An Open Letter to Gérard Mortier
Dear M. Mortier,
An exasperated friend sent me this, from the Times:
“…M. Mortier wanted to send a signal to City Opera board members who are unhappy with his programming choices and who have not increased financial support.”
You’ll remember, M. Mortier, that we clinked glasses at board member __’s loft at a welcome dinner for you this spring. Your speech over cocktails was earnest, respectful, and winningly ardent about the music you champion: of course Susan Baker became convinced that you were the best choice to lead City Opera.
But two things troubled me that night, and—reading that Times piece (and today‘s as well)—continue to trouble me now. The first is that you don’t seem to realize that what you are offering City Opera is worthy, but not new: not to this audience.
You know, of course, that NYCO is the company that introduced Bartok, Copland, Prokofiev, von Einem, Tan Dun, and Ginastera to American opera audiences: Britten, Shostakovich, and Glass to New York opera audiences; and Schönberg, Strauss, Poulenc, Henze, Janáček, and Busoni to the New York stage. Hence the eyebrows you raised when, that night at __’s, you announced plans to have the orchestra concertize with Britten, Debussy, Foss, Reich, and Stravinsky to “introduce” audiences to the “new” City Opera aesthetic. “Introduce?” But these composers are old friends! City Opera commissioned Foss’s Griffelkin for its 50th anniversary in ’93; has kept The Rake’s Progress in its repertory since 1984; gave Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream its New York première in 1963, and followed up most recently with The Turn of The Screw (1996), Paul Bunyan (1997), and The Rape of Lucretia (2003;) and gave the company’s first Pelléas et Mélisande in 1948 before ceding it to the MET, whose revival (with Sir Simon Rattle conducting) is scheduled for the same season you return the piece to City Opera.
Reich is an exciting new choice on your list (dare we hope for a NYCO The Cave?) and I, like everyone else I know, am eagerly awaiting Messaien’s Saint-François d’Assise in a new—and doubtless expensive—production at the Armory. So far your plans fit nicely within City Opera tradition. Even during the years of my tenure as composer-in-residence, City Opera, in early drafts of its master calendar, had scheduled the New York première of Thomas Adés’ The Tempest (now scheduled by the MET); a new production of Britten’s Gloriana; and the New York première of Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale. All of these productions were budgeted, scheduled, but ultimately abandoned: not out of cowardice, and certainly not because City Opera audiences needed an “introduction” to the “new.” It was only because–those years at least–the funding could not be found. And still: during those same seasons, City Opera brought to New York the American première of Tan Dun’s Marco Polo; the New York premières of nationally celebrated scores such as Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner; and the world première of the first opera by the composer you have now invited to score Brokeback Mountain, Charles Wuorinen.
Which brings me back to that dinner, and the Times. Again, your fine proposal of future NYCO repertory you offered that night at __’s differs from NYCO’s usual only insofar as it it somewhat more narrowly Eurocentric. But, as Stephen Sondheim (another NYCO mainstay) once wrote, “Having just the vision’s no solution: everything depends on execution.” Here you differ drastically from your predecessors: all of whom faced “City Opera board members who were unhappy with (their) programming choices and who have not increased financial support.” In an American company of any size, such resistance is a given: if supporters didn’t need to be led, companies would need no “artistic directors.” But when, for example, Paul Kellogg couldn’t afford Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, he replaced it with something equally unexpected, pencilled Haroun in for the following season, crossed his fingers, and worked overtime to muster support for the piece the next year.
Faced with the same challenge, you apply to Bayreuth.
In so doing, what “signal do you wish to send” to the supporters of a company which has for over sixty years introduced more new European and American opera to New York audiences than any other in the United States? For good or ill, part of the rôle of City Opera’s intendant–of the American intendant–is to choose progressive new-music visions and then work tirelessly to muster (not demand, as if from a government system) support for those visions. (As Alex Ross once wittily parenthesized in a piece on Covent Garden for The New Yorker, “America has never had ‘the system:’ only grim reality.”)
M. Mortier, you have terrific ideas about restructuring New York City Opera. Bring on the stagione system! When NYCO stages its first production at the Apollo Theatre, I’ll be in the front row. Your inaugural all-20th-century season exalts to a new level NYCO’s historic commitment to the new. Everyone I know in New York is pulling for you to succeed in this rôle. And you can: if you learn the history of this indispensable company, accept this country’s funding paradigm—and grow a thicker skin. So far, it seems, you are presenting your merely laudable vision of City Opera’s future repertory as groundbreaking for both the company and the city when, in truth, it is neither: and, at the first sign of resistance to the specifics of that vision, wrapping yourself in the mantle of Wagner. Is this the best you can do? Any enthusiast can schedule Messaien. It takes a leader, and a team, to bring it to the stage. When the going gets tough, it is just not enough to warn, “Careful: I’m huge in Germany.”
New York City Opera