The People’s Opera Remembered

February 22, 2014 Updated: February 22, 2014

The New York City Opera (“NYCO”) was started on February 21, 1944 as an affordable alternative to the Metropolitan Opera. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia dubbed it “The People’s Opera” and it lived up to that description until last year when its management declared bankruptcy.  Many famous singers got their start here, including Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Shirley Verrett and Tatiana Troyanos.

To honor what would have been the company’s 70th birthday, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians presented a concert at City Center (NYCO’s original home) of singers who had appeared with the company accompanied by a full orchestra and chorus. The proceeds of the concert went to a good cause: the Musicians Emergency Relief Fund.

A number of people spoke briefly, but the most touching moment was when former Principal Conductor and General Director Julius Rudel, who had had a 35-year career with NYCO, appeared on-stage in a wheelchair to receive a lifetime achievement award.

The conductor at the concert was George Manahan and the music began with a vigorous rendition of the Overture to Bizet’s “Carmen.” Stefania Dovhan replaced the ailing Joélle Harvey in a Handel aria, which she sang with style and impressive breath control. Tenor Bryan MacPherson delivered a full-throated rendition of “M’appari” from Flotow’s “Martha.” With these two soloists, a pattern emerged that NYCO probably engendered: these singers (and those that followed) were not going to simply stand and deliver, but were going to act out the emotions the characters were experiencing.

After a lovely Mozart duet, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera performed “Una voce poco fa” from “The Barber of Seville.” While she dealt easily with all the technical demands (the trills, etc.), she gave an unusually comic rendition that evoked laughter even among those who did not understand the words. Soprano Lauren Flanigan held nothing back in a fiery account of “Vieni, t’affretta” from Verdi’s “Macbeth.”

Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson said she had always wanted to sing “Carmen” but never thought she would get her wish when she was 8/½ months pregnant. Nevertheless, she sang “Habanera” and proved that she is still seductive (and in fine voice).

Sidney Outlaw is a lyric baritone with a rich tone and impeccable taste. He sang “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” from Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt,” an opera that was not well known in this country until NYCO began scheduling it. Amy Burton performed a lovely version of “O mio bambino caro,” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

Then, the Special Guest Star came out. Placido Domingo had his start in this country at the NYCO. His performance in the title role of Ginastera’s “Don Rodrigo” (the opera’s U.S. debut and the first opera that NYCO put on at its new home at Lincoln Center in 1966), launched his international career. Though Domingo used to play the poet hero of “Andrea Chenier,” he has moved into baritone territory. At the concert, he sang “Nemico della patria” (the aria in which Gérard, the villain, tells how he became a murderer for the French Revolution).  Domingo sang with dramatic intensity, roaming the stage from one end to the other and producing a powerful, firm tone. He may not sound like a traditional baritone but as he has demonstrated in his recent Verdi album and his appearance at the Met in “Simon Boccanegra,” he is still commanding in whatever he sings.

Naturally, the audience went wild, giving Domingo a standing ovation. As an encore, he didn’t sing but conducted the overture to “La forza del destino.”

After a trio from “Madam Butterfly” with Heather Johnson, Ryan MacPherson and Sidney Outlaw, the final section of the concert was devoted to American works. This was appropriate since NYCO had always demonstrated a dedication to operas written in this country; in fact, over one-third of the operas presented by the company were American.

The orchestra began with a sparking rendition of the overture to Bernstein’s “Candide.” Soprano Tonna Miller sang the Silver Aria from “The Ballad of Baby Doe” and Lauren Flanigan returned with a ravishing “Ain’t it a Pretty Night?” from Floyd’s “Susannah.” Sidney Outlaw delivered Malcolm’s angry aria from Davis’ “The Life and Times of Malcolm X” and Amy Burton sang the lilting “What good would the moon be?” from Weill’s “Street Scene.”

The evening ended with Ryan MacPherson and all the singers and the chorus joining the orchestra for the optimistic “Make Our Garden Grow” from “Candide.”