New York City Opera Rises From Turmoil A longtime scrappy alternative to the plush Metropolitan Opera, City Opera struggles to make a comeback with a new general manager, a renovated theater and a shorter but smarter season of operas.
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New York City Opera Rises From Turmoil

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New York City Opera Rises From Turmoil

New York City Opera Rises From Turmoil

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as it opens its new season this evening, the New York City Opera is struggling to make a comeback. Long the scrappy alternative to the plush Metropolitan Opera, the company recently has been through financial and artistic turmoil, as Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: New York City Opera makes its home on the plaza of Lincoln Center, right in the shadow of the Metropolitan Opera. But New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini says there's always been room for two opera companies in town, because both have been so different.

Mr. ANTHONY TOMMASINI (New York Times Music Critic): You weren't going to see the big international opera singers there. It wasn't going to be the big fancy grand opera productions. But you'd see really interesting repertory, a lot of American opera, a lot of 20th century opera that the Met was not doing, and then eventually a lot of Baroque opera. You'd see young singers who were very gifted, many of them on their way to big careers who looked good and acted well.

(Soundbite of opera)

LUNDEN: Among the superstars who began their careers at New York City Opera were Samuel Ramey and Beverly Sills, who eventually ran the company.

But recently, New York City Opera has fallen on hard times. Last year there was no season. The company closed its theater for a costly renovation. Then the Belgian impresario hired to lead City Opera bolted when he couldn't make his ambitious plans happen. And finally, the stock market � and the opera's endowment � plummeted. Anthony Tommasini�

Mr. TOMMASINI: New York City Opera almost closed down for a $15 million deficit. Only in classical music is that a lot of money. You know, that wouldn't pay the lunch budget on a big Hollywood movie set.

LUNDEN: The City Opera's board hired George Steel to run the company. The 43-year-old isn't well-known in the opera world, but for many years he ran a very successful and innovative series of concerts at Columbia University. That's where City Opera soprano Amy Burton met him.

Ms. AMY BURTON (Opera Singer): I think he's really the right person for this moment. He's a brilliant administrator, and I think the company needed rescuing. I think he's absolutely up to the task, but he also brings an artistic vision that I think is crucial to City Opera's future.

(Soundbite of opera)

LUNDEN: Since he started in February, Steel has raised $14 million and has supervised a renovation of the New York State Theatre that he says will vastly improve its acoustics.

Mr. GEORGE STEEL (New York City Opera Manger): I mean it's an astonishing change in the room. It's bright and zingy. I'm really excited about it. And this is before we've done any true acoustic work per se. This is just simple expedience, like removing carpet, removing a few seats, putting in the aisles, changing the wall facing, this new glorious pit.

LUNDEN: In previous years, City Opera presented as many as 16 productions, with a budget of around $40 million. This year, with a budget hovering around $25 million, Steel can present only present five operas. He hopes to grow from there.

Mr. STEEL: And it falls to me to kind of identify the equilibrium size of the company, where it makes sense to be.

LUNDEN: The season's five operas represent the company's historic strengths: They're doing classics by Mozart and Puccini; they're presenting a little-known Handel opera, a little-known 19th century French opera, and they're reviving a contemporary opera, which premiered in 1993.

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini is impressed by how much has been packed into this mini-season.

Mr. TOMMASINI: And it makes a big statement to me that he's starting with Esther, this Hugo Weisgall opera � thorny, fascinating, dramatically compelling opera.

(Soundbite of opera)

LUNDEN: George Steel says there's one more aspect of the upcoming season which reflects the company's long history and what makes it different from that other opera company across the plaza.

Mr. STEEL: We've been committed from the very beginning of the company � it was Mayor LaGuardia's vision that the company be accessible financially for everyone in New York � to affordable tickets. And we have something like a quarter of all the tickets we'll sell this year are $25 or less.

LUNDEN: New York City Opera's season opens tonight with a gala performance of all-American work.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of opera)

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