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.

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In the early 1960s, when New York City Opera was housed at City Center, excavation was
begun at the corner of Columbus and 63rd Street for what would become the New York
State Theater.

Photo by Serating/Opera News Archives
City Opera's innovative programming is an ardent rebuke to claims of mustiness or effeteness.
opera news
Forty years after the State Theater's construction, questions have been raised about the continuing viability of City Opera's home
© Gregory Downer 2004
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Kellogg and Rudel earlier this year, during NYCO's sixtieth-anniversary celebrations at the New York State Theater
© Virginia Blachere 2004
"City 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 "people's opera."

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?

When 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.

If City 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 critics themselves.

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 exaggerated."

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 intentions.

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 had been.)

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 the setting."

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 should be."

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," says Whitehead.

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.

Whatever 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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