When the New York City Opera (NYCO) announced its final performances and imminent bankruptcy in September 2013, opera lovers, not just in Manhattan, were shocked. How could a 70-year-old company, dubbed "The People's Opera," which nurtured the careers of emerging stars like Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo, fall so far and suddenly cease to be?
Almost as soon as the doors were shuttered, suitors lined up to try to reboot the company. Only in January did a victor emerge in the form of NYCO Renaissance, a group chaired by hedge fund manager Roy G. Niederhoffer, which announced the company's return with a production of Puccini's Tosca.
Michael Capasso is the NYCO's new general director. He formerly led Dicapo Opera, a small Manhattan-based company. Wednesday, in a telephone interview, he talked about what's ahead. The conversation was edited for clarity and concision.
Tom Huizenga: I was surprised, I must admit, to see such a wide-ranging, ambitious season announced so soon after the company reopened just a few months ago.
Michael Capasso: I'm proud of the kind of season it shaped up to be, because it really evokes what I think what City Opera always was in the past in terms of the way it serves the opera world, in its breadth of repertoire. We have everything from Baroque to extremely contemporary to a big Romantic piece by an underperformed composer, at least underperformed in opera anyway.
Did it seem like a quick turnaround to you?
No, because throughout the entire bankruptcy process we were working and planning. We were quite diligent in getting everything prepared and in order. I had repertory plans. I had the venue lined up, I had lots of things in place throughout the time of the bankruptcy period of two years. This just didn't happen in the last 60 days. We pulled the trigger on everything recently but we knew what we were going to do. We were prepared for it.
You come to the NYCO from an operatic background.
I founded and ran Dicapo Opera, which was a boutique, niche but very popular, company since 1981.
And your new job will be opera on a much larger scale.
It's a much larger scale in one sense and it's the same in the other. Producing an opera from A to Z takes what it takes. You have to find the piece, you have to license it. You have to cast it, you have to build the set, you have to sell the tickets, you have to market it. All of these things are the same throughout the industry. The difference is there are more zeros and commas involved in what you're doing.
But the steps that are needed to produce professional opera, in a union condition, are something I'm very familiar with and have been doing for years. While the stakes are larger, the audiences are larger and the venue is larger, the process is still very much the same.
One thing that struck me immediately was the cost of such a robust season. I couldn't help but think, "Where's all the money coming from?"
It doesn't cost as much as you might think, but it certainly isn't cheap. One of our mainstage productions costs around $1 million. The money comes from various sources. We have a very dedicated board that has made significant contributions. We have been the happy recipient of a very large bequest. We have the money in place for the season that we've announced, obviously. And we are in the process of reinvigorating a fundraising program that was extremely strong in the company's history.
It's not going to happen overnight. If we can get back to, in a short period of time, even 30 percent of what the former company was easily raising, we'll be OK. In the final years, the City Opera was raising close to $15 million even when they left Lincoln Center.
But back in late summer, early fall of 2013, it was hard for NYCO to raise any money at all. They tried a $1 million Kickstarter campaign and they couldn't even raise that.
They couldn't raise $1 million because they were in distress. The distress was well known and their approach, while valiant, was not well received because it was almost a threat to the funding community: Either help us or we're going to go away. It was actually very successful in that thousands of people donated but they didn't make their goal.
What's the ballpark figure for the budget for this upcoming season?
It's around $7 million.
Let's talk about the repertoire. There seems to be a number of lesser-known offerings, including Ottorino Respighi's La campana sommersa and Rachmaninoff's first opera, the one-act Aleko. And then there's Bernstein's beloved Candide, the staple Pagliacci and Angels in America by Péter Eötvös. Why these particular operas?
I tried to plan a season that would be reminiscent of the glory years, if you will, of City Opera. Which were years that combined standard repertory with American works with new works and rarities, but by familiar composers.
Aleko and Pagliacci — you know they were written in the same year — I believe complement each other. It'll have the fascination of seeing Rachmaninoff's first opera combined with the comfort of an opera like Pagliacci, which is appealing to the public.
Then we have a contemporary chamber opera, Fallujah, which comes from Long Beach Opera. It's something I want to do around Veterans Day; it's the first opera written about the Iraq War. Then we go to Candide, which is iconic. The opera house version was created for City Opera by Bernstein and Hal Prince. And we luckily have Hal Prince to direct it for us.
That's a major coup.
It is a major coup. He loves the City Opera. City Opera gave him the first chance to direct an opera. He gave them Candide and it was a valuable asset to them for years and years, and he wants to do something to give back and to help us succeed.
And then the Respighi piece fits into the neglected but important works that City Opera was known for. This is a piece that needs to be heard. It hasn't been in New York since 1928, when the Met did it. It's something that is very City Opera and it's beautiful yet completely unknown to today's audiences, and I have high hopes for it. Then we have a Spanish Baroque piece, Los Elementos, which continues our new mission to perform an opera in Spanish every year. It also speaks to the long history City Opera has had with Baroque music. And then Angels in America — an important piece never been done in New York, remarkably. And it ticks all the boxes for City Opera as I see it.
One thing NYCO is known for is the cultivation of young singers. I wonder if you could talk a little about that as there are no singers listed in the upcoming season announcement.
We like to announce the singers with the production and make that a separate announcement because it focuses on them more, rather than them just getting lost in the flurry of everything we're saying right now. On top of it, I find that the longer we wait to cast, the higher level of artists we're able to get. And I know that sounds contrary to what you might think. But the larger companies that pay the larger fees, they cast far in advance but they can tie people up.
We are not going to be able to tie somebody up with our fee structure long in advance. But now when I'm looking to cast for eight, 12, 16 months ahead, I have a greater likelihood of being able to get a higher caliber artist who's available and will stick to the contract.
The original NYCO was heralded as "Opera for the People," but recently a lot of small, flexible opera companies have sprouted in New York. I'm thinking Loft Opera, On Site Opera, the Prototype Festival and the many smaller ones associated with the New York Opera Alliance. How does the new NYCO fit into this more crowded field?
I see it as an uncrowded field. I think we're in a class by ourselves. I think it's crowded on that level, yes. And then there's the Met. But the full scale, completely realized productions, in a proscenium theater with a union orchestra and chorus, which those companies don't have, with scenery and costumes and all the elements of grand opera — perhaps not with superstars, but with emerging stars but on a grander scale, but not on the scale of the Met or La Scala — is where we fit in. And that's where City Opera was always able to fit in.
Sounds like you must have had to redo your contracts with the union musicians.
We've successfully renegotiated all our contracts at a substantial discount from what they were before. We have an excellent relationship with all the unions, and we've had their cooperation. And it's because of their cooperation that we've been able to restart this company. And I'm grateful to them and it's very much a partnership.
Everyone talks of attracting younger audiences to opera. I suppose you are you thinking about that, too?
It's perhaps the most important thing we have to do. We have our educational programs, which are wonderful for younger people who are going to grow up to enjoy opera, and that's important. But it's trying to attract the 25- to 40-year-olds who are not opera lovers and get them engaged and at the same time serve the traditional audience.
One of the things we try to do is make the opera going experience different. Our venue at the Rose Theater in Columbus Circle really helps us do that. There's no other theater in the world where you can go and have the dining options, the cocktail options, the shopping options, a five-star hotel in the building. And so we can make a different experience rather than the opera as just a destination. And frankly, on my board I have seven members under 50 years old. And under 50 is young in opera terms.
Let's talk future. Where do you see the company five years from now?
I know we can do what we're doing now. I know I can raise the money to support this programming. And I believe our audience will support this size of programming. Would I like to add performances and productions? Yes. Will I? I only will if I know that the money is in place to do it and the demand from the audience is there.
The opera world, and especially the New York entertainment world, is so different now. And we have to adjust to that world and find a place where the audience is there for us. Is that 75 performances a year? Is it 80, or 60? We're going to find out and the public is going to tell us. The public and the ability to fundraise for it are what's going to dictate where we are in five years. It's not going to ever be, in my opinion, 120 performances a year. I don't think the market will take it.
One final question. You know, your name looks Italian ...
It is definitely Italian.
I'm wondering if you grew up with opera in the house as a kid.
Actually, no. I grew up in an Italian-speaking household, constantly blaring Italian music, but never opera. My grandfather always maintained that the greatest Italian singer was Enrico Caruso.
He was right!
But we were not listening to Caruso because they were the old scratchy 78s that we had in cartons in the garage. But I went to the library and got this book by Francis Robinson called Caruso: His Life in Pictures. I devoured this book and I asked to go to the opera. And my mother took me, and I went to see L'elisir d'amore at the Met, in that old production that was by Nathaniel Merrill where Dulcamara came in in a hot air balloon, and I was captivated.
And now, all these years later, you're heading up the New York City Opera. So it's a happy ending.
It's a very happy ending. I'm the luckiest guy in the world because I get up in the morning and I do exactly what I want to do.