Heidi Waleson's Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America
Reviewed by Lily Kass
Heidi Waleson’s Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in Americatakes us behind the scenes at a long-beloved, and recently resurrected, New York cultural institution. The New York City Opera was founded in 1944 when the New York City Council and Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia inaugurated the City Center of Music and Drama. As one of the center’s constituent performance ensembles, the opera company’s original mission was to bring opera to the people through affordable ticket prices and popular repertoire. Waleson recounts the company’s struggle to survive through the decades as views changed about the importance of opera, both in New York City and around the country. Readers of the book are made constantly aware that City Opera, even from the start, was only barely cheating death and that its demise was preordained.
Part of the original conception of the opera company was a startling business model based on the assumption that its productions would continually lose money. Opera is expensive to mount, with large numbers of singers, instrumentalists, and stagehands all needing to be paid for performances and rehearsals, and with staff members and artisans paid to help mount the shows. Add to that the cost of rehearsal and performance space and materials for costumes, props, and sets, and you have an enormous production budget. City Opera tried to keep prices down so that anyone could afford to attend the opera, and because of this ticket sales did not come close to offsetting the production costs. Instead, Waleson tells us, other performances mounted by City Center, which were less costly to produce and could expect more lucrative sales, balanced City Opera’s budget.
This model left the opera company free to create art for the community as it saw fit, experimenting with repertoire and talent without having to worry too much about this risk-taking from a financial perspective. At first, the company cast singers to be part of an ensemble that performed all of the operas in each season. Operas were performed in repertory, with a different opera on stage every night. In each opera, each singer was cast in a different role, sometimes big, sometimes small. This was an amazing educational opportunity for the singers, allowing them to learn several roles at the same time and to expand their skill-sets within a supportive community. It also allowed audiences to become familiar with the singers, as they heard them sing in different capacities throughout the season. The repertoire itself was quite varied at the beginning, combining operas that were already familiar to American audiences, such as Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, with newer, less popular works, such as Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges.
Little by little, City Opera was weaned off of its financial supports, as the structure of City Center’s operations changed and no longer subsidized the opera’s budget. For the next several decades, the company struggled to adapt, clinging to its history of offering educational opportunities to young, American singers and presenting new and unusual works to its audiences, all while maintaining low ticket prices and remaining financialy solvent. This was not an easy task, and the history that Waleson presents is full of idealistic artistic experiments, marketing campaigns, union negotiations, and Hail Marys. At certain points, City Opera tried to stay afloat through capitalizing on American opera stars beloved by the audience such as New York native Beverly Sills, who sang on its stage from 1955 to 1979. At certain points, it attempted to set itself apart by presenting only American repertory. It pivoted between offering its audiences difficult, dissonant works like Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, and frothier fare such as Victor Herbert’s operettas, trying alternately to win critical acclaim and to draw in audience members in larger numbers. Maybe it was the company’s fickleness in changing artistic visions so often, maybe it was the financial naiveté of its board, maybe it was its close competition with the Metropolitan Opera, maybe it was the changing status of opera in America, or maybe it was simply dumb luck, but City Opera survived for seventy years. In 2013, the company’s troubles finally caught up with it. The New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors, (spoiler alert!) only to reappear, reinvented three years later. Although Waleson does not assign blame for the death of the original New York City Opera, she does thoroughly explore all of the factors that led to its end.
For many years, opera in the United States has been thought about as a dying art form, no longer relevant to young audiences, and doomed to slowly slip away along with its oldest patrons. The case of the New York City Opera is often considered as a data point within this larger trend. What is actually occurring with opera in the United States, and the truth about City Opera’s demise and subsequent renewal, is much more complicated. Waleson worthily endeavors to trace the particulars of the case of City Opera, hoping that larger, more widely generalizable points will emerge. Her background as the opera critic for the Wall Street Journalserves her well in her investigation of facts and figures, and her main sources are press clippings, reviews (including her own), City Opera’s own archives, and interviews with and memoirs by City Opera’s artists and staff. Through her adept integration of these sources, a story emerges of clashing personalities, changing audience preferences, divergent management styles, and stubborn unions. Waleson gives a particularly in-depth account of City Opera’s constant financial woes, naming donors and their motivations for contributing or withholding contributions, and chronicling the emergence of large deficits which donations were insufficient to fill.
Waleson’s discussion of City Opera’s finances focuses on the donors – the individuals, corporations, and funding agencies that gave large amounts of money to the opera. She traces the history of how ticket sales made up an diminishing percentage of revenue not only for City Opera, but also for all other opera companies across America. This information is both interesting and important since contributed donations were what prevented City Opera from having to close its doors at several points in its history. However, it is a bit disappointing that in discussing a company often referred to as “the people’s opera” for its welcoming attitude towards audience members of all social classes and levels of education, Waleson does not spend nearly as much ink on the people themselves: City Opera’s subscribers and single-ticket buyers, as well as those consumers who chose not to buy tickets to City Opera and who decided to attend the Metropolitan Opera, or the New York Philharmonic, or a rock concert, or baseball game instead. The book does frequently return to the original audience members that City Opera opened to serve, the mostly Italian and German-speaking European immigrant population, and mentions that when these original constituents became elderly and eventually died out, City Opera struggled to bring in new audiences. We never hear from any of these people, though. We hear from singers and members of the orchestra, from board members and donors, from general managers and arts administrators, but not from the members of the audience. Throughout the book we are led to believe that being out of touch with its audience, by not having a clear message to share that would retain existing members while drawing in new ones, City Opera became irrelevant and unable to survive. What Waleson ultimately wants to comment on is City Opera’s status as “the people’s opera,” and the related issues of elitism versus populism. These are important issues, affecting everything from choice of repertoire, to choice of artistic staff and performers, to education and outreach programs, to marketing campaigns. In depriving her readers of the audience’s voice, Waleson cannot make as strong a case. She does not attempt to wade into the existing literature in musicology and theater studies that would help her define her terms and better extrapolate larger points about trends in how opera companies relate to their audiences.
The section of the book about companies other than City Opera is intriguing. Waleson here mentions opera companies that have tried to connect to their changing audience demographics and have often managed to stay afloat doing so. She notes the importance of the commissioning of new works that often address the hot topics of the day and are combined with community outreach programs to draw new audiences to the opera. Her discussion of recent changes in audience viewing patterns and the advent of entertainment consumption modeled on Netflix binge-watching is fascinating. At the same time, however, Waleson fails to note other important elements of the complex relationship between audience members and opera companies. She talks about the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis as an example of a company that is popular due to its format as a summer opera festival but omits the important fact that OTSL performs all of its operas, new and old, in English. Translation was one of the earliest forms of audience outreach in opera, dating from a performance of Cavalli’s Erismena in English in London in 1674. At several points in City Opera’s history, it likewise performed works of standard repertory in English translation, which Waleson acknowledges. However, she quickly moves on without pointing out the strong populist agenda of performing opera in the vernacular of the audience.
Overall, Heidi Waleson’s Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America is a well-researched and compelling account of an important New York institution. Opera lovers who read the book will surely finish it hoping that the future of City Opera will afford the occasion for a sequel, one that will follow the now-peripatetic company on its forthcoming adventures educating and entertaining singers and audiences alike, and helping to resurrect the relevance of opera in America.
Lily Kass teaches music history at Philadelphia-area universities. New York City Opera was a major source of inspiration for her as a voice major at LaGuardia High School from 2002 to 2006.