Alas, poor New York City Opera, we knew you

The demise of the "people's opera" puts another nail in the coffin of art for everyone. But, ah, the memories.

Beverly Sills takes a curtain call in November 1980. Photo: G. Paul Burnett

Beverly Sills takes a curtain call in November 1980. Photo: G. Paul Burnett


Or I did, anyway, from childhood, when second-balcony tickets cost a buck, as Bob Hicks pointed out in today’s ArtsWatch newsletter.  Today, New York City Opera, born in 1943, died of financial neglect and other causes at the age of 70, ending a long and storied and egalitarian run. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia intended that the now splendidly restored former Masonic Temple known as New York City Center be the people’s theater, and in New York in the Forties, even artists who could barely afford to buy paint could scrape up the money to go to the opera there.

So, when I was about nine, which would make it 1947 or so, on a school night even, I and my oldest sister-friend, then eight, got all dressed up in our velvet dresses and black patent leather Mary Janes and were taken to see “The Marriage of Figaro” at New York City Opera by my father, who loved all things Mozart. And I became well and truly hooked on opera.  And my father, who basically detested Italian opera, and Italian tenors in particular,  took me a couple of years later to “I Pagliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana” on the grounds that cultured people needed to know about them.

I don’t know who was singing Pagliacci, but when he began his famous laugh-through-your tears aria,  Dad began to sing along.  I was mortified.

“Daddy,” I whispered.  “Don’t do that. People are looking.”

Dad sang on, and when the aria was over, under cover of the applause that was not for him, said, “It’s okay.  In Italy, everybody does it.”

“You’re not in Italy,” I said through clenched teeth. (I went to one of those very progressive schools where we learned no arithmetic, but a whole lot about respecting the cultural habits of others; also how to bake bread the way the pioneers did.)

My father laughed. Like Pagliacci: ha ha ha.

Later, on my own, I attended a fantastic program that paired Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” with “Carmina Burana,” not as successfully as the Portland Opera’s pairing of the latter with “Cavalleria Rusticana” many years later, but in “Carmina” I got to see the magnificent Carmen de Lavallade dance the Girl in the Red Vest, and the singing in both works was superb.  At some point, there was an “Aida” on a stage so crowded that, during the triumphal procession, Radames nearly choked on a banner a super was waving way too energetically. And my first “Rigoletto” made  me weep copiously as the title character sang of his love for his daughter.  (For me, it is a three-hanky opera to this day.)

In that same period, I was going to New York City Ballet with my mother, and saw Maria Tallchief dance the title role in “Firebird,” also from City Center’s second balcony, in 1949.  Without New York City Opera, in fact, there might not have been a City Ballet, or at least not one so soon. In 1946, Lincoln Kirstein had founded an organization called Ballet Society, which premiered such modern masterpieces as Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” in impossible venues around New York, including the Needle Trades High School. In 1948, when Isamu Noguchi, Balanchine and Stravinsky collaborated on “Orpheus,” Kirstein found the money to rent City Center, and as the story goes, Morton Baum, who was City Center’s equivalent of a managing director, was so impressed by a dress rehearsal that he invited Ballet Society to become resident there, and rename itself New York City Ballet.

Mayor LaGuardia wanted the people of New York, all the people of New York, to have access to the arts that used to drive that city’s culture, and in many respects still do.  There were free concerts in Washington Square Park; all the public museums were free; only MoMA charged  admission.  He wanted the arts to be part of people’s lives – the way they are, come to think of it, in Italy, where a child can pass by a magnificent piece of sculpture on her way to school, and at the opera, “everybody” sings along.

"Anna Nicole," the final opera in NYCB's storied 70-year lifetime. Photo: Brooklyn Academy of Music

“Anna Nicole,” final opera in NYCB’s 70-year lifetime. Photo: Brooklyn Academy of Music

3 Responses.

  1. Cynthia Kirk says:

    Wonderful remembrance, Martha! I love the details, the attitude, the color. I can hear your voice in every sentence, especially through clenched teeth! I never got to see NYC Opera at City Center but in my pasta days (when I could afford nothing else on my publishing pittance), I saw lots of dance there; $10 seats in the top balcony. Alvin Ailey, the Joffrey; it was wonderful. And several years later, when I was earning a bit more money and the seats were more expensive, Spalding Gray in Our Town. Although opera did not become my favorite art form, it was opera that gave me my first vividly remembered theater-going experience. Philadelphia Academy of Music, with my mother, nose bleed territory. Madame Butterfly. Thanks for the recollection.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thanks Cynthia. Madame Butterfly was the first opera I saw at the Met as it happens, when as a reward for my work as an intern at the Hudson Review I received dress circle tickets. If that had been my first opera, I doubt I’d have gotten hooked as I did; New York City Opera was particularly good at Mozart; their Cosi Fan Tutti was wonderful and in pre-Sills days, there really were no stars.

  3. Martha Ullman West says:

    And furthermore…I have no favorite art form. And would add that under the directorship of Stefan Minde, years ago, and Christopher Mattaliano now, the Portland Opera is quite reminiscent of New York City Opera in the old days, except of course for the price of admission.

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