On March 9, 2015, we were at a benefit concert sponsored by NYCO Renaissance. The host organization attracted a large audience to celebrate the life and work of Julius Rudel and to raise funds for the rebirth of the New York City Opera. Founded in 1943, the City Opera folded in 2013 after an extended period of managerial and fiscal troubles.
The program dovetailed with City Opera’s original mission and with the repertoire that dominated when Rudel was general manager and principal conductor, the company’s “golden age,” 1957 to 1979. The second half of the program, in particular, featured young singers and American composers.
In acknowledgement of Rudel’s birthplace, Vienna, the program began with the overture to Die Fledermaus, conducted by Imre Palló, a rendition so detailed, so elegantly phrased that the familiar chestnut seemed reborn, a harbinger, we can only hope, for the company itself. And if the players, identified as the “New York City Opera Orchestra,” will indeed constitute its pit orchestra, we will have further cause to rejoice.
Outstanding among the younger artists was countertenor John Holiday who sang one of Caesar’s arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, recalling the unforgettable 1966 production that helped validate the company’s claim to a place in Lincoln Center. On that brilliant occasion, Beverly Sills, who you hear as Cleopatra in the clip that follows, was finally recognized as the star she had long been. She would go on to be the prima donna assoluta of the company until her retirement in 1979.
Soprano Joélle Harvey lofted floating pianissimos in an aria from La Clemenza di Tito, a Mozart work that Rudel led at City Opera several years before James Levine brought it to the Met. Here is Carol Vaness, who made her acclaimed company debut as Vitellia in that 1979 production. The recording dates from a 1989 performance in Chicago.
Other prospects for the new New York City Opera on the benefit program were tenor Joshua Guerrero who capped a zarzuela aria with ringing top notes, and baritone Michael Chioldi, a sonorous and idiomatic Scarpia in the “Te deum” from Tosca. Soprano Kristin Sampson offered the world premiere of a concert aria by Tobias Picker who was present at the benefit.
The first of the City Opera alumni to perform was the irrepressible Plácido Domingo, in the final baritone aria from Verdi’s Macbeth. He reminded the audience that it was he who opened the company’s first Lincoln Center season as the heroic tenor lead in Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo. Frederica von Stade was moving in excerpts from Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. We hear her in the world premiere recording of Heggie’s opera.
The concert ended with the hopeful ensemble that concludes Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow.”
The benefit sponsor, NYCO Renaissance, is one of two bidders for the rights to the “New York City Opera” name and to its scarce remaining assets. The other bidder is Gene Kaufman, an architect and opera aficionado whose organization, Opera New York, has put $1.5 million on the table, $250K beyond NYCO Renaissance’s offer. A hearing in Federal Bankruptcy Court about the two bids is scheduled for late April.
Ironically, and alarmingly, just a week before the Rudel celebration, the Times reported that the Metropolitan was obliged to pledge two of its bronze Maillol sculptures to renew a $30 million credit line for which it had already encumbered its Chagall murals. According to the report, the Met had suffered a loss of $21.9 million in the fiscal year ending July 2014 (see the featured article in the March 23, 2015 issue of the New Yorker for a detailed account of the Met’s current financial challenges). The juxtaposition of these two events, the NYCO fundraiser and the Met’s further borrowing difficulties, begs the question: Can New York, like London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, sustain more than one resident opera company, and if so, under what conditions? Necessary, if not sufficient, is a venue for the reborn City Opera much smaller and more acoustically friendly than the company’s former home at Lincoln Center, perhaps the Jazz at Lincoln Center Rose Theater proposed by NYCO Renaissance, the site of the recent gala concert. And equally necessary is a return to one of New York City Opera’s original missions, affordable ticket prices for the “People’s Opera” it was intended to be.