09/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bless This House

"Blow up all the opera houses!" said the composer Pierre Boulez fifty years ago. Opera was a dead form then, but in the 1960s Boulez started conducting, notably as music director of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in the 1970s. And he began conducting operas, treating them with a clarity and precision he brought to his composition. Boulez was a major part of a New Wave of opera production that has not stopped and has recently brought the two opera houses at Lincoln Center new chiefs with new ideas.

Opera was the original Gesamtkunstwerk, the ideal of all arts becoming one art. Opera went into decline when that other art-of-all-arts, film, entered the picture at the beginning of the twnetieth century. But opera is still an important idea, and could become something very vital in the right hands.

The New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, home of the New York City Opera, is dark as it undergoes a year of renovation. It will emerge with a new name, The David H. Koch Theater.

It is a house of past and perhaps future artistic importance in two art forms.

The New York City Ballet settled there in 1964, and its resident genius, George Balanchine, proceeded to send forth countless masterpieces, often to music of his fellow Russian and fellow adoptive New Yorker Igor Stravinsky--Apollo, Agon, Symphony in Three Movements, Violin Concerto.

In 1983, I was writing a story, "Hero Futura":

"I was walking up Columbus and there at Seventy-second Street was the great dancer Peter Martins, and I said, 'Excuse me for intruding, but may I ask if you are dancing Apollo June 18?' This was his final season as a dancer, and this would be one of his last Apollos, perhaps his last. He replied that he didn't know till five days before each evening what he'd dance. I said I'd never seen Apollo but love the music--it's my favorite Stravinsky. He looked in my eyes and said--as Rilke from Apollo said 'You must change your life'--'See it.' I answered without hesitation, for there is no saying no to one so near and dear to Apollo, 'Yes'."

And I did.

We New Yorkers were lucky to have Stravinsky and Balanchine resident among us for so many decades.

After Balanchine's death on April 30, 1983, Martins became head of the new York City Ballet, but slowly the soul left the body of the company. As a choreographer Martins was not on the genius level of Balanchine, really no one was, and Martins did not ask Balanchine's main muse, Suzanne Farrell, with whom he danced Apollo, among many other works, to be part of the new regime. The company became a museum.

But at a recent program this past June, there were signs of life, with major new works by Mauro Bigonzetti, Alexei Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon, maybe a genius or three among them.

There were four pieces, all commissioned by the company, and all but one new this year. For a more thorough review of the program, I refer you to one by my colleague Tonya Plank.

The first piece, by Wheeldon, Rococo Variations, to Tchaikowsky, was minor, and the orchestra had an off night. The second was by Martins, River of Light, with a knotty, interesting score by a New York modernist, Charles Wuorinen. And for this piece, the composer conducted, and mesmerized. Some of the dancers, all from the newer ranks, were extraordinary.

The New York City Opera, the State Theater's other resident company, has commissioned Wuorinen to write the score for an opera version of Brokeback Mountain. Wuorinen is a master at expressing extreme complexity, and angst, and the opera might be devastating. The film is already immortal, made more so by our identification of Heath Ledger with the lead character, with Ledger's marriage to the actress, Michelle Williams, who plays his wife in the film, and their characters' separation in the film and their own in real life, and then Heath's death a few miles downtown from the State Theater--all this makes the film and story almost too shattering.

The third ballet that evening, Oltremare, by Bigonzetti with a new score by Bruno Moretti, is an extraordinary work in the tradition of Italian cinema, about immigrants leaving Italy for America. The audience clapped till we were blue in the hands.

The last of the evening, by Ratmansky, Concerto DSCH, to Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2, was as wonderful as Oltremare. The dancers were sublime, particularly Ashley Bouder, Tyler Angle and Wendy Whelan. More clapping, black-and-blue hands.

As for the City Opera, there is great hope: It has a new general manager, Gérard Mortier, former head of the Paris Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and the Brussels opera house La Monnaie, and after the year of renovations, he will launch his tenure, in fall 2009, with a masterpiece not yet seen in New York City, Olivier Messiaen's only opera, Saint Francis of Assisi.

The other works of the first season are all also seminal twentieth-century operas and nary a dud among them: Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (with libretto by W. H. Auden, another adoptive New Yorker), Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, Leos Janacek's The Markopulos Case, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, a native New Yorker, and Robert Wilson, at the time of the opera's composition, yet another adoptive New Yorker.

With the Met having a new general manager, Peter Gelb, already in place, we can look forward to the two houses competing in the next years, helping to bring opera in New York into the 21st century.