L’isola disabitata

Feb 12, 2009

New York Magazine

Rebecca Milzoff

t’s no exaggeration to say that New York’s opera world is in near crisis. City Opera’s trudge out of financial woe has barely begun; last week the Met disclosed that its endowment is down by a third of its value; even little Amato Opera is closing after 61 years. Neal Goren, on the other hand, is walking on sunshine. He’s the artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera, the jewel of a company that has somehow emerged from this mess not only intact, but aglow.

Goren conduct[s] Mark Morris’s new production of Haydn’s L’isola disabitata, a romantic farce set on a desert isle. Like most Gotham productions it’s small (four singers, chamber orchestra), and will probably sell out. From Gotham’s beginning eight years ago, Goren has followed one main rule: “The only thing worse than no opera is bad opera,” he laughs. “I’m a realist. If you don’t have enough money to put it onstage, then you can wait.” The company’s slogan — “Where opera gets intimate” — has a double meaning. “There’s no question that opera is better served in small theaters,” Goren says. “The emotion gets distilled.” But intimate also “means sexy. I go out of my way to have singers not only sing exquisitely, but also look the part, and there are a lot of those in New York.”

Because he doesn’t hire big stars, Goren enjoys several advantages over bigger companies. He can hire singers at their vocal peaks, instead of booking five years in advance. And he can ensure that cast and crew actually get along (“cause life is too short to work with pains in the ass”). A smaller house means he can choose unusual operas and still find an audience. Most of all, he can roll with any punch. Take his experience creating L’isola this year. Goren had planned on mounting Haydn’s fantastical Il Mondo Della Luna at the Hayden Planetarium (it takes place on the moon, after all), but at the last minute, the Museum of Natural History needed the space. “After 30 seconds of panic, I e-mailed Mark Morris, with whom I’d been discussing doing an opera, and he said yes.” Morris was thrilled: “Whenever I’ve proposed producing a Haydn opera, the phone mysteriously goes dead,” he says. “Neal was the first person to take me seriously. I’ve rarely encountered singers who are as prepared, as eager, as game, and as gifted.” (For the record: Il Mondo goes up next season, on the lunar surface, as planned.)

The response to high quality and smart risks has been extreme loyalty. Goren says donations are up, and, asked about his audience, recalls a recent opening-night party. “I introduced myself to some people I’d never seen before, and said, ‘Oh, are you opera people?’” He pauses. “They said, ‘No. We’re Gotham Chamber Opera people.’”