Downtown Dreams and Travertine
ADAM WASSERMAN examines the reasons why New York City Opera won't
be moving to the proposed new arts complex at Ground Zero.
In the early 1960s, when New York City
Opera was housed at City Center, excavation was"C
begun at the corner of Columbus and 63rd Street for what would
become the New York
Photo by Serating/Opera News Archives
Opera should thank its lucky stars."
That thought might have crossed more than a few minds on Tuesday,
June 10, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation finally
announced the constituent groups that would occupy space at the
Ground Zero cultural complex in Manhattan. The Joyce Theater - a
contemporary dance venue in Chelsea - the Signature Theatre, the
Drawing Center and the Freedom Museum were awarded top billing as
the main institutions for this mixture of arts and sacred ground
intended to celebrate life and commerce. But no opera house - no
The announcement, made to a swarm of publicists and press in the
Winter Garden of the World Financial Center on an uncomfortably
muggy day, put an anticlimactic cap on more than two years of
largely insular debate - a process that, while decidedly different
from the populism of the Freedom Tower deliberations, had similarly
middling results. After two years of reflection, machinations,
public criticism and everything in between, the idea and effort
behind a cultural center seemed to have shifted from artistic
innovation and remembrance, to commerce, grids and logistics. In a
rush to alert the media and a weary public that a decision had been
made, the LMDC announced its "World Class Cultural Destination" a
mere twenty-five feet from an empty frozen-custard shop.
Given the influence of bureaucrats in the final decision; the
intricate logistics and imprecisions of cultural and city planning;
the eventual draw of the arts downtown; even the very relevance of
opera, the situation warranted a reassessment.
Had City Opera lucked out in not being chosen?W
City Opera announced with fanfare its desire to move to Ground
Zero, in February of 2002, it was clear that the company hoped to
ride a wave of public support the five-and-a-half miles downtown to
a new home. It sought out possible co-tenants almost immediately
and reportedly piqued the interest of both the Joyce Theater and
LMDC chairman John C. Whitehead, who envisioned City Opera as the
ideal crux for a downtown complex.
"I was in favor of the opera, because I thought they were a classy,
internationally recognized organization that would provide a great
base for our cultural center downtown," says Whitehead. "And I knew
that they desperately wanted to leave Lincoln Center." Whitehead
says that it was the built-in base of City Opera that made it an
economically viable principal for the complex. City Opera
audiences, Whitehead felt, would not keep away from a new home for
the company for fear of a longer ride on the subway. While City
Opera general and artistic director Paul Kellogg questioned
subscribers' and donors' willingness to commute, he told Crain's
New York Business that there was no question that "opera-loving
tourists are going to come to that new opera house downtown."
An ideal arrangement, as it was envisioned, would contain 2,200
seats for City Opera, 900 for the Joyce.
"There will be so much vitality [downtown], and such a strong sense
of being part of a renaissance of an area where there had been so
much despair," said Kellogg in a February 2002 New York Times
article. [Kellogg declined requests to be interviewed for this
article.] Buttressing that energy was City Opera benefactor Robert
Wilson's pronouncement that he would donate $50 million to the
company for a new home away from the New York State Theater.
If only for a minute, it seemed the altruistic dispensation of the
arts that brought travertine-wrapped culture to the West Side close
to half a century ago might be resurrected at Ground Zero. City
Opera's projection smacked of both a late-'30s WPA-esque belief in
the rejuvenating power of the arts and a pragmatic solution to the
company's longstanding woes at the New York State Theater. And to
the public, an opera house at Ground Zero was almost comforting:
art there just seemed right. I
Opera and its supporters were whipped into a fervor by the prospect
of space at a shiny, cosmopolitan Ground Zero arts center, it was
the city-owned State Theater, City Opera's home since 1966, that
evidently made the move appear a necessity.
Called the "House that Balanchine Built," the New York State
Theater has long been considered one of the most acoustically
uninviting opera houses in the U.S. Designed to muffle the sounds
of New York City Ballet dancers' feet, the venue has undergone
several large-scale efforts to alter and enhance the 2,700-seat
theater's acoustics - including a controversial "sound enhancement"
system installation, involving dozens of inconspicuous microphones
and 144 speakers, during Kellogg's tenure, in 1999. But many
operagoers strongly disapprove of the miking system, and the
building remains acoustically cursed in the minds of the critical
public and some company administrators, if not necessarily the
Julius Rudel, director of City Opera from 1957 to 1979, recalled
that his tenure included an architectural reworking of the
"acoustic disaster" that was the State Theater. The building's
acoustics "were a problem from the beginning," Rudel told OPERA
NEWS in 2002. "I wasn't going to move in until we could see if it
could be ameliorated at least. We had a whole array of testing with
audiences, without audiences and various types of operas - with
recitative, spoken dialogue, and so on, so we could get a grip on
what was wrong.… When we got done with the alterations, it
seemed to be all right."
"I went to productions at the City Opera, at the State Theater,
from the late-'60s on, and I could always hear O.K.," said John
Rockwell, senior cultural correspondent for The New York Times.
"Personally, I think the great idea that somehow it's just a dance
house, and that it's impossible to do opera there, is much
Kellogg, at one point during his City Opera tenure, spearheaded the
idea of building another opera house at Lincoln Center as part of
the campus redevelopment, a move that would have cost $240 million
and ultimately was vetoed by the Metropolitan Opera. (All parties
in the Lincoln Center Redevelopment must be in agreement on major
issues.) With a major revamping of the State Theater hovering
precariously in the range of $30 million (a figure later inflated
to $87 million), Kellogg told The New York Times on May 16, 2000,
that "another solution" would be found if the renovation did not
pan out. While the company's lease wouldn't be up until 2014, and a
vacancy at the theater would leave Lincoln Center looking for a new
tenant, City Opera was decidedly forthright in voicing its
City Opera's downtown ambitions, though, well publicized and
announced only six months after September 11, opened the door for a
glut of unsolicited proposals from other artistic institutions, all
with what each felt was an inspired idea for Ground Zero space. In
response to a potential free-for-all, the LMDC opted to level the
playing field by issuing a formal invitation seeking "respondents"
for a downtown cultural center on June 30, 2003: it was no longer
solely City Opera's game.
While the tentative site-plan designed by Ground Zero architect
Daniel Libeskind revealed hundreds of thousands of square feet for
potential cultural facilities along the northwest and southwest
corners at the intersection of Fulton and Greenwich Streets, it was
prematurely determined one month after the invitation that the
increasingly limited floor space of the complex ultimately would
severely inhibit plans for an opera house; the partnership with the
Joyce was similarly put on ice. Concerns about City Opera's ability
to maintain the level of year-round activity and programming
necessary for the vibrant complex envisioned were also raised.
By the time of the LMDC's deadline, September 15, 2003, 113
applicants had thrown their hats in the ring; the opportunity
seemed too good to pass up for many organizations, and despite
cracks showing in the company's plans, City Opera, with Whitehead's
support, was unofficially deemed the complex's anchor.
On March 1, Crain's reported that the initial 113 applicants had
been narrowed down to fifteen finalists - including City Opera and
the Joyce - but LMDC president Kevin Rampe said that other groups,
outside the pool of finalists, would be considered as well. "Our
goal is to create a dynamic cultural center," Rampe told Crain's.
"There could be some dark horses."
Then, in late March, it was reported that Mayor Bloomberg's
preliminary budget reduced the city's funding for Lincoln Center's
redevelopment to a $5-million allocation per year, down from the
$24 million promised by the Giuliani administration. (Though
Bloomberg had privately donated $15 million to the redevelopment
prior to taking office, times were undoubtedly tougher than they
Soon thereafter, at the behest of the LMDC, City Opera reportedly
began working on a plan to keep a Ground Zero theater occupied
during the opera's seasonal hiatus. In an ironic nod to the
company's home at the State Theater, City Opera found the North
Carolina-based American Dance Festival to be a promising possible
cotenant for ten weeks out of the year. The announcement reportedly
enraged the dance community and specifically the onetime cotenant
Joyce Theater, which now seemed pitted against the festival.
In late May, with an April decision deadline self-imposed by the
LMDC having come and gone, there was anxiety and mounting criticism
for the LMDC's decision-making process and City Opera's chances
appeared to be dimming.
The thrill of the initial idea of an opera house at Ground Zero
seemed to have bowed to a fear of highbrow stuffiness and the
burdens of a 2,200-seat venue in the cultural complex's
construction. But criticism surrounding City Opera's proposal was
aimed less at the institution itself - and at its innovation and
its vital niche within the greater scheme of the New York cultural
world - than at preconceived notions of a musty old opera house,
largely filled by the elderly with the occasional sleeping
grandchild in a clip-on tie, in the midst of an economically
thriving Ground Zero.
A May 27, 2004 editorial in The New York Times addressed the issue
of City Opera at Ground Zero, sounding akin to a conciliatory ex.
"It's not so much a question of the wrong art, as the wrong space,"
the Times wrote. "We love City Opera but in the end, its proposal
to build a 2,200-seat theater and expand its programming to fill
those seats beyond its own operatic season seems too unwieldy for
Rockwell's assessment was more blunt.
"What caused the erosion of that old sense of [cultural]
obligation, and why does our 'people's opera' no longer seem
popular - or even welcome - at Ground Zero?" he asked in a November
9, 2003 critic's column. "To some extent, opera's current
marginality is its own fault, in failing to sustain the blend of
creativity and popularity that distinguished the operatic
past…. But the fact remains that the new art that excites
people these days is likely to come in the form of film or
literature or popular music or visual installations, not from an
art like opera, whose best days seem well behind it," wrote
Rockwell. "The best that beleaguered partisans of opera can hope
for is that they won't be ignored altogether."
John C. Whitehead confirmed that such sentiments were what prompted
LMDC members to vote for City Opera's exclusion.
"There were some [on the LMDC board] who felt that the opera down
there was too tony of an institution for the neighborhood," says
Whitehead - "that the people who lived in lower Manhattan were
younger people, that they didn't have the same feeling about opera
that people in midtown had, that they were less able, financially,
to buy opera tickets. One or two felt that it didn't fit very well
on the site, that it wouldn't be as gracious as an opera-hall
Whitehead says that while he and another member of the LMDC opted
to make the vote for the four main constituents unanimous rather
than wage what he said would have been a lonesome battle, it was
ultimately the tenuous situation uptown that led him to vote
against City Opera.
"The main argument that served to change my mind was that the gap
left in Lincoln Center by their departure, with no one obviously
there to replace them, would have resulted in an empty house," said
Whitehead. "That would have been extremely expensive for the city
to maintain. And the city felt that if City Opera turned out not to
be a financial success in the lower Manhattan location, the burden
of maintaining the new building might also fall on the city. The
mayor advised us that this was going to place a heavy burden and
[asked] who did we have in mind to fill up Lincoln Center, and we
didn't have anybody in mind. That was sort of a double whammy,"
After the announcement, Paul Kellogg told Times critic Anthony
Tommasini that the company would not be deterred, and that it would
"absolutely continue to look for a new home." "I am not deflated,"
he told Tommasini, mentioning "investigations" and "negotiations"
[Tommasini's words] involving four other sites. W
the location of a future City Opera house, though, perhaps there's
an invaluable lesson to be learned from the cries of opera's
irrelevance and obsolescence from the public and LMDC board.
The panning of the idea of opera at Ground Zero by many critics
strangely echoed another cultural pronouncement made more than a
decade ago, when Dana Gioia, current chairman of the National
Endowment for the Arts, wrote an infamous essay in the Atlantic
Monthly questioning whether poetry had lost its relevance.
Meanwhile, highly attended and competitive poetry slams were
simultaneously happening all around the country. Gioia's
pronouncements of poetry's esotericism seemed oddly out of touch.
"American poetry now belongs to a subculture," Gioia began. "No
longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it
has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and
isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever
reaches outside that closed group. As a class, poets are not
without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they
still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual
artists they are almost invisible."
City Opera is, perhaps, too easy a parallel. Its innovative
programming - modern and Baroque opera, chamber operas, and its
Showcasing American Composers series - is an ardent rebuke to
claims of mustiness or effeteness. Even granting that modern and
forward-thinking opera companies such as NYCO may be a product of a
dated subculture, critics at the very least should remember that
trends find their way into the mainstream via a peripheral sluice.
Likewise, it's often that which has been written off as residual
that revitalizes and recycles.
Critics be damned. It's the audiences that count. If and when New
York City Opera does find a new home and is given ample room to
grow outside the contrived and imposing spaces of arts centers and
cultural complexes, this twenty-three-year-old plans to be there,
no matter how long the subway ride.
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