Seems like I’m breaking promises: I outed myself as someone who’s not into opera, and shouldn’t be writing about it. I swore I wouldn’t let this blog become a sad series of obituaries. But if I’m going to comment on what’s going on in the musical theatre world, I can’t ignore the demise of New York’s most lovable opera company, The New York City Opera.
This blog, you know, is about writing musicals, and operas are entirely different things. In the minds of most. But not New York City Opera. For decades they’ve done Broadway shows like Brigadoon and A Little Night Music. Their creators intended them as commercial entertainments, mounted in some 1000-1800 seat house in the West 40s – not an opera house. But NYCO wanted to focus on American composers, and Broadway musicals are a uniquely American creation. We on the lower side should be flattered by high culture’s nod.
NYCO started its life at City Center, and, in that same massive venue, revivals of recent musicals were presented. (This was back in the day when NYCO was only doing true operas.) Then, City Center was ditched in favor of Lincoln Center. Soon, there wasn’t a place you could regularly go to see show revivals, and, cynically seizing an opportunity, more and more Broadway producers started mounting revivals on Broadway itself. And therein lies a problem.
The mania for revivals has a deleterious effect on the creation of new musical theatre, one that hardly anybody is willing to talk about. There’s the issue of resources. There is a finite quantity of Broadway theatres: the more houses filled with the old, the less room for the new. And productions utilize people – designers, dressers, actors, crew – that are therefore not working on original productions future generations will want to revive. All are employed but the writers, and the writers of the shows that get revived are often dead, not benefiting from seeing their work done again. This casts a pall on our community. We’re told, by happy revival-viewers, “Nobody writes ‘em that way anymore” and don’t yell back “When they wrote ‘em that way, they didn’t have to compete with revivals and idiots saying ‘Nobody writes ‘em that way anymore.’”
People argue with me that the old work needs to be seen, and I start thinking about paintings. New canvases get painted, and seen in galleries, available for purchase. Old masters are hung in museums, and we can all go and gawk and think how brilliant artists were in the good old centuries. The great musicals, I believe, should get done in places we think of as museums (such as City Center) and not on the commercial thoroughfare, Broadway. Then we could see them, when and if we feel like it, and the working practitioners of the craft could work in an environment in which Golden Era classics weren’t literally across the street.
Strayed from my topic, didn’t I? Over its 70 year history, NYCO premiered quite a few operas. Their final production, Anna Nicole, was an accessible work with quite a large amount of profanity and fun (of all things). Another recent premiere was Séance on a Wet Afternoon by the most successful of living musical theatre writers, Stephen Schwartz. One could say he strayed too far from his comfort zone, but I have to give NYCO credit for giving him a chance. Schwartz’s shows for the legitimate stage (seems an odd term in this context, but you know what I mean) have been so widely-embraced, the NYCO brass may have believed he could draw in a huge new audience to the opera house.
And this makes me think of NYCO’s genesis. In the 1940s there was, in the New York area, a large number of opera fans, and not all of them could afford or obtain tickets to the Met. The idea behind NYCO was “popular opera at popular prices” and along with that went an emphasis on American talent and fare far more adventurous than what the dowdy Met was serving up. Trouble is, after both companies moved to Lincoln Center, in huge travertine boxes facing the same plaza, NYCO became “that other opera company, with slightly cheaper ticket prices.” Yet another case of competing with the venue next door. I may be wrong, but I think, eventually, the community of opera-goers shrunk to a level where too few were willing to go with Avis just because they try harder.
And so, a noble cultural endeavor bites the dust, leaving the Met to do what it pleases as the only game in town. Which is: very few new works, little adventurous repertoire, no focus on American talent, and, by all means, no musicals. But I really shouldn’t knock the Met. Once I was there and saw Jacqueline Onassis, standing in front of the men’s room, waiting for her boyfriend to come out. It was very exciting.