I saw my first, The Magic Flute, on October 9, 2001 from the Fourth Ring of the New York State Theater: Row D, Seat 4. That was my first year of undergrad, and the program at CUNY I'd joined committed to broadening our cultural exposure: that was also the fall I first saw the great Cherry Jones on stage, in Major Barbara. I would spend the next few years listening to my two-CD recording of The Magic Flute, but I wouldn't return to the opera until 2004; when I did though, it was as a subscriber.
I still have the ticket stubs, with their perimeters of bumpy torn-perforations, as they'd arrive at the beginning of the season in one large sheet I'd have to fold up carefully and stash away in a dresser drawer. I saw The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata and Madama Butterfly and The Pearl Fishers; next season I saw Turandot and The Barber of Seville and Don Giovanni. One of the great things about living in New York is that if you're young and want to familiarize yourself with the classics of the stage, whether it's Shakespeare or Rossini, you don't have to huddle over a book or a stereo: you can save your money and go see them for yourself, as you were meant to.
So when I showed up to that interview in 2006, it wasn't just as a kid who liked opera and knew how to work a cash register: it was also as a season-ticket holder to the parent organization. The manager was almost beside himself: "you're like our dream come true," he said—someone to whom the company had introduced itself through educational-program outreach that had turned into a financial supporter. That was the opera company's dream, not the thrift shop's; I didn't get that job. And, to be honest, I didn't go back to City Opera for a while; around the same time, my buddy from another country (read: worldly) persuaded me to go to the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera across the plaza; one look at those red-carpeted staircases and I never wanted to set a shoe again in the what would soon become the David H. Koch Theater.
The renaming of the New York State Theater came after a yearlong renovation, one that required City Opera to close shop for a year right as the financial crisis settled in—a bad time to lose box-office revenue; a perfect storm of troubles (which you can read more about here) led the company to leave its long-time Lincoln Center home in 2011, becoming instead a roving troupe that visits different venues around the city: El Museo del Barrio, City Center, BAM. The latter always made the most sense to me as a new home for the deracinated organization.
And thus the company has been having a hell of a time fundraising, announcing this week that if it doesn't raise $7 million by the end of the month, it's canceling the rest of its season; if it doesn't raise $13 million more by the end of the year, it's canceling next season, too. "Last year, City Opera made more from its Thrift Shop… than from its endowment," the Times reported. I finally returned to City Opera in 2009, its second-to-last season in Lincoln Center, this time as a critic with press tickets to see Hugo Weisgall's Esther, a popular favorite in 1993 that hadn't been seen since. The matinee I caught was crowded with uppertown bluehairs, but no single production, or even handful, could save the troubled institution.
The question is: is it worth saving? I owe my amateur opera fandom to City Opera, for exposing me (and a bunch of other gross freshmen) to the grandest of art forms—and the Metropolitan Opera, and every other local company, owes every ticket I've ever bought and every positive review I've written about them to that first time the curtain went up on Mozart's wacky fantasy. (Maybe kids today get introduced to opera through the Met's outdoor HD screenings in late summer?) I have a soft spot for City Opera. plus its work in recent years has still often been great—or at least interesting—but if I don't let such sentimentality cloud my thinking, I worry that even if the company hits this suddenly announced fundraising goal, how long before it needs another quick infusion of cash? And then another? And another? At the risk of losing access to Anna Nicole press tickets, maybe it's finally time to put this storied beast to bed, and to encourage young Brooklynites to start something new, something fresh, from the ground up, to take its proud place.
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