Opera: One up, one down

Art Snob Blog
Elise Bakketun

Two pieces of news from afar caught our attention this week. First was the bankruptcy of venerable New York City Opera. The other was an announcement from Seattle Opera that the company balanced its budget for last season and eliminated a deficit accumulated in 2011-12. Seattle benefited from good fundraising — it helps to have the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on your side — but also took some strong medicine, reducing the number of performances and productions, eliminating staff, imposing salary cuts and furloughs. But NYCO also tried aggressive fundraising and cost-cutting before folding. What made the difference?

For one thing, New York buffs have options; Seattle Opera stands alone in its region. Outgoing director Speight Jenkins’ special and risky project, a Wagner “Ring” Cycle, also helped, bringing the company $11.2 million during August and another estimated $30-million plus windfall for Seattle hotels and restaurants. 

But we should also look at the programming. NYCO pushed a lot of rarities and contemporary work. Sometimes this worked, as when Beverly Sills revived Donizetti’s historical melodramas. New opera after new opera fizzled, however; of all the new work NYCO presented over 70 years perhaps only Carlyle Floyd’s “Susannah” will endure. Writing in the New Yorker, critic Alex Ross evaluated the company’s swan song, “Anna Nicole,” as a “mesmerizing grotesquerie, one of the more deftly constructed operas to have come along in recent years. Yet it never fully comes to life as musical drama.” Something similar might be said for the title character, recently dead celebrity Anna Nicole Smith, and the great bulk of modern opera: weirdly alluring, but fatally tuneless with dull stories and clumsy story-telling. 

A few years back I attended NYCO’s production of Richard Rodney Bennett’s atonal “Mines of Sulfur,” which combined hard-to-hear and unmemorable singing with a plot whose outcome could be guessed two minutes into the show and whose characters exhibited zero development over the next two hours. At intermission, people behind me, who had paid $100 for their seats, talked about leaving. They came back because, they told me, “We’re City Opera subscribers. We’re used to hearing a lot of bad music.” 

Seattle, on the other hand, trotted out a 2012-13 season straight out of opera’s greatest hits list: ““Suor Angelica,” “Fidelio,” “Cenerentola,” “La Boheme.” The most recent pieces were “La voix humaine” (1959) and  “Turandot” (1926).  

Conventional? Tame? Conservative? Cautious? Those terms are what philosophers might dismiss as “constructs,” artificial labels, what classical/pop/alt composer Nico Muhly calls taxonomies for the dead in the latest issue of Opera News. The dollar and cent reality is that New York’s “people’s opera” is gone and Seattle’s company starts its 50th season in excellent financial shape.

Culture is an expensive proposition. In Germany it's considered a necessity by the government and the governed. Elsewhere it leans heavily on contributions and fundraisers. Like the "Evening on the Moors" dinner and gala for Anchorage Opera on Saturday night at the Kincaid Park Chalet. Tickets are $200, available by calling 279-2557 or online at http://anchorageopera.ticketleap.com/moors/.