New York envy is easy to come by, particularly if you love the arts.
No matter how busy the arts scene in Lexington gets, it will never hold a candle to the lists and lists of events that pack the arts sections of The New York Times. And the organizations themselves seem to have everything: multi-million dollar budgets, world-famous venues and the best talent on the planet.
Occasionally, you might remind yourself that you’d better move to New York with a healthy salary if you want to partake in even a smidgen of this arts smorgasbord, but still, you contemplate the menu and drool, drool, drool.
Over 10 days in New York as part of the National Endowment for the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera last month, I got to indulge in and learn about that scene with a depth I hadn’t before. And while it was thrilling to go to shows night after night and talk about music all day long, it was most intriguing to learn that things are not always as idyllic as they seem in the Big Apple.
This was particularly striking when discussing performance spaces.
It’s one of the major opera houses in America, establishing the stars of some of our greatest singers, including Beverly Sills, and composers such as Carlisle Floyd; and introducing innovations such as supertitles. But the theater where it performs was built expressly for ballet. Being built for dance, which dictates deadening the sound so you don’t hear dancers’ feet, the State Theatre (Photo, right, by Kevin Burdette/public domain) is an acoustical problem for the opera. The issue prompted two sound renovations before the opera made the controversial decision to employ amplification in 1999. Up until a few months ago, City Opera was looking into finding a new home, though incoming director Gerard Mortier has said the company should stay put, for now.
Seeing back-to-back productions of City Opera and the Metropolitan
Opera, I was struck how much more vibrant the sound is with the Met,
which performs in a theater built for opera. Even more striking was
going from hearing the Cleveland Orchestra in Carnegie Hall to hearing
the New York Philharmonic and the London Symphony in Lincoln Center’s
Avery Fisher Hall.
Even in what we were later told were subpar seats for Carnegie, the
sound was balanced and crystalline. This used to be the Philhamonic’s
home, until it moved to Lincoln Center in 1962. The common question
among NEA fellows that week was, “Why?” The acoustics at Avery Fisher
were nowhere near as good as Carnegie’s, and the look of the hall was
dated and soulless (particularly the dressing room mirror-style lights
lining the boxes on each side of the theater).
Of course, we had hindsight on our side. Most of us can probably remember jumping at something new and alluring, only to discover we were better off before.
All of this is not to slag New York’s arts institutions or say we
had a bad time, by any means. But it is to say New York is not immune
to some of the same problems that bedevil arts groups across the
You have a world-famous opera company that appears to be stranded in a facility ill-suited to its needs in one of the world’s best-known arts centers. Wow.
On a previous trip to New York, I talked to playwright Arlene Hutton about how she was having trouble getting one of her new projects produced because there wasn’t a suitable theater for it in New York. No suitable space in the nation’s theater capital?!
Certainly there are space struggles in Lexington.
One of the ones I’ve heard about several times recently is a desire for a theater somewhere between the Downtown Arts Center’s 150 to 200 seats and the Lexington Opera House’s 1,000 seats. The Opera House’s seating capacity and stage-house size comes up from time to time for people who lament we will never have a Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables here because those shows’ sets won’t fit our touring Broadway venue.
While I was away in New York, a Downtown Entertainment Task Force
was appointed in Lexington to address developing an entertainment and
arts district in Lexington. This is still a new idea, but you have to
hope that current arts groups and their needs will be considered in any
new structures that are developed.
If we play our cards right, some New Yorkers might end up envying us.
Speaking of new theaters, and theaters in general, the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones has a thoughtful piece about the New Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and what theater directors could learn from it.
My fellow NEA Fellow Stephen Marc Beaudoin published a think piece from the Institute regarding the Oregon Symphony that provides some food for thought here as our own orchestra is in transition.
Sometimes, La Scala isn't all it's cracked up to be, either.