I concluded my last post with thoughts about a way forward for the New York City Opera. They were cautiously hopeful but hedged with a question: how, with a Board of Directors that numbers eight and–so far as I can determine–no endowment, is this company to survive, even if it were to go from triumph to triumph artistically?
It’s the sort of question never welcomed by artists or devotees or, perhaps, most of my readers. Or by critics, e.g., Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of The New York Times. A couple of years back, he had the rare privilege of being alternately cited as authority and attacked as willful ignoramus (depending on the author’s convenience) by Reynold Levy in They Told Me Not to Take That Job (Public Affairs, N.Y., 2015), the memoir of Levy’s twelve years at the helm of Lincoln Center. Levy’s complaint had to do with what he termed Tommasini’s “magical thinking”–in part his support for the (then) NYCO’s notion of splitting off from Lincoln Center (and going where?), and in part his persistent campaigning for more new operas and more revisionist productions of old ones, “whatever the costs, whatever the risks,” in a time of desperation.
Tommasini rose to the bait, arguing (see NYT, June 21, 2015) that a critic’s concern is exclusively artistic, with matters of finance and governance best left to “arts reporters.” He also defended his standing recommendations on artistic policy, which to me have usually sounded like the expressions of a rather rarefied modern/postmodern connoisseur taste that was somehow going to become universal if only given the chance. There’s the rub, I think. De gustibus, etc., but Levy was upbraiding Tommasini not so much for his tastes as for advancing them as artistic policy–as if they were the solution to the problem of survival, or, in other words, of solvency.
So, despite Tommasini’s protestations, here he was in the realm of money, where many a magical thought gets thunk. “I’m convinced that there’s a new audience out there for new music,” he said, and while this is something of a faith-based declaration, it’s general enough to be true: sure enough, there are many new musics with followings of some size and devotion, and when new music is performed, new operas produced, some people usually do show up. For major repertory institutions, however, that is not the issue. They need sustainable, repeatable works of broader appeal. And in the case of opera, it’s not just a matter of the music. It’s also a matter of drama, the subject matter, the story being told. Thus, though I have an inbred sympathy for Tommasini’s vision of critical purity, it’s of an “if only” kind. Art and money are inextricable, and no one concerned with the former can afford to ignore the latter.This post, therefore, is about the economics of the high-culture performing arts, of which opera is of its nature the most profligate. So man up, fellow cantophones, if you care at all about the fate of our art. Next time, I promise, we’re back to Die heilige Kunst.