On Monday, October 1, the New York City Opera announced it was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy, according to a story in the New York Times. This iconic institution, one of the nation’s finest opera companies, was founded in 1944 as an alternative to the more tradition-bound Metropolitan Opera Company — Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia said at the time he wanted to provide “cultural entertainment at popular prices.” Over the years, the NYCO always seemed closer to the ground and scrappier than its older cousin next door. They earned a reputation for producing American operas and new works (their last performance was of an opera called “Anna Nicole”) and innovative performances of classic works.
I loved the New York City Opera. In the seventies, when I was studying voice and hoping to be an opera singer (we see how well THAT turned out), I read everything I could read about the company, idolized Beverly Sills (the diva who ended up managing the company after her retirement) and even saw a couple of performances there in New York. The NYCO was the location of one of the most amazing operatic performances I’ve ever seen — Beverly Sills as Violetta in La Traviata. I can still see – and hear – her final aria as her character died while she spun out a perfect, pianissimo but still laser-beam bright, high A as she lay on her back.
Ah well. So, what are we to make of this? Also this week, the Minnesota Orchestra failed (again) to come to agreement with its players, leading to the resignation of its conductor, Osmo Vanska. We’ve talked before in Artini about other struggles in Columbus, San Francisco and Philadelphia as one by one, orchestras and other traditional cultural ensembles go belly up or struggle to stay afloat.
What is the reason for this? Opinions are as varied as there are music lovers. It’s common to blame disputes between management and musicians, with musicians invariably blaming management and business leaders invariably blaming the musicians’ union. To me, these troubles mirror similar struggles facing cities, states and America as a whole these days. Take Detroit for example. Some city leaders’ claim that the city is bankrupt because they can’t pay promised pensions sounds an awful lot like a board member of the Minnesota Orchestra complaining that the high cost of musicians’ salaries is to blame for the problem.
But these are complex issues, and we can’t get away with blaming one “side” or another. These are endemic problems, that are complex and have been building for many years. Relieving pension liabilities won’t help Detroit in the long run unless the city can find a way to thrive in the 21st century without the manufacturing base that enabled its growth in the 20th century. Cutting musicians’ salaries won’t help in the long run if the organization can’t figure out a way to keep up with the new ways that audiences are accessing the arts.
In my opinion (and this is just my opinion, I have no stats to back this up), I believe that part of the reason that we are where we are with our larger cultural institutions has to do with the tension between commercial businesses and not-for-profit businesses. Faced with ever-increasing fundraising needs, large arts organizations have turned to business leaders to staff their boards of directors, hoping that these leaders will have access to wealthy people and corporate funds. Instead, however, business leaders are often impatient with the arts’ business model, and consider fundraising a failure of the organization. Unlike many other businesses, however, the arts can’t always innovate from the program side to cut costs — it takes just as many musicians to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as it did in 1824.
The reason so many arts organizations are organized as not-for-profits is that providing culture to the community is considered a public service. But once you get to the point where, despite contributed income, ticket prices have risen to a point that they rival commercial Broadway shows, it allows people to question whether or not that public service is being performed. The reputation that large cultural institutions have beyond the circle of ardent arts lovers is that they are pleasure palaces for the wealthy. And, I must admit this is not far from the truth. I may anger a lot of my arts friends by saying this, but I don’t believe that the mere presence of a symphony orchestra or an opera company or a museum in a community indicates that the community supports culture. And, I also don’t believe that if new audiences aren’t flocking to the symphony or opera in droves, that indicates that we have become a nation of cultural idiots.
In my experience, people flock to the arts when the arts are accessible to them. I’m going to anger even more people now when I ask, does everyone reading this and bemoaning the end of the symphony or opera do their part by subscribing or donating? Or do you do as I do (full disclosure here), and attend once or twice a year and spend the rest of the season looking at operas on YouTube and PBS and listening to recordings?
It’s tempting to call the demise of the New York City Opera a nail in the coffin of culture. It doesn’t have to be so. I think it is an opportunity — an opportunity to rethink the delivery of arts and culture and respond to the tremendous variety of delivery methods currently available to us. It’s an opportunity to rethink structure — maybe we can’t afford to support an opera company AND a symphony AND a ballet in the same city, but maybe we can support one organization that does all three using a common orchestral ensemble. It’s an opportunity to consider unusual spaces for performance, innovative delivery methods (as the Met Opera has done by broadcasting performances in movie theaters across the country) and seasons that don’t have to consist of a classic series, a pops series and a holiday gala.
Can this happen? What will it take? Please let me know your thoughts.