Anyone coming to see Rufus Wainwright’s performance as part of this year’s River to River festival had to pass through a phalanx of disgruntled, if nattily attired, musicians out front of the World Financial Center, passing out leaflets urging the public to SAVE THE PEOPLE’S OPERA. (Sign the protest on Facebook! Tweet them @SaveNYCO!)
City Opera—the embattled institution in question— is slated to present Wainwright’s Prima Donna as part of its new season, but without an artistic home and plagued by internecine squabbling who knows what will actually come to pass.
Artistic director and general manager George Steel seemed nonplussed in his opening remarks for the program, telling the crowd that the company would be announcing the entirety its season shortly. Throughout the evening, the few references to the future of City Opera were met with eye rolls and mild snickers from those following the slow, public implosion of the storied opera company. One companion kiddingly remarked, “maybe they’ll stage their upcoming season here.”
Wainwright, wearing formal wear up top paired with skimpy black shorts and clunky sandals, assumed the dual role of emcee and featured talent for the evening. The program only featured two selections from Prima Donna, one sung by Anne-Carolyn Bird and the other, “Les feux d’artifice,” by the composer himself, which he also recorded for his last album All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu. The rest were arias chosen by Wainwright and performed by a cast of singers, which he introduced with brief anecdotes about their personal relevance. Two selections were favorites of his mother, Kate McGarrigle, who passed away in 2010. Nothing on the bill was too obscure: A bit of Verdi, some Wagner, a particularly stirring “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, all accompanied by the adroit Kevin Murphy on piano. Interspersed were songs from Wainwright’s own catalog, including his paean to doomed divas “Damned Ladies” and “Vibrate.”
Wainwright said at one point, despite how nice it was to present a blend of opera and pop, that there was a slight Tiffany vibe to the proceedings, even launching into a few bars of “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
That was nothing if not incorrect! There was a definite shopping mall sensibility during the show, as children played tag on the polished floor (they did not behave!), a woman sitting over my shoulder breastfed her infant, workers and strollers passed by and gawped and shrugged, and security guards in their black polyester suits roamed around the polished high-end confines of the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden.
Those not attune to the City Opera schadenfreude enjoyed the proceedings at face value. And plugs for the ailing institution were kept to a minimum. When Wainwright remarked that like London, Berlin and Moscow, New York was a city that should support two professional opera companies, my friend J. turned to me and honestly said “I didn’t know we even had two.”
Still, it’s a wonder that Steel’s minions weren’t posted at the exit as the large crowd streamed out, begging everyone to sign a mailing list, like an upstart indie band or a fledgling theater company might. If you want to reverse the perception, to go from institution to upstart, you gotta scramble a bit, and capitalize on that eager, or at least intrigued, captive audience.