NEW YORK - Only Lincoln Center Plaza separates triumph from disaster.
While operatic conservatives dig in their heels against innovations afoot at the Metropolitan Opera, across the way the tentatively resurrected New York City Opera - whose unofficial mandate is to do things that might make Met-goers boo - opened in a much-improved State Theater last weekend with a sexy, concept-heavy production of Mozart's Don Giovanni.
The rabbit-out-of-the-hat success was begun in late February, weeks after George Steel was appointed general manager and artistic director amid suspicions that he knew little about running an opera company.
At the time, City Opera barely existed: It had taken the 2008-09 season off while its Lincoln Center home-base was renovated and, after the stock market crash, had gone into a financial free-fall that even Beverly Sills, who saved the company in the 1980s, would have found daunting: Roughly two-thirds ($23.5 million) of its Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest endowment was spent to maintain operations.
Steel announced a short, two-production 2009 fall season - the new Don Giovanni and Hugo Weisgall's modernistic Esther.
"The time of crisis is when New York City Opera should reassert what it believes in," said Steel on Sunday night in his subterranean Lincoln Center office. "If you say, 'Let's not put on anything too adventurous,' you're assuming second-rate status, and that's a recipe for disaster."
Having run Columbia University's innovative Miller Theater for 11 years, Steel was just settling in at the Dallas Opera when he decided to return to New York: "The clearer it became what a difficult position they were in," he said, "the more I wanted to help."
He's not the dallying type. The Giovanni production came out of a talk with iconoclastic director Christopher Alden that, by Steel's account, lasted "two minutes." The production's eight-month gestation (a mere blink in opera time) was "liberating," with much credit given to the casting staff (including the noted accompanist Steven Blier) that makes every day "seem like Christmas."
Steel, 43, is a smooth, confident, youthful presence. Where Sills often said the worst part of her job was being mired in her dark, hermetically sealed office, he more gamely compares it to entering a submarine.
And so far, his decisions aren't wrong.
In many houses, Esther would have kept people away in droves. But before it even opened Friday, a fifth performance was added to meet box-office demand. And whatever anybody thought of Alden's Giovanni concept (cheers prevailed), production and performance were anything but shoddy.
Alden's stage pictures were meticulous scenes from 1930s Spanish life, leading up to the open-casket funeral of the man Giovanni killed in the first scene. Along the way, Alden offered lots of skin, starting in Act 2 with Giovanni in only a suit coat and his servant Leporello in only pants.
Most of the singers in the cast headed by Daniel Okulitch in the title role and Jason Hardy as Leporello were making their City Opera debuts, and though generally B-level voices, their performances were first string. Under conductor Gary Thor Wedow, the orchestra projected style from the historically informed-performance camp with tamed-down vibrato and fleet tempos. Steel gives each opera an extra stage rehearsal; differences were evident.
The relevance to Philadelphia is considerable. The audience cultivated by Pennsylvania Opera Theater (defunct since 1993, but a presence in its day) is the sort willing to travel, in particular, for specialties that will be represented by City Opera's spring season: Chabrier's effervescent but rarely heard L'Etoile and baroque opera with Handel's Partenope.
And such less-than-fail-safe repertoire (City Opera's specialty) will be heard to better effect than in past seasons. Amplification used in previous years is gone. The renovated theater's acoustics are livelier, with an orchestra pit that now encroaches into the auditorium at a loss of 160 seats, so that more opera gets into the theater.
Encouraging as that is, the resurrection wouldn't have been necessary had only a few things gone differently. City Opera might have had a house of its own at ground zero (discussions were long and serious) and wouldn't have needed to disappear last year. Also, it might now be run by former Salzburg Festival director Gerard Mortier, potentially the most ambitious leader in its history.
As it played out, the new house never happened. Mortier, after taking a hard look at the books, left before he even started. The company was forced to go dark for a year because other options were hugely expensive. Also, says Steel, the downfall was longer in the making than it seemed: Prior to the dark season, there hadn't been a balanced budget in five years.
Now, City Opera awakens to a changed landscape: The Met has a $20 weekday rush-ticket policy co-opting City Opera's low-cost hallmark, takes on unconventional repertoire such as Shostakovich's The Nose, and is attempting unusual productions, though often not successfully.
In the face of this, City Opera maintains loyal supporters and donors. Past donor galas raised about $800,000; though last week's was said to be less-than-thrilling performance-wise, it brought in $2.3 million. Since arriving in late January, Steel has raised $14.5 million.
A battery of four new high-def robotic cameras promise to maintain the company's Live From Lincoln Center presence on PBS. In repertoire, Steel is all over the map: On his desk is a box set of Reinhard Keiser's baroque-era Croesus. Add that to the list of works he'd like to do: Chausson's Le Roi Arthrus, Dallapiccola's The Prisoner, Stravinsky's The Flood, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. . . .
Tristan? With its heroic length and expensive singers, Wagner operas are the exclusive property of the Met. But not with Steel. "It's the greatest piece ever written," he says. So why not?