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Goodbye, Babylon

Last week, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it was facing a budget crunch. Wow, like, that’s a surprise? Some staff members have already taken pay cuts, salaries will be discussed with unions. And of course the crisis will impact programming: Costly revivals of Ghosts of Versailles, Benvenuto Cellini, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Die Frau Ohne Schatten have been scrapped; some won’t be replaced, others will be switched for less pricey productions. But the Met is not really representative because there’s no such thing as a really cheap show there: Your choices are expensive and very expensive. What I fear is that we’re really going to start missing out on very large, very outlandish, very ambitious productions all over town, not just at the Met.It’s very doubtful, for instance, that we’ll see something on the scale of Die Soldaten again for quite a while. When Lincoln Center Festival presented Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s modernist opera last summer, it had to import the 110-piece Bochumer Symphoniker and 40 performers from Germany; it had to build from scratch movable bleachers that sat on train rails in the Park Avenue Armory for the audience. And all that for three performances plus a dress rehearsal. The price tag was so high that Lincoln Center declined to reveal it; a friend half-joked it would have been cheaper to fly the entire New York audience to the Ruhr, where the show originated. Yes, it was a crazy endeavor, but it was also 110 percent worth it.

As the prime presenter of outsize projects in town, Lincoln Center Festival is the most likely to be faced with hard decisions. Remember when they built a standalone Kabuki tent in Damrosch Park to present a play titled Natsumatsuri Ninawa Kagami (The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka)? Or the following year, 2005, when they erected a theater for Ariane Mnouchkine’s six-hour-long Le Dernier Caravansérail? The last time Mnouchkine was in town before that was in 1992, and BAM had to take over the Park Slope Armory to present that year’s show.

Don’t hold your breath for more, people: The only company that can afford big, expensive extravaganzas now is Cirque du Soleil. And while I do enjoy my Cirque once in a while, it pains me to see more experimental artists who happen to think big deprived of outlets. It’s as if museums started to say, You know, those Richard Serra sculptures are just too large and too heavy and too expensive to install, so let’s just put up a bunch of Calder mobiles instead. Okay, I’m kind of exaggerating, but it’s bleak out there, and the way things are going, we may see more than our share of intimate dramas.

Our local artists and institutions have to tighten their collective belts, that we know. It’s always been difficult to mount the kind of big shows one can see in France or Germany here: There just isn’t public support for it—and by “public support” I mean funding from the city or state, which allows artists to take risks.

More pernicious, perhaps, is the fact that local groups will be asked to justify their expenses even more, so something as delirious as a Cecil B. DeMille–esque show performed a grand total of four times isn’t going to cut the mustard. I fear arts programmers and administrators will be required even more than they are now to stick to a kind of populist bottom line, to refrain from spectacles that appear too grandiosely pharaonic and aimed at a limited elite. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it’s hard not to be pessimistic.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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