The curtain closes on the 'People's Opera'

Commentary: The New York City Opera sought to hire singers of all races and perform the music of all Americans

A photo of William Grant Still, composer of the opera "Troubled Island,'' which premiered in 1949 at the New York City Opera.
The Vicksburg Post/AP

On Thursday, the New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy after falling short on an emergency effort to raise $7 million. It was called the “People’s Opera” from the very beginning. The idea behind the NYCO was to have a place where anyone could perform and nearly anyone could afford a ticket. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote on Feb. 9, 1960 that the NYCO offers “extremely good ballet, theatre, and now opera, performances at a price that a great many people can afford.”

The NYCO sprang from an effort by Roosevelt and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to raise the funds needed to produce the opera “Troubled Island” by African-American composer William Grant Still. They had heard the Metropolitan Opera had rejected Still’s scores and decided to help produce the work independently. Although they did not raise the money they needed, that effort gave birth to the idea for a performing arts center where music by all Americans would be performed. LaGuardia announced the creation of City Center in 1943 and the New York City Opera was born.

The NYCO was more than a place where you could see "The Marriage of Figaro" for far less than you would pay at the Metropolitan Opera. It was also a company that was dedicated, from its very inception, to being inclusive. The first artistic director of opera at the City Center (where the NYCO was housed) was Hungarian exile Laszlo Halasz, who had fled Hitler’s Europe for the States in 1936. “Halasz understood and gave agency to African American singers,” archivist and music promoter Bill Doggett says, “because he understood issues of discrimination based on race and religion from the firestorm of Europe under Hitler.”

When Camilla Williams made her debut at New York City Opera in 1946, she became the first African-American to sign a contract with a major opera house.
John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archives/Getty

At a time when black singers were not allowed to sing even in the chorus at the Met, Halasz brought African-American baritone Todd Duncan to sing the role of Tonio in the opera "Pagliacci" and the dashing toreador Escamillo in Bizet’s "Carmen." A year later, Camilla Williams became the first African-American to get a regular contract with a major American opera company when the NYCO cast her as Ciao Ciao San in Puccini’s "Madame Butterfly." A couple of years later, bass-baritone Lawrence Winters performed in Verdi’s "Aida" as Amonasro.

 In 1955, young baritone Robert McFerrin became the first black man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. But a full six years before that, he performed on the stage of the NYCO in “Troubled Island,” the opera that Roosevelt and LaGuardia had tried to get produced. It was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1949 and became the first opera written by an African-American to be performed by a major American company. The libretto was largely written by the poet Langston Hughes and the score by the dean of African-American composers, William Grant Still. In the interest of full disclosure, Still was my grandfather. 

Halasz used to tell a story about his selection of the opera for the NYCO season. He said that he was sitting at his piano with an enormous stack of scores from hopeful composers, and he decided to start with the one on the bottom. He pulled it out, began to play through it, and thought it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. That opera was “Troubled Island,” based on the story of Jean Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the Haitian revolution.  

According to Halasz, he went to the Board of Directors and said he wanted to produce “Troubled Island” and one of them said, “But Laszlo, you can’t do that one. It was written by a colored man.” Halasz answered, “Well, what color is he? I don’t care.”

A 1947 photo of Laszlo Halasz, center, the first artistic director of opera at City Center, where the New York City Opera was housed.
W. Eugene Smith/Time Life Pictures/Getty

The opera received a rapturous response from the audience. My mother remembers, “Applause brought the composer to the stage for twenty curtain calls, alone and with the cast. The reception was unprecedented, almost ecstatic. It was a mystical height for my father, whose greatest love was opera.” Until his death, my grandfather remembered that premiere as one of the highest points of his career. And the legacy of the NYCO became personal for me as well, as I’m now a professional opera singer and a member of the board at Underworld Productions Opera in New York.

While the Metropolitan Opera has never produced an opera by an African-American, the NYCO staged Still’s and “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X” by Anthony Davis. It was the first American company to play music written by black composers and to hire black singers. Composer Kevin Scott remains hopeful that “the day will come when an opera composed by an African-American will grace the stage of the Met.”

"Ulysses Kay's last two operas are way overdue for a major revival,'' he said, "And so are those by William Grant Still, not to mention those by Adolphus Hailstork, TJ Anderson, Anthony Davis, H Leslie Adams, Bill Banfield and many others who deserve to be heard.''

Even if the Met becomes more diverse in its offerings, the need for a company like the NYCO, whose mission is to be inclusive in both its hiring practices and its ticket sales, will not be diminished. World renowned African-American bass baritone Simon Estes told the Associated Press in 1997 that he moved to Switzerland because it was so hard to get hired in the U.S.: "I've sung 97 major roles in major opera houses all over the world. Why is it that I'm not good enough to sing in my own country? ... I have actually been told, 'Simon, I can't use you because of your skin color.' Sometimes I feel like the lost, or forgotten, American."

A 1961 photo of poet Langston Hughes who was a major contributor to the libretto of the opera “Troubled Island.”

"So many artists in my upcoming book were given their first professional exposure at the NYCO,” says Elaine Mack, author of "Black Classical Musicians in Philadelphia." "The closing of this company is a major tragedy." One of those artists is African-American soprano Angela Simpson. “It was there that I made my major NY debut as a principal artist in their production of Porgy & Bess in 2000 and 2002,” she said. “The fact that it's closing means that it's one less venue that will give young African-American singers a chance on stage."

Other companies may carry on NYCO’s mission but they cannot take its place. “Some of New York City Opera’s values were artistically unique and will die with them,” says Gina Crusco, artistic director of Underworld Productions, “But there are others that smaller opera companies like mine will take up the challenge to carry forward … Independent companies must now be more conscious than ever of practicing nontraditional casting, of reflecting the look of America in creating a great American opera tradition.”

University of Minnesota economist Ann Markusen has argued that opera houses and other cultural venues pay “artistic dividends” that have wide-ranging economic impact. But the plight of the New York City Opera reminds us that cultural institutions can have deeper and more intangible effects on society. While experts debate the exact cause of NYCO's closure — mismanagement, economic malaise, or what the Artistic Director George Steel calls "compassion fatigue" among donors — we should not let such discussions lose sight of the NYCO’s tremendous social value. There can be no argument that the NYCO provided a service to not just audience members but musicians and composers, especially those who found other doors closed to them. Now, the doors of the City Opera are closed to them as well.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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