The People’s Opera – New York City Opera General Director Michael Capasso On Diverse Programming Driving Renaissance

By David Salazar

The New York City Opera, an institution that had been at the heart of New York City’s opera culture was dead.

Its fate was unknown.

That’s when Michael Capasso stepped in.

He had already worked extensively as a stage director and had even founded his own company, the Dicapo Opera Theatre in 1981. So he was not new to taking over this kind of endeavor. But he knew he had a gargantuan task at hand in reviving such an essential institution.

He did so by turning to its original intentions.

“The New York City Opera is the People’s Opera,” he told OperaWire in a recent interview ahead of the company’s New York premiere of “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” on Jan. 25, 2018.

The People’s Opera 

Throughout the interview, Capasso was rather adamant about returning to those three words. The People’s Opera. It’s how he defines his vision for the company and how he hopes that it will interact with the people of New York.

The first step in creating this vision was the programming, which Capasso lists off with such ease and clarity that anyone could remember.

He notes that there is always a traditional piece but ensures that it is not in a traditional production. This year’s choice was Puccini’s “La Fanciulla” del West.”

“I look at the what the Met is doing and try not to have a direct hit. I look to something from the standard repertoire and try to find it in a non-traditional production,” he noted before moving on to the next major choice of repertoire – the neglected classic. “Then I look at something that is not from the standard repertoire and maybe has been neglected and try to give it new life.

Last year’s forgotten classic was Resphigi’s “La Campana Sommersa,” which had not been showcased in New York in over 80 years.

With that hit in the bag, he turned his attention this season to Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re,” an opera that had enjoyed a successful life in New York for many decades. The work was presented 66 times at the Metropolitan Opera between 1914 and 1949, with such artists as Dorothy Kirsten, Ezio Pinza, and Lawrence Tibbett taking on the opera throughout its history with the company.

“This is a great opera,” Capasso noted. “I don’t understand why it died.”

He also introduced a non-traditional double bill of shorter works. Last season, he offered up “Aleko” and “Pagliacci,” splitting up the usual “Cav-Pag” combination. This season he is offering up Donizetti’s “Il Pigmalione” and Rameau’s “Pygmalion.”

Then he moves on to more modern works spread across three different cultural perspectives.

Americans & Latin Americans

The American Opera is the first one he seeks out.

“New York City Opera has always been a promoter of American opera and has done more for American opera than any company in history,” he explained. “And we need to keep that going.”

This year’s American opera choice was Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne.”

Then comes the Latin American opera, intended to reach out to one of the growing communities around the world.

“Now almost 30 percent of people in New York City are Hispanic,” he explained. “So if we are going to be the people’s opera, we need to speak to them in their language.”

When he first stated the Ópera en Español initiative two years ago, he showcased Catán’s “Florencia en las Amazonas.” And while the work was in Spanish, he noted that “it was still a grand opera and didn’t necessarily resonate with the non-traditional Latin audience.”

The same happened with last season’s baroque work “Los Elementos.”

So this season he moved in a massively different direction bringing in the world’s first-ever mariachi opera – “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.”

The decision has drawn tremendous interest from the media with Univision, New York One Español, and other mainstream media set to cover the run throughout the weekend of Jan. 25-28.

He noted that the programming will be similar next season, and the end goal is to engage the non-traditional Latin American audience for the long-term.

“There is a tremendous amount of excellent Spanish repertoire that could be performed. There is also a lot of crossover.  There is also zarzuela which we haven’t yet started with,” he noted. “By and large, the Hispanic community in New York is not engaging in opera as a large group. We want to engage it in a way that it becomes a part of their mainstream art-going activities. But we can’t engage them right off the bat with something they’re unfamiliar with. That’s why we do something like ‘Cruzar.’

“They are going to go for the band, but they are going to leave, liking an opera,” he continued. “So when we reach out again, we need to create programming that the people of New York will embrace. We need to maintain the audiences we have but we also need younger people and non-traditional people.

“I think that once we’ve shown them a few non-traditional operas and then reach out with a regular opera, they will already trust us. They’ll say, ‘We like these guys.’ And then they’ll come for more traditional stuff as well. That’s the next step in building audiences for the future.”

Pride Month

Finally, for Pride Month, the company is going to continue engaging with LGBT operas.

This year will be “Brokeback Mountain,” which Capasso quickly noted was originally commissioned by the NYC Opera.

Unfortunately, the company’s financial crisis forced the opera to make its world premiere and subsequent runs outside of the US.

“So it was my decision to bring this work back to the company, give it its American premiere and bring it back home where it was born in the first place,” Capasso noted.

Next year he is planning a major surprise for his audiences with a new opera with a strong LGBT theme created by a gay composer and gay librettist.

“It’s going to be good.”

As he continues planning future seasons, Capasso noted that he is as excited as ever. He noted that at one point he had thought about bringing “Fellow Travelers,” but “someone beat me to it.”

That, of course, has not stopped his enthusiasm for finding new works to bring to New York City Opera.

“I will beat someone else to another world premiere. I’m always looking for that next great opera that I think can shine at New York City Opera,” he explained. “I hope this diverse programming grows to become our trademark. Diverse programming that people will embrace. Repertoire that they won’t find anywhere else.”

Opera for not only the people. But all kinds of people.


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