Change

It’s been a tough day, this September 30. My Facebook feed is overflowing with grief and disbelief about the demise of New York City Opera, and my neighbors and friends here in the D.C. are are awash with anger and chagrin about the possible (probable?) government shutdown.

It’s been a maxim of my professional life never to talk politics (and to be able to steer any inflammatory partisan cocktail chatter into neutral territory in record time), so I will bypass the latter and focus on the former.

When I first got involved in this whole audition season business 20 years ago, New York City was a game-changer. Yes, of course, we heard and hired good singers in other places in the country. But the NYC auditions were a barometer of sorts; they almost always encompassed more than half of the best young artist talent out there in any given autumn. Cause and effect are dangerous to assign, but the current trend is clear: the singers we hear in New York no longer dominate the game.

Many of the 20-something singers in New York used to be at NYCO. There are other factors and other programs that have also changed or disappeared in the last decade, but this has to be the biggest. Of course, NYCO was more than just young artists; it housed singers at all different career points. But spending a formative chunk of one’s young artist years at City Opera allowed singers to live in NY to study, audition, and start careers. And many did.

The good news? Alternate career-entry paths seem to have proliferated during this same period. Big house young artist programs are (mostly) thriving, regional companies are doing some of the freshest and most innovative work in the country, and Europe is once again increasingly attractive. And the fact that you don’t have to spend a ton of time living in Manhattan in order to have an opera career is a relief to many a singer.

The tempering news? There are fewer places where emerging artists can be family. NYCO was such a place. When I was starting my career, Washington National Opera was also such a place. We had an entire winter season in the Kennedy Center’s two smaller venues, and it functioned like a repertory company much of the time. But there are tradeoffs: while WNO no longer has such an arm, it has grown immensely, offering DC-area opera lovers truly world-class performances. And while the passing of NYCO means the end of an era, I have to believe that the void will be filled. Arts organizations have life cycles, and we resist change at our peril. The challenge for the aspiring professional singer is to read these shifting sands.

My take-away? I am even more committed to the mission of our company and others like it. Young artists need a place in between the closed laboratory of the university / conservatory and the high-stakes stages of the professional world. They must be given an opportunity to take responsibility, sink or swim, learn from their mistakes, and be surprised by how good they really are.

This September Monday feels pretty gloomy, but exciting singing looms for us in this fall’s audition tour. If you’re singing for us or for anyone this fall, know that we exist because of you, and take heart. Bring your A game, enjoy the hell out of it, and take us along for the ride.

One Comment

John Greiner

The NYC Opera was beset with bad management over the past several years, which was a major reason for its demise. I remember enjoying some very enjoyable evenings of opera with them, both on tour at Wolf Trap (a Traviata with Beverely Sills, as well as productions of Turandot and Die Fledermaus that were quite enjoyable) as well as in New York (Prince Igor, and my first staged Mephistopheles and Prince Igor.) But I think they, like many opera companies (and arts organizations) had become over time much more “navel gazing” and more focused on what “they” wanted, more interested in being “innovative” or “new” in the wrong way rather than actually being GOOD or offering much up to an audience. That, again accompanied by incredibly poor management, did them in.

I also must say I disagree with your comment about how Washington National Opera has stepped up in quality over the years. It has, in my opinion, deteriorated significantly. This is illustrated by the huge fall off in both the number of both productions and performances over the years. They quite literally have a subscription season that is less than half of what it was back when they used the Eisenhower Theater for the winter season you mention (they only offered 29 subscription performances this year compared to 60+ back in the day, and in both cases would add extra performances for popular operas), and even taking into account the difference in the size of the Eisenhower and the Opera House, their subscription base has shrunk 40 percent. They went to “stars” for a while, but now they are back to where they where when they’d occasionally import a star when needed or for a special event. Some blame the economy, but I notice when I go to traditional productions they are almost always sold out (for example Showboat), and when they give “innovative” ones, they dump tickets like crazy (such as the upcoming Forza set in part in a noodle restaraunt in Thailand where they are on the 3rd round of ticket discounts) and still can’t fill the house. The point of that being companies like NYC Opera (and Washington Opera, which, remember, was saved from bankruptcy and taken over by the Kennedy Center due to poor product and poor management) are going to continue to have problems (and provide less opportunity to young artists such as those at Wolf Trap) if they don’t stop thinking only of themselves and start addressing audience concerns, tastes, and budgets.

Best,

John Greiner

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