Gotham Chamber Opera

Where opera gets intimate.

Seeking New York's Next 'Other' Opera Company

by Zachary Woolfe

By now enough people have gotten on enough soapboxes about New York City Opera’s sorry financial state. But while the company remains in limbo, its precarious situation should be a reminder to look at the bigger picture.

Institutions come and go; what is important is the preservation of core values. So what do we want from opera in New York?

A variety of repertory, including a healthy diet of new works. Stimulating interpretations of the standards. Affordability. A range in the scale of performances, from grand to modest. Opportunities for young artists.

Aided by brilliant marketing, the Metropolitan Opera has in recent years pivoted to seem younger and fresher, concerned with theatricality and its connection to the broader cultural landscape. But with 3,800 seats it cannot provide intimacy, and its much-touted new productions of classic works have largely been old wine in new bottles. For reasons of size and temperament it doesn’t really do new opera.

There is ample room for an “other” company. In the 20th century the Met had nimble, progressive foils: Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera, briefly, and then City Opera, which was founded in 1943 with a populist mandate and commitments to adventurous programming and cohesive dramatic values.

With City Opera’s decline it has fallen to a range of even smaller companies to provide variety and intimacy. Dicapo Opera has presented recent American works with consistent distinction; Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta,” which it performed in December, has a planned Met debut in a few seasons. Amore Opera (an outgrowth of the Amato Opera) is lovably scrappy, and it scored a coup this fall with the American premiere of Mercadante’s 1835 gem, “I Due Figaro.”

Opera Omnia does creative, tiny productions of Baroque repertory. The Opera Orchestra of New York offers concert versions of more esoteric grand operas and the spectacle of star singers stretching their comfort zones.

Perhaps most intriguing and promising is the Gotham Chamber Opera. Over the past decade, with ample praise but without much fanfare, Gotham has earned a reputation for being dependably creative and musically keen. Its production last year of Haydn’s “Mondo Della Luna,” ingeniously set amid star projections in the Hayden Planetarium, was one of the delights of recent seasons. Gotham’s founder and artistic director, Neal Goren, has a gift for spotting talented young singers, and its executive director, David Bennett, seems intent on ensuring financial stability.

The company opened in 2001 with the American stage premiere of Mozart’s “Sogno di Scipione.” (Christopher Alden’s production will be revived in April to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary.) Though it has since concentrated on overlooked corners of the Classical and modern periods, this season Gotham boldly moved into new American opera, presenting the premiere of a work by the composer Nico Muhly, commissioned with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Music-Theater Group.

With a donor base that shares several significant names with City Opera, including Mary Sharp Cronson, Brooke Hayward Duchin and the former City Opera board chairwoman Susan L. Baker, Gotham stands to benefit from any drop in support for the larger company. Mr. Goren, for his part, insists that more opera is better for everyone, and that City Opera’s situation has not affected his plans.

“We’re not doing anything differently,” he said in a recent interview. “We’re in expansion mode, but we’ve been continuously in expansion mode. We’re not changing our mission at all. We do works that go in intimate spaces.”

This season Gotham was prudent, with a two-production season consisting of Mr. Muhly’s “Dark Sisters” and the “Scipione” revival, since it is new to the challenges of commissioned opera. But in April the company is planning to announce a 2012-13 season that is its largest yet, with four productions: three during the regular season and one in the summer of 2013. That is conspicuously the same number that City Opera is doing in its abbreviated season this spring.

Read the entire article on The New York Times website:

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