In Pages from the Arts, we review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.
Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.
If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts: A history of the New York City Opera, the script of Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man, and Cathy Ritchie's short appreciation of Lin-Manuel Miranda for saving New York's Drama Book Shop.
Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America
By Heidi Waleson
Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I love books like this—insider “biographies” of famous arts organizations from Day One to the bitter end, as applicable. Along the way, if we’re lucky, there’s drama, glory, defeat, and comebacks, plus villains and heroes: all the makings of a great tale. It is our good fortune that Heidi Waleson has given us just that in her gripping account of the somewhat-defunct-but-not-completely-vanished New York City Opera (NYCO), originally founded in 1943. À la the cliché, this book “reads like a novel,” but in this case, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Unlike some other big-city newspapers we could all probably name, the Wall Street Journal continues to cover the performing arts, and Waleson has been that publication’s opera critic for over 25 years. So we can be grateful for her wide-ranging perspective on NYCO in all its facets. In the company’s glory days, it introduced opera audiences to home-grown American singers and works and established a firm niche among the art form’s aficionados. Among the performers, both foreign and domestic, finding their first bursts of stardom via the NYCO were Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Placido Domingo, Carol Vaness, Jose Carreras, Shirley Verrett, Jerry Hadley, Samuel Ramey, and many others.
But in some ways, the tale of NYCO’s rise, fall, and maybe-rise once again can perhaps be capsulized via a variation of the “Great Person” theory—i.e., throughout its history, and particularly from the late 1950’s on, the organization’s fortunes were largely tied to the quality and effectiveness of the leaders at its helm. Waleson does a stellar job in shaping her story with these unique individuals taking center stage.
For example, there was conductor Julius Rudel who led the NYCO from 1957 to 1979 and who consistently displayed a strong commitment to discovering and promoting American operas and singers. Arguably the greatest “star” during his tenure was soprano Beverly Sills, with whom Rudel formed a strong personal and professional alliance. Sills succeeded Rudel as General Director in 1979, and the combination of her name power and natural gregariousness would fortify the Opera’s public profile and inspire donations leading to improved NYCO solvency.
Sills’s successors as Director would include Christopher Keene, who died of AIDS at age 48 in 1995; and Paul Kellogg, who inspired the NYCO to add over 60 new productions to its repertoire before his retirement in 2007.
However, after 2007 came troubled times for the Opera. Gerald Mortier was hired to begin a Director tenure in 2009 but abruptly resigned when the company’s financial situation did not allow him to receive the extremely high salary he had been promised. Deficits continued to increase. In 2009, George Steel assumed the NYCO Directorship after a brief period as head of the Dallas Opera. The NYCO had just endured a totally dark 2008, but Steel was apparently able to resurrect its finances by balancing budgets, though many of the decisions he made allowing that to happen were controversial.
By 2013, however, to the shock and sadness of many, the NYCO was forced to declare bankruptcy, though it is currently finding its way back to modified success thanks to the non-profit NYCO Renaissance Ltd., which reorganized the group in 2015-16. The company now offers smaller-scale productions at various venues but with a hopeful eye to restoring past glories.
This rudimentary outline of NYCO history is greatly enhanced by Waleson’s depiction of the saga’s sturm und drang via vivid and detailed storytelling, in which she often lays blame for the Opera’s struggles on its governing board which, in her perception, was too often headed by stubborn individuals with short-sighted vision and inability to raise the necessary big bucks to keep the company financially stable.
She also posits that NYCO ran into trouble because a new sort of artistic philanthropy was materializing at the very point crucial funds were needed most: “Many opera companies were finding that major donors who grew old and died were not being readily replaced by a new generation of opera supporters. The new rich—the hedge funders and the tech billionaires—had a different attitude toward philanthropy…. They were more inclined to take on sexy, world-changing causes than provide operating support for legacy civic cultural institutions…. They wanted to be hands-on in their efforts to eradicate diseases or re-create the American public school system. Funding an orchestra or an opera company was not nearly as exciting.”
But Waleson also discusses new smaller-scale opera companies currently springing up around the nation, which may re-invigorate the opera paradigm as we know it. Regarding the status of the New York City Opera, circa 2018, she comments: “While it remains to be seen whether grand opera on the cheap is a viable artistic or business proposition, some of the can-do City Opera spirit lives on in this new incarnation. It represents an alternative—scrappier than the Met, but more comfortable and middle-brow than [some] edgy start-ups—and is positioned to capture a piece of the audience that still responds to the visceral appeal of sung theater.”
Heidi Waleson has given us a fascinating glimpse of both a specific arts organization’s birth, implosion, and possible resurrection, along with the broader issues and implications the NYCO’s struggles have represented for performing arts groups everywhere.
Fetch Clay, Make Man
By Will Power
Overlook Duckworth Press, 2015
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I’m not a huge fan of plays starring historical figures who may or may not have sctually met during their lifetimes, and from whom we hear dialogue that may or may not have been created out of thin air. But Will Power made the concept work for him smashingly in his 2015 work Fetch Clay, Make Man, which recently enjoyed a mounting at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC). This play’s a corker. Even if you missed the DTC production itself, as did I, you’ll glean much enjoyment from this engrossing script.
Power is the former Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence at the DTC, and the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships for his previous work, including Stagger Lee, which premiered at DTC in 2015. In Fetch Clay, he teams Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit, ultimately producing a work offering much meat for thought and several way-substantive roles for actors of color.
Muhammad Ali likely needs no introduction. Stepin Fetchit, by contrast, may no longer be a household name. But Lincoln Perry (1902-85) answered to that very name during a movie career that would bring him both fame as the first black actor to receive on-screen credit for his appearances, and historical notoriety for his bug-eyed “shufflin’” stereotype circa 1930s Hollywood, where his persona was billed as “the Laziest Man in the World.” But that same persona also made Perry the first black millionaire, allowing him all the fancy clothes and fast cars he ever wanted, as he took “Fetchit” all the way to the bank. (For more detail, I recommend the 2005 biography Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry by Mel Watkins, available at the Dallas Public Library, here.)
But surprisingly enough, Perry and Ali (or “Cassius Clay” before his affiliation with the Nation of Islam in 1964) were actually friends, and Power sets his play’s action on the eve of the fighter’s 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston. As Ali prepares for the bout, with Fetchit, his “secret strategist” by his side, we see flashbacks to the actor’s earlier life in Hollywood, and his present-day conflicts with Ali’s manager who now questions his presence. And Ali himself is dealing with his wife, the press, and his role in the ever-broiling civil rights struggle, just a few months after the assassination of Malcolm X. Does Fetchit really fit into Ali’s post-“Cassius Clay” life and vision?
Power’s dialogue crackles, and every member of the small cast is gifted with pithy scenes befitting the playwright’s keen character development. Fetch Clay, Make Man may represent a fanciful “what if?” premise, but it also offers great substance and thoughtful, challenging entertainment.
A final comment…
Last month, we heard the remarkable news that Lin-Manuel Miranda and some of his Hamilton posse are buying New York City’s legendary Drama Book Shop (DBS), thus rescuing that store from likely imminent closure due to financial challenges. Since I have patronized the DBS for many years both in person and via its excellent mail-order service, I gasped with joy at this latest development, but I wasn’t all that surprised. When the Shop sustained flooding in 2016, losing a large portion of its stock, Miranda immediately mobilized his theater cronies in donating money, time, and public support to keep the DBS up and running. As a store employee told me in person shortly afterwards, “He saved us.” And so he continues to do so.
The DBS was a vital part of young Lin-Manuel’s coming of age as a creator and theater lover, so his “giving back” to such a vital institution yet again at a crucial moment in its history speaks so eloquently to the generosity and greatness of the man and, by extension, the community of which he is such a proud and contributing member. In this time of strife, negativity and division, I glean such heart and power from knowing that Lin-Manuel Miranda and his fellow artists walk among us. As these good people remind us all: Art Matters.
» Pages from the Arts is going on hiatus for the foreseeable future; we'll announce when the column is ready to make its return.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
- August 2017: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September 2017:A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October 2017: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November 2017: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.
- December 2017: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
- January 2018: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
- February 2018: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale.
- March 2018: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.
- April 2018: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May 2018: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June 2018: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July 2018: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August 2018: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September 2018: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October 2018: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
- November 2018: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
- December 2018: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.