efore Puccini’s La Rondine opened at the New York City Opera this season, all the signs pointed to a disaster. The work was little known, and had been dismissed by earlier generations as inconsequential. The intended conductor, C. William Harwood, died unexpectedly last April at the age of 36, and the lead soprano withdrew. During the dress rehearsal, Tenor Barry McCauley objected to Conductor Allesandro Siciliani’s tempos and stormed off, while Siciliani threatened to take the next plane back to Italy. Peace was restored, but two hours before the curtain, a can of drain cleaner exploded in the face of the orchestra’s harpist; a hasty search was undertaken for a substitute to play the crucial part.
A night to forget? Not at all. La Rondine turned out to be the biggest, freshest City Opera triumph in years, and it symbolizes the remarkable recovery the company has made under General Director Beverly Sills. From a debt-ridden organization that was also floundering artistically, the City Opera is re-emerging as a vtial musical force, offering adventurous new repertory and sparkling singing. Even its finances are improved. Says the irrepressible Sills, whose sanguinity was tested by the tribulations of the past five years: “I stuck out all the garbage, and now I’m going to enjoy the caviar and champagne.”
There is much to enjoy. New and unusual works? In addition to La Rondine, the company has revived Leo Delibes’ fragile song of the subcontinent, Lakme, and mounted an operatic staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol Broadway masterpiece, Sweeney Todd; next month is presents Philip Glass’s new opera Akhnaten. Splendid singing? Clarion-voiced Tenor Jerry Hadley shone as Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and the company’s impressive roster of young sopranos this season includes Kaaren Erickson, Elizabeth Hynes and Elizabeth Knighton.
The vital signs are good, especially for a company on the brink not long ago. “I remember taking the books home one night after I became director and my husband telling me it was hopeless,” says Sills. There was a multimillion-dollar deficit. The split season (eleven weeks in the fall, ten in the spring) meant redundant start-up costs of $1 million each year. Production expenses were spiraling. “There were days when I could hardly talk myself into coming to the office,” she says. “There would be a big meeting on Tuesday morning, and I would be told there was no money for the Friday payroll.”
Sills, aware that her first priority was to use her celebrity status as newly retired diva to raise funds, often traded a personal appearance for a donation. Inevitably, quality suffered while she concentrated on money; City Opera hit its aesthetic nadir in 1982 with a tired The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein by Offenbach and a ludicrous I Lombardi by Verdi, which Sills didn’t see until the dress rehearsal. “I have had my turkeys,” she admits. “Had I seen it earlier, I would have pulled days before, I didn’t have the courage.”
Gradually, she brought the situation under control. The $1.8 million deficit is being eliminated with a grant from the late Philanthropist Leslie R. Samuels, a music lover who also paid for the acoustical renovation of the New York State Theater, the company’s home. New York City Mayor Edward Koch increased the city’s support to $1.3 million annually. She combined the two seasons into one that runs from July through mid-November. Out of economic necessity, new productions are more innovative than lavish: Frank Corsaro’s Carmen, set during the Spanish Civil War, cost only $38,000.
In the process, Sills has shed her image as America’s sweetheart prima donna for a new persona as an impresario. “I have learned a lot,” she says with pride. “I am taking a course in lighting, I can look at a flat design and know if it will come into 3-D. My singers know they will be well lit and not forced to wear unbecoming costumes. The backstage crew calls me boss. Beverly Sills superstar is gone.”
Attendance is up, and one reason is the use of supertitles, translations projected above the stage. Although Sills did not invent them (they were first used in Toronto), she has popularized the technique. Supertitles have rightly been criticized for occasional inaccuracy, for anticipating the punch lines of jokes and for injecting an element of televison into the opera house, but Sills strongly defends them. “Do I want to tell someone who has worked on Wall Street until 5:30 to study the libretto or take a course in German?” she asks. “Do I want people sitting in my audience with a libretto and flashlight?”
Not everything has been rosy this year. Despite the appointment of American Conductor Christopher Keene as music director in 1982, the conducting on the whole remains below par, and neither of the principal singers in Lakme had the proper French timbre or sense of style for their roles. Sweeney Todd is more gruesomely appealing in a smaller house, and the City Opera’s lead cast does nothing to erase the memory of George Hearn and Angela Lansbury.
Still, Sills plans to continue in this season’s vein. She will encourage provocative, revisionist productions of classic operas. There will be more modern works (Sills and Sondheim are discussing a full-fledged opera, and she hopes to commission Glass’s next piece) as well as selected revivals of Broadway shows like South Pacific. “We should be looked at as an experimental company,” says Sills, contrasting the City Opera’s image with that of the grander Metropolitan Opera next door at Lincoln Center. “[Music Director] Jimmy Levine agrees with me that the Met should be like the Metropolitan Museum, and we should be like the Museum of Modern Art.”