In her book Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America, Wall Street Journal opera critic Heidi Waleson uses the story of the 70-year-old company that folded in 2013 as a roadmap of what not to do as an arts organization. She’s in town for the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at the Conservatory, and makes an appearance at Book Passage tonight (Friday) at 6:00 at the Ferry Building.
The book chronicles the path of the opera company, which was originally conceived of as a more accessible option to the Met. “In 1943 it was founded as “the People’s Opera.” it was an alternative to the Metropolitan Opera, which was big and grand, and expensive, and for rich people, and brought in European stars to perform basically a European art form in a large opera house… So it became an opera company where young American singers could work, as opposed to the Met or anywhere else. It performed unusual operas, it performed American operas, it was completely different.” Among the successes it had was introducing the world to soprano Beverly Sills, who would in her later years go on to artistic leadership for the company. One of her innovations was the use of supertitles, now standard in most opera houses, but Waleson says she was criticized for the idea. “‘She made it a lower class entertainment that anybody could enjoy!’… People were derisive of this, but she was very proud of that, that she was popularizing it.” Agility in changing with the times, and a capacity for self-reflection are two of the things that companies need the most in the volatile world of non-profits. “Nobody really quite figured out ‘what is our mission, who should we be serving, who should we be trying to attract, and who should be paying for it?’ And I think that they kept on trying to do the same thing they had always done until about 2005 when they took some really sort of disastrous decisions that ended up being catastrophic for the company.” By the time of their collapse, the New York City’s musical landscape was a very different place, but their approach hadn’t changed. “The company was unable to react to very drastically changing conditions in how the arts are consumed and produced, and they just made a lot of catastrophic decisions, and went out of business as a result.”