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.

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?

In the case of Miss Rolandi, one wonders how Miss Sills can really think this is up to the recognizable standard one expects from a New York opera company. Her Elvira in the revival of Bellini's ''I Puritani'' lacked finesse, even a rudimentary grasp of true bel canto (of which Miss Sills was so glorious a proponent), and any tonal allure. When June Anderson took over the role, audiences heard something closer to the mark, even though Miss Anderson needs considerable polish.

In these ''Puritanis,'' the lower voices shone somewhat, particularly when they were those of Paul Plishka and Pablo Elvira - a vocal feast. Of the always-touchy tenor situation, Bellini tenors are harder to find than most. John Aler, a fine concert artist, was at odds with Arturo all evening long. Later on, Chris Merritt, amply girthed in the old-fashioned style, sang with courage and occasional purity of tone, and secure high ''C's'' and ''D's,'' though clearly debut nerves undermined his good intentions.

The young American cast assembled for ''La Boheme'' did not manage an interesting performance. Marianna Christos had pitch and projection problems as Mimi; Barry McCauley was dry of voice and dramatic conviction as Rodolfo. Happily, Elisabeth Hynes offered a pert, handsomely sung and acted Musetta and Alan Titus a fully rounded characterization and vocalization of Marcello.

There was a ''Carmen'' that trudged drearily along, with an intermittently attractive performance from smoky mezzo Patricia Miller, a shrill Micaela from Faith Esham, a less-than-smooth Jose from Garry Grice, and a bland, somewhat too pompous Escamillo from Charles Long.

''Rigoletto'' never had a chance, and herein lies one of the City's severest problems - the quality of the productions and the quality of their revivals. The ''Rigoletto'' is an ugly-looking affair, this time with Corsaro at his most arbitrary and tasteless, now re-created listlessly. The ''Carmen'' - credited to Cynthia Auerbach - proved consistently silly. Her ''Boheme'' was merely adequate. The ''Puritani,'' restaged by Jack Eddleman, had no style. Only Barbara Karp's staging of ''Lucia'' had a certain flair and validity among the revivals I covered (always excepting ''Vixen'').

Vocally, that ''Rigoletto'' found Richard Fredricks nearly inaudible in the title role, Carol Vaness firm and pure of vocal emission yet bland of personality as Gilda, and as the Duke, Vinson Cole in alarming vocal disrepair for a tenor of such promise. Later on, Riccardo Calleo presented a secure though colorless Duke, and Suzanne Sonnenschein as Gilda sang barely four phrases in tune the entire performance. Pamela Myers, undertaking Lucia for the first time at NYCO, never seemed vocally right for the music. However, she made a very creditable attempt at getting her points across.

Is there anyone at the City Opera who is guiding and coaching these young singers? Is there anyone around to act as mentor? Is there anyone to say ''you are not ready'' or ''you are not right for this role''? There is no ruling hand for the supporting singers. And there are no stars-in-the-grooming the way Sills , Domingo, Carreras, Milnes, and others were groomed. Diana Soviero is the closest thing to a star the City has, and she seems to be in vocal trouble. Happily, Justino Diaz has found his showcase niche with this company - good in just about every assignment I heard him in this season. Mr. Titus's Marcello was the best performance I saw, with Miss Hynes's Musetta a close second. But there are no others, not even the ones the City is trying to promote.

The conducting staff is in a state of perpetual flux, ranging from the idiomatic excellence of Theo Alcantara through the solid competence of Imre Pallo and Vincent la Selva to the phlegmatic Judith Somogi (''Boheme'' and especially ''Lucia''), down to the unacceptable Henry Lewis (''Rigoletto''), new to the company's roster this season. Another newcomer, Semyon Bychkov, is clearly green in an opera pit, but his ''Carmen'' had ideas and he got the orchestra to play well.

It is perhaps too early to say that Miss Sills is not bringing the company together the way we all hoped she would. But something has to be done soon to remove the hodgepodge nature of the goings-on on the City's. At its best, it can be good, but that best has yet to be seen with any imagination or consistency.s in NMS091.

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