Beverly Sills and her 'people's opera' of America
Beverly Sills dropped a bombshell on the New York arts scene during the last week of the City Opera's season here: She announced she was reducing subscription ticket prices to her spring season by 20 percent.Skip to next paragraph
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In an article in the New York Times, she said her public was telling her that prices had become too high. She also declared that it was a financial, not an artistic, problem. And herein is the real bone of contention. Are the all-too-evident problems at the City merely financial?
Ever since representatives of the People's Republic of China told Miss Sills they thought of the City Opera as the ''people's opera'' of America, she has been referring to the company she manages as the people's opera. She has said her company is 98 percent American and that she could make it 100 percent with the snap of her fingers. She talks about the fabulous pool of American talent on view at the State Theater, and how exciting opera is becoming once again.
She has the formidable task of raising millions of dollars a year to meet the ever-rising deficit - the built-in problem of opera in any age, compounded today by the cuts in federal support. She has more and more to raise each year, and that process becomes difficult even for as indefatigable a fund-raising genius as Miss Sills.
This fall I went to a majority of the productions on the City's lineup, beginning with the operetta season - ''The Student Prince'' and ''Song of Norway'' - through the final matinee (''Lucia di Lammermoor'') of the fall season (most of which is now on view in its annual Los Angeles season). While I have no wish to rain on Miss Sills' parade, it must be said that the level of performance at the City is no better than it was before she took over, and in some cases, it is actually somewhat worse.
Overall, what is lacking is a firm sense of guidance. There is no look to the productions, just a hodgepodge of styles and approaches and a very uneven lineup of directorial talent. The casting is erratic, not particularly gauged to show off the young singers to best advantage.
There seems to be less of an element of risk in the repertory selections. The new productions this year were lacking in the sort of dramatic vitality that gave this essentially young company its name in the '60s (when Miss Sills was ascending the operatic ladder to superstardom). One can cite the honorable but dull mounting of Weber's ''Der Freischutz'' as something the City should not be aspiring to. One must note that the new ''Traviata'' in no way replaces the venerable, imaginative Frank Corsaro staging.ir15l,5p5
The revival of last season's ''The Student Prince'' to open the operetta season lacked fire and was somewhat miscast. The choice of ''Song of Norway'' was peculiar, given its essentially lame book and tired rehashing of familiar Grieg tunes. The second cast fared much better than the bland first, thanks to the presence of John Brandstetter and Joseph Evans.
Of the entire season, the one production that fully captures the spirit of the City Opera was the revival of Janacek's ''The Cunning Little Vixen.'' It is the sort of stunning staging - by Frank Corsaro, with superb sets by Maurice Sendak - that allows for a memorable evening (or afternoon) of opera, even if the singing is not as plush as it might be.
In fact, the singing was not all that bad. Gianna Rolandi, the Vixen, was stirringly audible of tone and diction. Richard Cross made the Forester a character of warmth and compassion. In the alternate cast, Susan Peterson was beguilingly feminine (but not forceful vocally), and Mark Embree sang less than well than is his wont. But in either cast, the production made it special, as did the exceptional conducting from Michael Tilson Thomas.
But what of these young American singers? How do they get cast? Is it really based on suitability or rather on which artists' managers have what casting director's ears?