Out of Tune

How New York City Opera Came Back From Death

The tortured resurrection of New York City Opera may offer a useful example to other companies on how to thrive, and avoid extinction.


The nearly two-year long battle for the resurrection of the New York City Opera (NYCO) came to a close last week.

NYCO-Renaissance (NYCO-R), headed by hedge fund manager Roy Niederhoffer and Michael Capasso, former head of the now defunct Dicapo Opera Theatre, opened their first production, a six show run of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, with the full legal authority to use the NYCO name.

Whether it stays alive, however, is another story.

NYCO’s untimely and very public death left the Metropolitan Opera the only major opera company in New York City.

Most large European cities have more than one major opera company, London and Paris have two each, Berlin and Vienna each have three and that is not counting the myriad of smaller companies that perform in each of those cities.

The closure of NYCO and the general madness surrounding the Metropolitan Opera in the last couple years have caused some to doubt the future of opera as an art form in the US.

The attempted resurrection of NYCO has been watched closely by US opera fans anxiously hoping for a positive sign regarding the future of opera.

But NYCO’s resurrection raises more questions than it answers about the course opera companies and production in the US may take in the future.

The bizarre and convoluted battle to resurrect NYCO after it declared bankruptcy in late 2013 has been covered here and here), but much has happened in the six months leading up to last Wednesday’s opening night.

In line with the operatic nature of the proceedings since NYCO’s bankruptcy, everything came down right to the wire.

It wasn’t until January 12th, 2016, less than eight days before the opening, that Judge Sean Lane of the US Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan greenlit NYCO-R’s plans for resurrecting NYCO and gave them legal authority to use the NYCO name and remaining assets.

These included an approximately $4.5 million endowment and a bequest to the original NYCO in the will of a wealthy benefactor estimated at $7 million.

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In early December 2015, Niederhoffer and Capasso’s main opponent in the battle for control of the remains of NYCO, architect Gene Kaufman, dropped out of the hunt and appeared to pave a clear road for NYCO-R to take possession of NYCO’s name and assets.

But even this positive turn of events for NYCO-R was not without drama.

On January 5, 2016, one month after Kaufman’s team dropped out and just under two weeks before NYCO-R’s opening night, the NY District Attorney’s Office issued a court filing questioning the long-term financial viability of NYCO-R’s plan.

A separate filing by the DA’s office questioned the planned payment by NYCO-R to Kaufman’s New Vision for NYC Opera for “administrative expenses and attorneys’ fees” because of how much such a payment “would deplete the already limited assets” available to City Opera.

That did not deter Niederhoffer and crew. After revising their plan to, in part, allow Mr. Niederhoffer’s foundation instead of NYCO-R to make the payment to Kaufman directly, they pushed forward and on January 12th Judge Lane officially confirmed NYCO-R’s reorganization plan.

Financial responsibility and longevity has been a long standing concern for the NYCO-R project, raised not just by the DA’s filing, but by those in the opera community who feel Capasso ran his last company, the 207-seat Dicapo Opera Theatre on the Upper East Side, into the ground.

In an AP article widely circulated the day before NYCO-R’s opening night last week, Capasso is quoted as saying of his NYCO-R plans, “My five-year plan will reinvigorate the repertory, bring it back to the glory days. It’s a model in terms of how to program a season that will have widest possible appeal.”

Many found this an oddly confident statement coming from a man who was sued by the musician’s union Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians for unpaid wages in 2010 and who closed Dicapo in 2013 still owing many people money over a year before the NYCO-R proposal originated.

Additionally, Capasso’s bombast and hubris could be perceived as everything that the general public thinks is wrong with and off-putting about opera in general: lofty, distant, elitist sounding platitudes that are ultimately empty and without relevance to the today’s audiences. Not exactly the way to attract new audiences.

The original NYCO stood as an alternative to the more traditional Metropolitan Opera, often programming new American works that had not and perhaps would not be seen elsewhere.

Today, many new works are produced by the smaller companies that have popped up since the original NYCO’s departure from Lincoln Center.

So, what is the position of a new NYCO in NYC? Does NYC need or even want a new major opera company? What does a “people’s opera”, as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called the original NYCO, even mean now?

These questions were drawn into even sharper focus as NYCO-R’s Tosca came just over a week after the ending of NYC’s 4th annual Prototype festival, co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, which specializes in presenting smaller, more experimental opera and theatre works at venues across the city.

The centerpiece of this year’s festival was the NYC premiere of composer David T. Little’s searing post apocalyptic opera Dog Days.

Beth Morrison Projects and Prototype have become the engines for the cutting edge of new operatic works in NYC, so where does a new NYCO fit in?

Additionally, Venture Opera, On Site Opera, and the highly acclaimed Loft Opera, all in NYC, are far smaller, faster, lighter on their feet than traditional opera companies and therefore able to be far more intimate, reactive, immersive and site specific.

Is there a middle ground between them and the grandeur and spectacle of the mighty Metropolitan Opera that even needs to be filled?

The New York critics have been lukewarm on both the first production and the overall position of NYCO-R.

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times praised some of the singing but added, “The musical performance…was prone to mishaps, with some flashes of intensity but many inert stretches.”

On the night I attended the NYCO-R Tosca, I found an attractive, younger, finance crowd that I do not see at the Met in such numbers.

Some of these young people will eventually be poised to become the next generation of mega arts donors. That is great, both for NYCO-R and opera in general.

However will they return in the future, especially given the frustration and chaos the facilities at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center caused?

Was it NYCO-R or the Rose’s fault that people spent the vast majority of the two intermissions on line for the single working men’s room or on line at the single bar with only two working cashiers?

Many people did not even get the drink they waited 10 minutes on line for as intermission ended before they could.

Several people missed the second act because they were waiting for the bathrooms and there were no late admissions to the theatre after either intermission. I can only imagine this happened to some for the third act and they just left.

Finally, and most egregiously, the lights were dropped and the second act began when there were still many people in the aisles waiting to take their seats not having had time after the endless lines and waiting of the intermission.

Whatever the reason, it must be remedied. No one will return to a company that forces patrons to claw their way through a crowded aisle in the dark to find their seats, let alone donate to one.

NYCO-R promised an announcement of their second show soon, with Capasso pledging to announce three more in the next few months and a total of six for NYCO-R’s 2016-17 season.

For more information on NYCO Renaissance please visit nycorenaissance.com/