5-time Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer and the upcoming “Shalimar the Clown” based on a Salman Rushdie novel), Houston (where Ricky Ian Gordan’s newest opera premieres in March), San Francisco (where a new opera inspired by Stephen King’s “Dolores Claiborne” recently played, along with the more controversial “Gospel of Mary Magdelene”), among many others.

    It is the companies only producing war horses like Dallas (from whence came George Steel), Pittsburgh (which recently reduced programming to a three-week festival), and Colorado (which has dropped from a three opera season to a two opera season), which are seeing the declines in their audience. But, to assume that all opera companies operate in that manner is a pov informed by supposition and no hard facts. It makes a nice analogy in an argument against producing too many Broadway revivals, but not much of convincing argument about what went wrong at NYCO.

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