Thursday, November 17, 2011

Papering the House for New York City Opera’s Season Opener?

Rufus Wainwright, in City Opera's cheesy publicity photo
Whoever thought Rufus Wainwright could bring New York City Opera back from the dead seems to have placed a bad bet.  Its first production of the season is tonight, but it's had trouble filling even a modest-sized theater for Wainwright’s “Who Are You New York?”

Last night Lincoln Center, City Opera’s home until it ignominiously pulled up stakes for a nomadic existence last spring – having been driven into the wilderness by gross financial mismanagement -- sent out an email blast offering tickets for the one-night-only performance at a whopping 50% off. 

The performance is in the Rose Theater on the Lincoln Center campus, which seats only about 1100, or less than half the capacity of the theater City Opera used to perform in.  To put this into perspective, the Rose is somewhat smaller than your average Broadway theater. 

It’s mystifying that “Who Are You New York?” is a City Opera production -- it isn’t an opera at all but rather the title of a show that will include a song cycle for four voices and a performance by Wainwright himself, who’s best known as a songwriter and singer and not as a composer. 

Maybe that’s part of City Opera’s problem – it doesn’t know who its audience is, only how to shrink it.  The cheesy photographs it’s using to promote its productions can’t be helping.

The ostensible reason for the Wainwright one-off is to celebrate the U.S. premier of his first opera, “Prima Donna,” which City Opera will be presenting in Brooklyn in February. 

What were they thinking?  New York’s influential classical music critic, the Times’ Anthony Tommasini, pretty much panned the opera’s 2009 world premier in Manchester, writing, “As a longtime admirer of his music, I wish I could report that ‘Prima Donna’ fulfilled his ambitions for writing a fresh and personal new opera.”

And that’s gentle, considering that Bloomberg’s critic wrote that he had tears of joy in his eyes at the opera’s conclusion: “the joy sprang . . . from relief that it was over."

New York is still waiting for a compelling reason to support this company, which is barely on life support.  Television station NY1 reported yesterday that City Opera turned down its musicians' offer to work for free in return for health benefits.  Apparently, the company couldn't afford even that. 

City Opera's publicity photo for Mozart's "Cosi fan tutti"
 Text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert