Five Decades of Excellence - on a Shoestring

The scrappy, populist New York City Opera hits a milestone this year with muted fanfare

THE New York City Opera is 50 years old this season. What began as something of an impossible dream - a people's opera in the city that boasted the Metropolitan, the most celebrated opera company in the world - has in five decades blossomed into something New Yorkers have come to rely on for interesting repertoire, unusual looks at standard pieces, and the best of young American (and, occasionally, international) talent.

The company got its start in the old Mecca Temple, which the Shriners had built in the 1920s and lost, because of the Depression, in 1939. By 1942, the city found itself the reluctant owner.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia initiated the process that transformed the building into the New York City Center of Music and Drama, which the city supported by maintaining the building and by charging $1 a year for rent. (Legally, the city could not itself run a theater.)

New York City Opera would be a clear alternative to the Met - offering popular prices, a 3,200 seat theater that was curiously intimate because its auditorium was wide and shallow.

Musically, the company was in good hands with conductor Lazlo Halasz ('43 to '51), who was succeeded by Joseph Rostenstock ('51 to '56), the late Erich Leinsdorf (1956), and Julius Rudel ('57 to '79).

A new generation of committed singing actors - many of whom would go on to important careers abroad and at home - would create a roster that eventually produced its own legends.

There was always room for European artists of prominence: Both Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras got their starts at the City Opera. But the real legends of the City Opera have been American, including Maralin Niska, Norman Treigle, and, above all, Beverly Sills. Move to Lincoln Center

One of the biggest events in the history of the company - and not necessarily the most beneficial - was the move to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in 1966.

The theater had been designed as the permanent home for George Balanchine's legendary New York City Ballet; the decision to bring in the opera was taken after the plans were drawn up. Though only seating 2,735, the theater was cavernous, and saddled with difficult acoustics for opera; backstage and storage spaces were designed for modest ballet sets, not the far bulkier ones opera demands these days.

Under the circumstances, it is remarkable how well the company adapted to its flawed surroundings. Credit must go to conductor Rudel, whose operatic savvy, musical versatility, and vitality created an environment where great things could happen within the serious budget constraints that have always hovered over the company, and that were exacerbated by the move to Lincoln Center.

The company's first internationally acclaimed hit production was staged in the fall of '66: Handel's then virtually unknown ``Giulio Cesare'' made Beverly Sills an international star and also clinched Norman Treigle's reputation as the nation's leading singing actor. Beverly Sills's tenure

Triumph upon triumph followed, and with the presence of Sills, Domingo, Carreras, Niska, and eventually Samuel Ramey (who took over the Treigle repertory brilliantly), the company seemed on a roll.

By the time Sills finally gave her farewell to opera in 1980, she had already been serving as general director of the company for a year.

During her 10-year tenure, the company came to prominence on annual TV broadcasts, the theater was revamped acoustically, and such budding talents as Carol Vaness, June Anderson, Jerry Hadley, and Richard Leech rose to international prominence. And Sills's prodigious fund-raising abilities enabled the company to operate on a full schedule despite increasing financial pressures.

Current director Christopher Keene's tenure has been distinguished by exceptional performances of Schoenberg's ``Moses und Aron,'' Zimmermann's ``Die Soldaten,'' Busoni's ``Doktor Faust,'' and, this season, Tippett's ``The Midsummer Marriage'' - all works ignored by the company's illustrious neighbor across the plaza, all managed on a shoestring, all well-cast and quite magnificently played by the ever-improving City Opera Orchestra.

Keene courageously announced and is now taking a leave of absence to spend time at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

When he returns, he will still have to address some of the deep-rooted problems at the company.

If the past 50 years have proved nothing else, they have demonstrated that the New York City Opera is a scrappy, fighting institution, and that there is every reason to expect it will be around for at least another half-century.

* The New York City Opera celebrates its 50th with a week devoted to three world premieres of American operas - Ezra Laderman's ``Marilyn'' (Oct. 6, 9, & 12), Lukas Foss's ``Griffelkin'' (Oct. 7 & 9 matinee), and Hugo Weisgall's ``Esther'' (Oct. 8 and 10 matinee). These operas will be reviewed at a later date.

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