Among the books I’ve been reading in this new year, I can wholeheartedly recommend Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America by the Wall Street Journal‘s Heidi Waleson (Macmillan 2018). Whether you’re an opera enthusiast or not, Waleson’s history of the company, which has risen from the ashes more than once, is a revealing look at the artistic and business life of a significant New York City cultural institution. NYCO was founded in 1944 as a “People’s Opera,” offering a low-cost alternative to the more stately and generously funded Metropolitan Opera, but both the company’s mission and its management found it difficult — and ultimately impossible — to negotiate the tidal changes in arts presentation over the 60 years that followed. Waleson’s book chronicles the backstage and boardroom tensions and challenges shared by many of America’s non-profit arts organizations over the same period. Since this is opera, many of the personalities involved are, as they say, “larger than life” (though life got to most of them in the end), and as a result the book is a fascinating page-turner about both NYCO’s management and artistic personnel and its deeper financial crises. Waleson, the Wall Street Journal‘s opera critic and a faculty member at the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, writes with grace and authority. And it may just make you pay a little more attention to opera criticism in your daily newspaper, if not plan to visit a local opera house yourself.
By the time the NYCO was founded, entertainment options in urban areas and elsewhere were already beginning to multiply exponentially. Only 20 years earlier, radio became a fixture in homes around the country, and by 1929 the silent film was dead. In the next few decades, television and then LPs (along with stereo FM radio) made it possible for the culturally ambitious to avoid visiting performance spaces at all. And in our own day, cable television and the Internet provide hundreds more entertainment options at every hour of every day at a fraction of the price of a ticket to the opera, let alone the movies. If the NYCO was founded in response to the perception that the Met had become a haven for the elite, it would soon find itself in competition with these other cultural options as well. Instead of the institution (the Met), the art form itself (opera) increasingly came to seem an elitist project.
My own bailiwick, at least until a few years ago, was drama and live theater — significantly less expensive to produce than opera, but labor- and finance-intensive just the same. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thought to conclude that institutions that produce live theater became just as much the victim of these cultural changes as well. Waleson notes that the money needed to provide living wages to artists and musicians, as well as the technicians and management personnel required to run these institutions, increased as audience numbers, and subsequently earned income, decreased.
None of the strategies that the NYCO and other institutions explored over the past 60 years proved to be a magic bullet. The subscription model that served to finance the institutions fell apart in the 1970s, in part the victim of just these same dynamics. Opera- and theater-goers were no longer inclined to purchase tickets to five or six productions that ranged through an entire year. Instead, because they had more options, they could pick and choose the individual productions they wished to see. Good for the audience, but not so good for the institutions, which relied on stronger-performing shows to finance those that performed less well, spreading financial risk through a season. Subscription income provided that insurance.
In circling the wagons, cultural institutions tried a variety of approaches to increase earned income: relying upon star power instead of a repertory company (Beverly Sills’ emergence as a major operatic talent at the NYCO, for example, drew audiences who wanted to see her, not necessarily the opera she appeared in); the inclusion of more popular music-theater forms into what had seemed like a stodgy, Eurocentric canon; running shows in stagione instead of repertory, which lowered production and labor costs; commissioning new work in an attempt to integrate more contemporary composers and artists into the traditional repertory; and so on and so on. All noble ventures, to be sure. Unfortunately, this also led to a continuing fragmentation of the audience base, which may be interested in some of these new efforts (new operas, new directions in staging) but not others (older operas presented more traditionally). In addition, an emphasis on novelty undermined the role of these institutions in presenting the history of the form. What one aesthetic hand giveth, another taketh away.
It is increasingly clear that the large urban institutions that produce opera and theater need to find a way to balance all of these possibilities — standard rep in both traditional and experimental stagings, new work both traditional and innovative in form — and to find ways to migrate audience members from one to the other and back again. I would suggest that these institutions look more closely at one of the roles they’ve neglected: that of educating its audiences about the art forms they present. In order to do so, they must present work that, as primary text, explores the appeal of both traditional and new performance practice and forms.
Waleson concludes her book, as well she should, with an optimism that the operatic form itself is still alive, well and evolving, and that the form will continue to endure. The same, surely, can be said about theater. Live performance continues to appeal because it serves a basic human, communal need. But the ability of cultural institutions to meet this need is still a symptom of the health of a culture. The reluctance of NYCO’s Board and management to take a long, hard look at that ability — and what the art form itself could contribute to cultural life — led to its failure. The fat lady may not be in the wings yet, but, since entertainment options continue to fragment the potential younger audience, she may be warming up.