Buying time at New York City Opera

City Opera revives the Mark Lamos production of Chabrier's comic opera L'Etoile.

City Opera revives the Mark Lamos production of Chabrier's comic opera L'Etoile.

I know, I know. New York City Opera announced its comeback season long ago — on April Fools Day.

But Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? didn’t exist at that time — although the name and the idea had been kicking around for a year. So please forgive me for jumping into the pool a bit late.

I was reminded that WYMMWIG? hadn’t weighed in on the NYCO when the subscription notice arrived in my mailbox yesterday. I had been looking forward to its return after a year without City Opera — the only opera company to which I’ve ever subscribed.

It was a big envelope. Black and white logo, very frugal. That seemed good. And the envelope seemed thin. A sign, it seemed, of a sensible frugality in these trying economic times.

Then I withdrew the contents. A double-folded, mostly B&W (with a few splashes of color on the reverse) poster-style brochure. No flashy photos or spectacular presentations of years gone by. Very practical, very budget minded. Not particularly aspirational or uplifting — and let’s not forget that opera is of little use if it can’t take us away from the troubles of our own day.

George Steel

George Steel

Still, so far so good, I thought. Then there was the usual sort of subscription order form, reply envelope (not postage-paid) and a letter to subscribers covering the highlights of what it boldly calls “THE EXCITING 2009-2010 SEASON,” the company’s first season under George Steel, the knight in shining armor who rode to NYCO’s rescue after its tragic divorce from Gerard Mortier.

A spectacular season? A season of hope for a company that Steel, thankfully, pulled from the jaws of disaster?

In a word: No!

It’s a truncated season: a gala concert and five staged opera productions. At least it is a season. But not a very ambitious one — not one that shouts to the world that the New York City Opera is back. It’s more like a polite and almost apologetic whisper.

But only one, Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, which hasn’t been seen here since its premiere in 1993, can be considered remotely challenging. And the only new production is tried-and-true City Opera director Christopher Alden’s take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The other productions: the well-worn Emmanuel Chabrier comic opera L’Etoile (including a shorter, family version with dialogue in English and Mark Lamos’ production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

The fifth production is a a touchingly sad reminder of NYCO’s glory days as a leading reviver of George Frideric Handel’s operas, the return of Francisco Negrin’s 1998 imagining of Handel’s Partenope.

The miniscule season will be performed in repertory, with Esther and Don Giovanni in rotation in the fall and the other three productions in the spring, abandoning Mortier’s notion of a stagione season in which operas are performed in succession rather than rotation.

The lineup, clearly pulled out of the archives and dusted off, may not look like a strong start for Steel. But it puts NYCO back in business and buys a the company another year to chart a clear course for the future. Let’s hope that Steel makes the most of his time.

That said, all is not bad news. Existing subscribers can renew now at prices as low as $60 for all five operas. Not a bad deal, even for a fairly mundane season. Plus, subscribers get free access to artist dialogues and opera insights programs. Plus, the Opera for All program will continue offering 50-75 orchestra seats each week for $25 on a rush basis.

NYCO’s efforts to venture out of its newly renovated home at Lincoln Center’s State Theater (now with aisles in the orchestra seating area!) continue into the new season with a concert performance of Gluck’s Alceste at Rose Theater in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s home in the Time-Warner Center next Tuesday (May 26) with the Collegiate Chorale. Tickets available here.

And NYCO will also present three free concerts around downtown Manhattan in June as part of River to River, the city’s largest free summer arts festival:

  • 7 p.m. June 25: A one-hour concert version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in English. At Rockefeller Park, River Terrace and Warren Street, Manhattan.
  • 7 p.m. June 26: La Navarraise, Georges Massenet’s little-performed one-act opera set during the Spanish Civil War. At the World Financial Center Winter Garden, 220 Vesey Street, Manhattan.
  • 7 p.m. June 27: Opera on the Pier, a concert program of familiar arias, duets and overtures, including excerpts from La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. At South Street Seaport, Pier 17.

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