There’s been a lot of mourning for City Opera. It is dead. Various Pollyannas, mostly idiots, think it will rise from its ashes. But our world is now very different than it was in 1944 when the company started performing. Ordinary people with modest incomes could live in
and the Boroughs. There was proletarian pride, not
only in Manhattan . Americans were proud to be workers; they saw their
own value and their crucial contribution to a society coming back from a
devastating depression. The rich were “other”, not our betters, not our rulers. Most people had
known hard times, poverty was no disgrace and there was a pride in New York as exemplified by a government that despite politics
as usual actually saw its function as being to help people, all people. It had
literally saved the lives of families who had seen their lives go up in smoke,
and it had also fought a war. The troops were mostly but not only from poor, working class
or farming backgrounds but whatever level of society had spawned them, they
fought side by side. America
The arts were not invisible; they were not impossible. There were a lot of references to “high art” in popular culture. And art was considered an important part of society even by people who really weren’t that interested. Opera was somewhat esoteric, yet a number of opera stars became well known to people through the radio. And the radio provided for a fair number of people those serendipitous, spontaneous experiences of music that could grow, gradually, unexpectedly, almost magically into an interest, even a strong interest. Of course, there were a lot of Americans who were not far from European roots and whose grandparents, if not their parents, had been proud of the music, the visual arts, the poetry, the fiction produced “in the old country.”
Many people knew something about music: from the church choir, from the high school band, from the small orchestras that played in pavilions in parks in the summer (they even gave rise to a vanished style of music called “semi-classical”). And yes, there was a summer, usually not unbearable for long, and there was a fall and very definitely there was a winter. In spring, and there really was something we all knew to be spring, we walked and courted and smiled and danced and there were those orchestras and their semi-classical selections providing the perfect punctuation to a day where it was easy to forget bills and sorrows and worries – to music, lovely, lovely music.
Above all there was a belief in the truth rather than the dress up of art. We saw ourselves and each other at the theater, sitting in the cheap seats and looking down at the “swells”; or sitting downstairs in the wider seats for bigger bottoms and paying the fatter price. We poor people looked down and saw our “betters”, except they were no better than we were. Our "betters" looked up and saw eager faces, sometimes shabby clothes but perceived not an enemy but allies who had fought for them, alongside them or their sons, who had lost loved ones in the war, and if the truth be known, even some of the swells had lived through periods of worried cost cutting in the depths of the Depression. And when the lights went down, distinctions vanished, we laughed or cried, or both, we vibrated to music, were stunned or shocked or thrilled by plays -- as one, as equals, as Americans.
City Opera was founded on the notion that opera, strange as it seems, was for everybody. That it could be given inexpensively, funding – modest – could be found with confidence and in that special theater, the opera house, a kind of magic could happen. Sometimes. If not magic, fun. And if it was one of those evenings that all performing organizations have, it hadn’t cost much to get in, even for the swells. And there was always the amusement of seeing the familiar faces,
faces, in a shabby but comforting place. At the City Center, where City Opera gave performances for twenty two years, even after the move to Lincoln Center, we would settle back and think, "I'm home." New York
This was life in
. And it was destroyed. Nobody poor can live there. We
are no longer allies. We are cliques. Nothing brings us together. Even the
cliques split. Our government makes war on us: this week they shut down so
children with cancer could no longer get treatment, or to be less operatic they were cut off from food,
went hungry even though their parents worked for a preposterously low minimum
wage, which a segment of our ruling class, their power bought for them by
billionaires, wants to lower. New York
Nobody much goes to the theater, any theater, under any circumstances. The arts were elitist twenty years ago; now they’re invisible. A pop culture driven by incredible stupidity, violence, repetition which exists mainly to sell products has devoured everything that isn’t designed to manipulate people into the mall. News is no longer truly news, but a type of “reality TV” misleading, confusing, incomplete, owned by the greedy and connected, infused with propaganda.
The radio is for talk, idiotic, moronic, lying, repetitive, agenda driven talk, and for sports, which exist to make huge amounts of money for the very rich. In TV commercials for those who can’t afford the technology to avoid them, perhaps as a background, one will hear a hint of an aria or a few notes from a symphony, no time for those surprising jolts and ear worms, which once, long ago, drove people to find again the magic in the unfolding of those themes, the context of that aria.
Where would a “new” City Opera fit in a metropolis jammed with Russian and Chinese and Batlic billionaires? And oh yes, there no longer is a spring.
(picture thanks to Simon Rich)