Friday, May 15, 2009

Lincoln Center Reconsidered

There has been a lot written about Lincoln Center recently, in notice and appreciation of the 50th anniversary of its groundbreaking. Both its faults and its virtues have been exaggerated.

For starters, Lincoln Center was built on the rubble of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill, one of the most prominent African American neighborhoods in Manhattan. Its destruction was unnecessary, and certainly not one of Robert Moses’s better moments. On the other hand, one needs to be cautious, as always, about imputing too much causality and power to Moses’s actions, and I suspect, even without Lincoln Center, the whole of the Upper West Side would have been gentrified, and the character of the blocks around Lincoln Center would have very different from when it was the putative setting for “West Side Story.”

Lincoln Center is one of the first modern performing arts complexes, with your opera house, your place for the symphony orchestra, your theater for the ballet, and a few other venues thrown in for good measure. Are there synergies? When you go to the opera, do you feel good that there is a symphonic concert going on next door? (I have always appreciated that you can go to the bathrooms at Avery Fisher Hall without having to be a patron, unlike the Met. Once, in an Avery Fisher Hall bathroom, I was one urinal down from Felix Rohatyn.)

So, synergies? Not that much, but I am skeptical of the common claim that proximity to the Met has basically ruined the NYC Opera. It seems to me, from the opening at Lincoln Center in 1966 through about the mid 1990s, the NYC Opera was doing just fine, with Beverly Sills, with more interesting offerings and cheaper tickets than the big brother across the plaza. And then, something happened. The Met got smarter and hipper, and the NYC Opera got.. .. I’m not sure… but it just wasn’t competing as well. I don’t think you can blame the decline of the City opera on its location.

This brings me to an interesting question—is NYC big enough for two opera companies? How many cultural institutions can NYC support?

NYC has never, or at least since 1928 I think, had two big time symphony orchestras, and the opening of Lincoln Center would have been the perfect excuse to start a second symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and they tried to do so, but despite the efforts of Leopold Stokowski, the American Symphony Orchestra never really got off the ground.

Now, Rochester, with a metropolitan area population of about a million people (or somewhere around 1/15 of the metro area population of NYC) supports a symphony orchestra—even if its plays little else besides Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, that is, when it isn’t offering the “Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra plays the greatest hits of Billy Joel” and stuff like tha.

So you'd think, that NYC should at least be able to have two full scale symphony orchestras, if not three or four. But it rarely works that way, and in our cultural organizations, as in American life in general, we increasingly live in a “winner take all” society, in which the strongest crowd out and marginalize the second tier, and the Met, which was always the wealthiest and strongest performing arts organization in the city (if not in the country, and very possibly in the world) has been able to slowly strangle its rival, its days as the “people’s opera company” started by Fiorello La Guardia far behind.

This, if anything, is the greatest problem with Lincoln Center. It has enhanced and concentrated the position of the winners, and turned the second tier rivals into losers. But, one suspects, even without Lincoln Center, this would have happened anyway.

No comments: