March 21, 2012

Is New York still the cultural capital of America? (Duh)

Josef Hoffmann in concert at the Metropolitan Opera, 1937
Today's post has an ulterior motive.  The topic has been mandated by Carnegie Hall's "Spring For Music" festival, which has launched a competition to identify the "best arts blogger in America".  This is my entry; it will be judged by a panel of experts and also by you, all you dear, sweet readers across this great nation of ours.

Also intelligent.  I forgot intelligent.  And sophisticated.

The required topic bids me consider whether or not New York City can still lay claim to being the cultural capital of the United States. There was a time when a famous crooner could bark out the iconic lyric "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" and we all knew where "there" was even before the ensuing multiple repetitions of "Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk".  Wikipedia furnishes a list of songs about the Big Apple with hundreds of titles; there are actually no fewer than fifteen with the very title "New York, New York".  I spent hours - hours, I tell you - (I really wanna win this contest) searching for songs entitled "Duluth, Minnesota" or "Omaha, Nebraska".  All I can say is, all you aspiring song-writers should seriously consider those two communities for your next ballad; I'm sure the respective city fathers would appreciate it.  Duluth in particular would offer fertile ground for fabulous lyrics:

Alas and forsooth,
I'll tell you the truth:
My heart pants for Duluth
Where the gentle Ruth,
Who I met at a kissing-booth,
Awaits me with gleaming tooth.

(Duluth is well-known for dental hygiene.  Or maybe vampires.  I'll make it work; this is just off the top of my head...)

But back to Gotham.  It's as plain as the smell of urine in the subway that, culturally speaking, New York's image has taken several hits.  The once-vaunted New York City Opera, which in bygone years was the petri dish in which the careers of Sills, Treigle, Domingo and many others were nurtured, now performs in shopping mall food courts and Knights of Columbus lodges.

Okay, I exaggerate.  It's that kind of a blog, in case you're new to it.  Sue me.  Regardless, nobody really vaunts the company any more.  There is a dearth of vaunting.

Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker, recently painted a dismal picture of the State Of Opera in New York.  In his article "Diminuendo", he went so far as to say "The city has, in truth, seldom been on the front lines of operatic art, but it now seems almost peripheral...."  

Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera, desperate to have his company appear relevant, fairly drops his pants and swings from the lighting fixtures:  "Lookie, lookie, a Cirque de Soleil set for the Ring!  Bare boobs and a guy french-kissing the Virgin Mary in Tosca!  A Traviata that doesn't even make SENSE!!  Philip Glass!  Philip Glass!!  Philip Glass with a giant puppet and rolls of tape and a libretto in Sanskrit!!!  LOOK AT US!!!"  But audiences and critics clearly find the results to be hit-or-miss.

Add to all this the fact that we live in a day and time when age-old institutions once thought immune to irrelevance are slip-sliding away:  the Republican Party has fallen into the hands of wild-eyed Tea-baggers; network television's ratings have been splintered by cable; American manufacturing just ain't what it used to be in our forefather's day, and don't EVEN get me started on sports.  I mean, steroids, free-agency, college basketball's "one and done" curse -- nothing in our culture seems as relevant as it used to be, except for Rush Limbaugh, Snooki and Justin Bieber.

Why should New York's cultural scene be any different?  

Except I don't buy it.  It is different.  New York no longer our leading cultural center?  With apologies to L.A., Seattle, Chicago, and other metropolises, New York will no longer be our cultural capital when:
  • the bulk of the Met's season is no longer beamed into movie theaters;
  • biographies of up-and-coming pianists no longer specify when they made their New York debuts;
  • Tony awards are no longer bestowed on Broadway productions in New York, but focus on Boston;
  • regional opera companies like Virginia Opera no longer make a pilgrimage to New York to hold their auditions because the greatest critical mass of singers is now in Philadelphia;
I know what you're thinking; I see the thought-balloons over all of your heads.  "But Glenn," you're chanting in unison, "points like that have to do with hype and visibility, not with quality or innovation.  Isn't that the real issue?"

In response, I'm going to reference Rush Limbaugh for the second time in this post, which is definitely a record for my blog.  Rush's recent spate of bad P.R. following his slanderous comments about a young female law student provoked a groundswell of protest, resulting in dozens of his sponsors withdrawing ads from his program.  This in turn led to speculation - irrationally hopeful speculation, it must be said - from some quarters that the end was in sight for Rush and his Empire Of Dittoheads.

Rush shrugged off this talk by claiming that losing forty sponsors when you have a pool of some eighteen thousand possible advertisers is no big deal; "everything's fine", he crowed. Now, whether he's giving us a totally accurate picture of his status is not for me to say; I bring it up because that's sort of how it is with New York's status as a capital of Culture.

One opera company falling on hard times, and another with a few clunker productions under a new General Manager hardly signals irrelevance.  Within the city there is such a wealth of activity in all possible fields and genres and such a critical mass of intellectually curious residents and visitors to consume it, that  it has a right to claim, as a community, "Everything's fine".

And besides; did you see the Los Angeles Ring cycle?  With those masks and the oddly raked stage?  Big whoop.  I'll take the creaky planks and Brunnhilde's mechanical hobby-horse any day, because it was the amazing Met Orchestra playing Wagner like none other.  That's my kind of relevance.

I win, right?  Right???  Hello?  ....oh, whatever...

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online from or at or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.  


  1. Mr. Winters,
    As an intelligent, and sophisticated, and grateful, fan of yours from LLI in Midlothian, VA, I wish to respond to your blog by saying YEA!!!! I agree!!! (In all aspects except sports, GO RED SOX)