On February 21, 2014, 70 years to the day after New York City Opera’s first performance, the musicians of the New York City Opera Orchestra joined other artists associated with the company in a gala concert dubbed 70 Years of the People’s Opera. The location of the concert was the New York City Center, where the New York City Opera opened in 1944. Of course, “People’s Opera” refers to the moniker bestowed on the company by Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s mayor and one of the founders of the company.
The concert was conceived of and planned by a small group of musicians and staff of the NYCO, which filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2013. When renowned dramaturge Cori Ellison signed on as artistic advisor, the planning began in earnest. Singers well known to the company’s loyal audience gladly agreed to participate. Orchestra parts and scores were obtained, rehearsals were scheduled, and studio space was rented. In nine short weeks the fabulous evening was planned, marketed, and rehearsed.
Sponsorship by the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802, was critical to this dream becoming a reality. As a fundraiser for the Musicians Emergency Relief Fund, the evening highlighted the safety net of services and financial support the union offers its members in need. [Local 802’s Musicians Emergency Relief Fund is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) private foundation for the benefit of its members. It is administered by the Actors Fund as part of the local’s Musicians’ Assistance Program. —Editor]
Julius Rudel, whose career with the company spanned 35 years and included stints as Principal Conductor and General Manager, was a young man of 22 years when he was backstage on that very first opening night in 1944. Maestro Rudel’s, return to the stage 70 years later was met with an emotional standing ovation. Local 802 honored him for his lifelong commitment to the NYCO.
Naomi Lewin, the afternoon host on New York’s classical music station WQXR, was the master of ceremonies for the evening. With former music director George Manahan on the podium, the evening’s program highlighted the 70-year artistic history of the company. Plácido Domingo, who made his New York debut with NYCO, has long considered the company his first home and happily agreed to a homecoming. Audiences were delighted by both his singing and conducting of the orchestra. The evening also included performances by Amy Burton, Lauren Flanigan, Joélle Harvey, Tonna Miller, Jennifer Rivera, Heather Johnson, Ryan MacPherson and Sidney Outlaw.
For those who had spent years making music with the NYCO, the evening was joy filled as well as bittersweet. The New York Times aptly described “a top-notch opera orchestra all dressed up with no place to go.” Instrumentalists, singers, staff, and performing alumni were all saying goodbye to a much-loved family. The capacity audience also expressed its deep appreciation for what the company had meant over the years. The celebration of 70 years of The People’s Opera made for a powerful and unforgettable evening of great music and great performances.