Today opens VOX: Contemporary American Opera Lab, New York City Opera’s annual festival of free-of-charge, open-to-the public orchestral excerpts from new American operas (American composers and librettists). Currently on its 11th season and running for two days, the musical works are performed by the City Opera Orchestra, chorus, and soloists, and takes place at NYU's Skirball Centerfor the Performing Arts (free, but reservations need to be made at NYCO's website.
In the VOX program, NYCO concentrates their four point mission of making opera accessible to all audiences, championing new works, promoting American opera and encouraging young talent. It also uniquely provides a fertile staging ground for future NYCO productions, where works-in-progress are heard, giving composers a rare opportunity to see their works realized in true scale. Basically, it's scene, but for the classical music scensters.
General Manager and Artistic Director of NYCO, George Steel, is dedicated to giving VOX the attention it deserves, completely involved in the programming, and making it increasingly central to NYCO's heart. He brings eleven former years of programming contemporary music from his leadership role as Executive Director of Miller Theatre at Columbia University, a well-rounded base for curating two days of varied music.
George Steel recently spoke with Opera Chic from New York City Opera’s home, the David H. Koch Theater, to give her the latest on what’s going on with NYCO and VOX.
Click the link below to read the full interview (including Steel's favorite composers and what he sometimes wears under his performance jacket!)
Opera Chic: Opera houses lament that they’re losing money, but we still see that performances are sold out, the public still comes to the houses, and donations are still being made. Very much like the Italian opera houses – they’re constantly on the verge economic crisis, but trying to find an available ticket to a performance is often a blood sport. Since you can’t raise ticket prices and literally can’t make the opera houses bigger, why does it always fall on the public to save the opera houses? Why not better restructuring of administration and board? Why shouldn’t the opera houses be responsible for making their administration more cost-efficient, dropping artist fees and other back-end things like that?
George Steel: Every night an opera company mounts an opera, it loses money, i.e. ticket sales simply cannot cover the cost of a performance. In Europe and elsewhere, government subsidies (to varying degrees) make up a great deal of the shortfall. In the United States, cultural organizations (not-for-profit ones, anyway) turn to private sources for most of their contributed income. I can't speak for any opera company but my own, but I can assure you we are constantly looking at ways to run the organization more efficiently. But no matter how you look at it, opera is an expensive medium.
Let's do a back of the envelope calculation:
Opera House X (a somewhat "average" size for a major US company--but you can make up your own)
Annual Budget: $35,000,000
Number of Performances: 50
Number of tickets per performance: 2,000
Cost of a ticket to break even: $350
So a company can either make ALL the tickets very, very expensive, or decide, in the public interest, to reduce the price of tickets so that more people can attend (a populist decision). In the US, an organization has to argue to the IRS that it has a mission dedicated to the public good in order to qualify for 501(c)(3) status. That is an important designation and helps with fundraising--but it also comes with a duty: to further the mission of the organization, not simply to be populist. If one pursued the populism idea in your first question to its logical extreme, a truly populist company (if profit is the motive) would get out of the opera business altogether and go into some more lucrative (for profit) business!
Opera Chic: There's a counterintuitive argument to be made about opera: created as an elitist art form, it now tries to be populist. But if you really wanted to make opera populist, you'd move it to a stadium and bring in crossover artists like Bocelli and Jenkins – that’s Pavarotti’s lesson, right? So how do you best go about making something populist which was invented out of an entirely opposite reasoning?
George Steel: The populist slant of opera dates at least to the 19th century, so the change from patrician to populist art has been going on for a long time, and I think in reality there has always been both aristocratic music theater and populist music theater. And one could argue that to the degree those original Camerata members were aiming to recreate ancient Greek theatrical practice, they were striving to recreate the ultimate democratic art form, intended precisely to be performed in amphitheaters, if not stadia.
My job is to produce great art and to connect it with a large and diverse audience. That often augurs against stadium performances -- opera doesn't often sound its best in such settings, or even amplified -- and demands careful casting, dependent not on fame, but artistic fit. I don't think populism should be equated with mass spectacle or money-making. At New York City Opera, populism has meant low ticket prices (our lowest is $12), simultaneous translation of the opera (we were the first house in the world to have supertitles for every production), innovative repertoire, inclusive casting, and more. I think one could take the argument further: true populism is opening up the greatest artworks to the widest audience. If profit is one's chief motive, one is no longer engaged in populism, but rather simply business. The American not-for-profit system enshrines this vital distinction.
Opera Chic: As the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts demystified classical music for American audiences throughout the 1960s. We’ve already seen loads of innovations to the David H. Koch Theater, but are there any cutting edge initiatives that you’ve been planning for administration and programming?
George Steel: There are tons of new initiatives! We’re recommitting to the mission of performing new music, and the center of this commitment to new work is the VOX program. Next season there will be four New York City premieres of operas by New York City composers [Ed: Zorn, Bernstein, Feldman, and Schwartz], and in fact, two of the new pieces that we’re doing next season are graduates of the VOX program [Ed: Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Stephen Schwartz and La Machine de l’être by John Zorn.] Integral to the VOX mission is preparing the participants for full productions on the opera stage, and we’re celebrating a great success rate: roughly forty of the operas we’ve done for VOX have gone onto full productions.
Opera Chic: With VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab you're really broadening the definitions of opera and your selections reflect the American melting pot. You’re basically playing DJ, squeezing ten works from the playlist of hundreds. We're all for opera as a live experience, but taking the General-Manager-as-DJ concept further, have you thought about producing a NYCO DVD/CD collection of these works -- Vox Pouli / VOX POP -- even as an educational program?
George Steel: We’ve made a big commitment towards getting the word out about the works we do at VOX and one of the ways that we’ve done that – even for the last several years – is to make audio recordings of the performances available for free, online. We also provide free online media as small documentary films about each piece, along with some other forms of exploratory pieces, so we very much have embraced the exchange of free media. We’re absolutely hooked into media, and the internet is the best way for us to distribute this information because we want as many people as possible to dip into it, either seriously or casually. I remember when I wanted to hear a recording of John Zorn’s opera La Machine de l'être which is part of our 2010-11 season, although there are lots of great Zorn resources on the internet, I just went to the website and listened to a few clips there, so I was actually able to research my own programming from the NYCO website.
Opera Chic: You bring 11 years of programming contemporary music at the Miller Theatre as a backbone for VOX, and although you can use that as a great foundation, opera and its audiences are changing. Is it more challenging to create programming for NYCO’s VOX or was it easier for Miller Theatre to find contemporary programming?
George Steel: I was involved in a huge amount of new music at Miller Theatre, and that experience has been very useful in guiding me towards new work, giving a good background for listening to new work, which I hope demonstrates how passionate I am about new works and music and new opera. Programming for NYCO represents a great extension of my work to focus exclusively on opera as new music. But it’s not unfamiliar to me and it’s always incredibly fulfilling to program new seasons. Opera needs to be shown the way forward by composers, as always, as it’s the composers who will be telling us always what’s to come next. I think the opera universe has an acute need for wonderful new pieces.
One of the big changes this year is that VOX is at the heart of the company so I’m personally involved in choosing the works, as is Ed Yim, the Director of Artistic Planning. And there are other kinds of activities that we’re going to fold into VOX. We now have a kind of early libretto workshop, like a small libretto incubator and I think it will flower into VOX’s 2011 initiatives.
We wanted it not to be an outlier, but to really be at the center of the company. There’s a very broad range of styles in this year’s VOX, perhaps even the broadest we’ve ever had. And there’s tremendous diversity among the composers with totally different backgrounds and interests: more serious, out-there music; tough, rock-inspired stuff; traditionally operatic music forms; music that kind of skirts the border of musical theater; and opera and film scoring. There’s a really wonderful mix among the composers as well.
We’ve thought about all kinds of shapes and expansions for VOX. Part of our mission is that we wanted it to be possible for people outside of NYC to fly in to see it, so we keep the time frame relatively tight. If it stretched out over the span of a couple weeks, it’s much harder to accommodate our listeners. VOX is two days of music, but we’ve maximized the festival -- ten operas is a lot, and there’s certainly no shortage of music.
Opera Chic: NYCO has always been about accommodating younger, alternative audiences and acting as the more down to earth venue to your next-door neighbor, The Metropolitan Opera's older & more established crowds. Since Peter Gelb has taken over as General Manager of The Metropolitan, he's slowly altered the opera house's brand, which is now about wooing a younger crowd, embracing accessibility, and knocking down the elitist connotations of the audience. How does that change your marketing and programming? Does it push you to embrace new audiences that you hadn't sought out before?
George Steel: I’m a big admirer of Peter Gelb and I’m flattered professionally because I think the Metropolitan Opera is taking a lot of its talking points from NYCO. And in a lot of ways, NYCO hasn’t really had anyone articulating those points to the public.
But our vision is clear: We’re all about younger singers, more theatrical presentations, inexpensive ticket prices, and newer audiences. That’s where we live. So it gives us an opportunity to make sure that we’re articulating those things that have always been essential to NYCO and even more importantly, it makes us recommit to them and find smarter and more efficient ways to do them.
We are across-the-board committed to having portable tickets: Our cheapest standard ticket price is $12, and you don’t have to stand in line to buy that ticket because you can buy it online, at home, on your computer. And we’ve seen that this economically-scaled ticket pricing is flourishing: 25% of the tickets we sold this season were $25 dollars or less. So this isn’t hundreds of tickets -- it’s more like thousands of tickets. Even our top ticket price, which is $145 dollars, is a relatively, democratically-priced option.
Coupled with the low ticket prices, in terms of theatrical presentations, the resources that NYCO brings is unique. There are types of operas we’ve had always been superb at, and the Mozart comedies is a great example. It’s the kind of opera that thrives on an involved and lengthy rehearsal process.
Which brings me to something that NYCO really excels at: The long rehearsal process makes a difference, and I think it’s vital to true theatrical work which arises from the singing actors and not from something else. And beyond the camaraderie, chemistry, and ensemble, the practical matter of actually building a piece of theater takes more time than most people can give it. And that’s something else that we’re able to do that’s much harder and less feasible for a company like The Metropolitan Opera. For example, the singers and actors in our Don Giovanni production rehearsed for six weeks before they came to the stage.
I would also say daring repertoire is the heart and soul of NYCO. The fact that next season we’re opening with Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place, an opera that has never before been performed in New York. And that’s just the kind of thing that we’ve always done.
Opera Chic: Lots of the European and British opera houses that reach out to younger audiences are keen on staging opera out of the theater, even bringing it to warehouses, malls and train stations. In running an "opera for the people" venue, although your new state-of-the-art David H. Koch Theater is fabulous, will we ever see the NYCO stage opera in unpredictable locations?
George Steel: Yes, I expect some! Right now we’re focusing on really doing more opera at Lincoln Center but we’re already working on some projects that might be off site.
Opera Chic: In an interview you said that the key for your programming vision is not to do “very old music with mildly radical stagings,” but rather to choose music that is “truly thrilling and radical.” We know you're a fan of Xenakis, Zorn, Saariaho, etc. from your Miller Theatre days, and now at the NYCO, you've embraced Hugo Weisgall, Emmanuel Chabrier, Schwartz, Schoenberg, and Feldman. Who are some of the other greats of opera composers that fit with your musical sensibilities?
George Steel: Starting in the Early Music department, I’m crazy about Händel, but I’m also crazy about some other early composers. For instance, there’s Reinhard Keiser who was a contemporary of J.S. Bach, like Handel, but sounds so much more German. You know Handel has a kind of lucidity in his music that even gives it an Italian sound, but Reinhard Keiser is a very German sound, a very beautiful sound. It sounds like how I would think Bach would sound if he were an opera composer. And he’s a wonderful composer and just getting to be performed a little bit, but I think it’s something that New York should experience.
I’m also excited about J.C. Bach, the youngest son of J.S. Bach, the only one who really wrote opera. He has some beautiful operas. And so does Telemann for that matter! Poor old Telemann has some really terrific operas! I think opera is a venue where he can show off his sense of humor a bit a little more than in his composition. There’s a gorgeous one called Der Geduldige Socrates, the hilarious joy of Socrates having two wives who were constantly quarrelling…it’s like a little shtick opera, but it’s wonderful music.
Concerning the 19th century rediscovery department, I think there are some gorgeous works. For example Chausson's Le Roi Arthus I’m absolutely nuts for, it’s a really terrific piece, and I don’t know the last time or if it was ever staged in New York City.
We had a smash with Chabrier's L'étoile this season. Le roi malgré lui is another great operetta…it’s a fabulous piece. And I’ve made no secret of my fondness for Massenet for instance. There’s a whole mess of Massenet operas that no one wants to touch, and even the standards aren’t all that standard. And Rimsky Korsakov for that matter I’m crazy for! And of course the house has the tradition of having done a rather pioneering production of The Golden Cockerel, which I actually saw here in 1979 and left a lasting impression.
In the standard works, who can say? But the pieces that I adore can be traditionally following the greatest operas of all time. We did one of them this past season, Don Giovanni, and of course, you’ll see Mozart’s operas here in the future. But also maybe Verdi’s Falstaff is one of the top three greatest operas ever written. I love Pelléas and Mélisande. I may be going out on a limb, but Tristan is up there on my list as one of the greatest operas of all time.
And then in the crazy modern music, you know, it’s all about rediscovering the greatest operas of the last 100 years which is really amazing because it’s such a big period. I don’t know when we’ll get around to this, but Stravinsky, for instance, beyond the operas of his that most people do -- and they don’t even do them that much -- we’d go beyond The Rake. I’m really nuts about The Flood, which was done as a piece for television, but I think it really belongs on the opera stage. And Luigi Dallapiccola's Prigioniero I think is a very strong piece. And there's also Szymanovski!
But there are more recent composers and pieces: Kaija Saariaho and Alberto Ginastera. For a while I was asking people, “What are the greatest operas of the last 50 years?” and the classic thing they would say would be, “Well what year did Benjamin Britten die?” So if people in the opera world have trouble answering that question, imagine others -- I mean, 50 years is not like 5 years. And of course, there are dozens of wonderful operas from those 50 years, but we have to go find them. Some of them have had many performances, some just one, and some haven’t even ever been performed on stage.
And there are some really juicy musical theater works that I think we might tackle in the future. There are so many good ones. But Ginastera, for instance, we opened our Lincoln Center LIFE with Don Rodrigo starring Placido Domingo in his Lincoln Center debut in 1966. And it’s an incredible piece. But it didn’t catch on. Washington Opera has done it, but it hasn’t been seen that much and it’s absolutely wonderful music, and very theatrical.
And I even have a soft spot for Victor Herbert. I’m not sure if I’d actually stage any Victor Herbert, but its legit opera as well as, of course, operetta. And it’s really quite wonderful music.
And if I really want to go crazy, I’d like to do Horatio Parker’s opera, Mona. It was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera in 1911, but no one’s ever done Mona. I’ve read some very tasty music of Parker’s, and he was Charles Ives teacher at Yale. I also can’t leave out Mussorgsky!
Opera Chic: In an interview, you revealed that you used to wear Leonard Bernstein's jacket on the podium. You've since retired that, and are now wearing only Lenny's red pocket square. ... Can you tell us any other personal effects that you rock from time to time? Do you have any artifacts at home? If you could have any piece of musical legacy (from Wagner's hand-cranked muttonchops trimmer to Mahler's soup-stained bowties) what would you want?
George Steel: You mean like Bernstein’s stuff hanging around? I’ve got lots! When I conduct, I also wear a pair of toreador suspenders that I bought down in the Camargue. They’re trouser braces that bullfighters wear. They’re red with brands on them. The virtual fighter!
I’m very lucky to have already met or have corresponded with most of the big composers of the second half of the 20th century -- Xenakis, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Berio -- so I have a good context and point of reference.
But considering the early half of the 20th century, Stravinsky I never met but he’s someone I adore. There’s also Mahler, Varese, Carl Ruggles, and Charles Ives. But if I actually had any of their artifacts, I feel that they should be donated anyway to a museum.
Opera Chic: You've trained as a conductor and have already performed Maestro duties at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Caramoor Festival, and Columbia University's Miller Theatre. Will we ever see you on the podium of the NYCO?
George Steel: I hope that someday I will do some stuff for the orchestra. George Manaham is our wonderful Music Director and god willing will continue to do that so wonderfully. But I think I might try to find the right way. At the base, I’m a musician and I’ve worked with many of the players in the orchestra and the chorus before in my previous lives. And if I didn’t work with them before, I basically know all of them now and they’re all just wonderful musicians and singers. So I do want to make some music with them. I might do a little something this season, a surprise cameo concert. But when the right opportunity presents itself, I’d love to do an opera. But it would have to be the right opera. I’m not itching to conduct La bohème, but rather I’d like to start again with something that makes sense to me.