Commentary Magazine

Does Lincoln Center Still Matter?

Thirty-five years after opening its doors, New York’s Lincoln Center, America’s first and largest arts complex, is still the most important organization of its kind. Lincoln Center’s four chief “constituents”—the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and New York City Ballet—set the agenda for lesser institutions throughout the country. Their performances are seen, in person or on public television, by millions each year.

Yet, for all its power and influence, Lincoln Center is showing unmistakable signs of trouble. Its two latest ventures, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Lincoln Center Festival, have been less than successful; neither the Philharmonic nor the Met currently has a major-label recording contract; and declining ticket sales have forced New York City Ballet to curtail its performing schedule.

To some degree, it is true, these developments reflect the fact that the children of the baby boom are less interested than their parents in high culture. It is also true—and no less significant—that none of Lincoln Center’s constituents has yet come fully to terms with the decline of the modern movement in art and the emergence of postmodernism. Finally, the leadership of the Met, the Philharmonic, and New York City Ballet is aging, at a time when arts administrators across America are acutely aware of the need to appeal to the next generation.

Whether Lincoln Center flourishes in the coming period will obviously depend in large part on the skill and imagination of the new and presumably younger leaders who will likely take over at some point in the next decade. No doubt, it will remain the country’s foremost arts complex. But will it still be vital, and will it still play a leading role?



The virtues and vices of Kurt Masur, the New York Philharmonic’s music director since 1991, have not changed since I last wrote about him in these pages.1 Masur continues to give sound and frequently even inspired performances of the classics, and the Philharmonic continues to play beautifully for him. By the same token, his well-attended programs remain conventional to a fault, and his interest in contemporary music in general and in American music in particular—including the accessible and attractive scores of the new tonalists—is still modest.

Whether Masur and the Philharmonic can continue to draw crowds by playing it safe remains to be seen. The slow but steady aging of the orchestra’s core audience can be observed by anyone who attends its Avery Fisher Hall concerts. Furthermore, Masur has failed altogether to impose his personality on the American musical scene. As a result, what was once one of the best-known symphony orchestras in the world is now an essentially provincial ensemble, justly admired by local concertgoers but exerting no shaping force on the larger world of art.

Something similar has happened to New York City Ballet in the decade and a half since the death of George Balanchine, who founded the company in 1948 and served as its ballet master-in-chief and principal choreographer throughout the first 35 years of its existence. During Balanchine’s lifetime, City Ballet (as it is known to dancegoers) was without question the most important company in America, regularly premiering the work not only of the greatest choreographer of the 20th century—Balanchine himself—but also of America’s outstanding native-born classicist, Jerome Robbins.

But City Ballet has long since ceased to be a creative institution in any meaningful sense of the word. Robbins, now seventy-nine, makes dances only on rare occasions. Peter Martins, who succeeded Balanchine in 1983, continues to turn out one or two new ballets each year, but none of them has yet entered the international repertory or won the admiration of more than a few loyal critics. The other works premiered by the company since Balanchine’s death have been mostly undistinguished, and only one young classical choreographer now associated with City Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon, appears to have the potential to develop into a major talent.

To make matters worse, while persisting in packing City Ballet’s repertory with uninteresting new works, Martins devotes proportionately less attention (and rehearsal time) to the ballets of Balanchine. “In the late 1970’s,” Joan Acocella noted last year in the Wall Street Journal, “three-quarters of repertory-evening performances were devoted to [Balanchine’s] ballets. Now the figure has dropped to less than half.” At the same time, the company’s gifted young dancers, for all their undeniable virtuosity, have grown less able to bring to Balanchine’s work a convincing sense of style, and many dancegoers are now looking to such regional companies as Miami City Ballet and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for meticulously rehearsed, stylistically assured stagings of such Balanchine masterpieces as Jewels, Divertimento No. 15, and The Four Temperaments.



As for the Metropolitan Opera, the chief obstacle to change there is ironically not leadership but architecture. James Levine, who became the company’s music director in 1976 and was named artistic director ten years later, has galvanized the Met’s once-moribund orchestra and made a valiant effort to freshen its notoriously old-fashioned repertory. But the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House is simply far too large to permit anything like a truly daring artistic policy: there are not enough Met subscribers willing to support such a policy by filling the seats. This bodes ill for such forthcoming events as the world premiere of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (scheduled for the 1999-2000 season) and the company premieres of Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

The size of the Metropolitan Opera House also works to the detriment of the company in a less obvious way: not many singers are capable of making an impression in so large a house. Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, two big-voiced tenors with outsized personalities, are the singers who consistently draw the fullest crowds at the Met. Except for the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, whose voice does not permit her to sing more than a few carefully chosen roles, there is no one else on the roster whose popularity comes anywhere near to these two tenors, both of whom are close to retirement age.

Artistically speaking, there is yet another serious disadvantage to the Met’s size: it interferes with the mounting of theatrically convincing productions. The style favored by the best contemporary opera directors presupposes an audience close enough to the stage to respond immediately to the dramatic interaction of the singers. Not surprisingly, Levine and his general manager, Joseph Volpe, are finding it difficult to attract directors and designers capable of making effective use of the Met’s 54-foot square stage opening, which is suited to large-scale spectacles and little else.

Of the company’s last dozen or so productions, only two, Mark Lamos’s powerful staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (which did poorly at the box office) and Cesare Lieve’s surrealistic version of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (mounted as a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli), have been first-rate. Several others were appallingly bad—Franco Zeffirelli’s overblown Carmen, premiered last season, was the worst new production of a repertory opera I have seen at the Met in the past decade—and the rest middling in quality.



The long-term danger to the Met is that younger operagoers, products of an age that emphasizes dramatic values over world-class singing (in part, admittedly, because the latter is now so rare), will be put off by its unadventurous production style. Baby-boom and Generation-X audiences, raised on film and television, favor a wider-ranging repertory and faster-moving, more stimulating stagings. It is, indeed, to them that “the new City Opera,” as New York City Opera is now called in its advertising, has deliberately begun to cater.

Under Paul Kellogg, who became the company’s general and artistic manager just two years ago, City Opera has broken sharply with its recent past. During this season it will have opened eight new productions, the largest number by a New York company since the Met moved to Lincoln Center in 1966. They include the New York premiere of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s Marco Polo, and the company premieres of Handel’s Xerxes, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, and Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan; also new are Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Verdi’s Macbeth, neither of which has been performed by City Opera since the 50’s.

The style in which these operas are being produced has been summed up by Kellogg as follows:

Opera is drama. That goes for older operas, too. Old or new, the productions that work for me are fresh, interesting, provoking, touching—and real. I don’t like stock operatic production [with its] gestures [that] one sees only on the opera stage, and nowhere else in the world.

Not all of the City Opera productions premiered to date have been equally effective. But the best ones—in particular Stephen Wads-worth’s elegant Xerxes, which featured the brilliant singing of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt and countertenor David Daniels—rank among the most theatrically distinguished operatic performances to be given in New York in the 90’s.

As I have suggested previously in COMMENTARY,2 City Opera, too, suffers from “architectural” problems, and the success of Kellogg’s attempt to revive this institution may hinge on his ability to overcome the intrinsic limitations of the New York State Theater. The acoustics of the 2,700-seat house are erratic (it was designed not for opera but for performances by Balanchine’s New York City Ballet), and its size, though not so problematic as the Met’s, is still incompatible with the theatrical approach now favored by the company. So far, however, both critics and audiences have been responding positively to the “new” City Opera, and it seems at least possible that Kellogg’s hopes for the company will eventually be realized.



But this returns us to the question of Lincoln Center as a whole. Many observers now feel that it was a mistake to place so much of New York’s performing-arts activity under a single organizational roof. Architecturally, Lincoln Center is generally regarded as a failure, and the high overhead and consequent artistic disadvantages entailed by the size of the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theater have hardly helped matters.

But was Lincoln Center ever meant to be a center of creativity? Robert Moses, the city planner who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to reshape New York, had a vision for the complex that was, in fact, not artistic but utilitarian: he saw it as an engine of urban renewal. Moses cared far less for music and ballet than for the wholesale razing of tenements and the subsequent creation (in his words) of “a reborn West Side, marching north from Columbus Circle, and eventually spreading over the entire dismal and decayed West Side.”

Moses achieved his goal: the “dismal and decayed” Upper West Side of the 50’s has since become an affluent residential area. And the Lincoln Center model has, predictably enough, been adopted by other cities seeking to revitalize their blighted downtown areas. The avowed purpose of the newly opened New Jersey Performing Arts Center, for example, is to lure nervous suburbanites back to Newark’s inner city, which was devastated by riots in 1967.

Unfortunately, art rarely flourishes when it is used as a means to an end. Perhaps the most far-reaching aesthetic consequence of Robert Moses’s vaulting ambitions for Lincoln Center was, paradoxically, the institutional conservatism that has been imposed on its occupants, who must keep scrupulously to the middle of the road in order to fill the seats of its huge theaters night after night.

To be sure, such charismatic figures as George Balanchine and Leonard Bernstein were capable of persuading their audiences to follow them artistically wherever they went. But geniuses cannot be hired at will. In their absence, New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic have largely ceased to play a role in the development of contemporary American art, while the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera struggle against lengthening odds to recapture their artistic vitality.

One wonders whether the directors of the arts complexes across the country that have so conscientiously modeled themselves on Lincoln Center realize how stultifying its legacy may ultimately prove to be.



1 “Two Cheers for Kurt Masur,” August 1995.

2 “Not the Metropolitan Opera,” December 1996.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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