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 Journal serves 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.
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.