New York City Ballet, which shares the venue with City Opera, will present its 2008-09 season more or less as normal. As NYCO chairwoman Susan L. Baker observed to The New York Times, the opera company is making the scheduling sacrifices because it wants the changes: "The impetus really originally came from ... the opera. It's been a storied hall [sic] because of its acoustics."
Johnson designed the State Theater, which opened in 1964, specifically for City Ballet and to the specifications of the company's directors at that time, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. While NYCB has been and remains happy with its home as it is, according to the Times, the State Theater auditorium, with a stage and acoustics designed to muffle the footfalls of dancers, has long been considered problematic (at best) for opera.
For much of this decade, City Opera's administration expended a great deal of effort trying to secure a spot for a theater of the company's own, though every serious possibility (including the cultural complex that had been planned for the area around the former World Trade Center in lower Manhattan) eventually fell through.
When G_rard Mortier was appointed the next general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera earlier this year, he stated publicly that the company would remain at the State Theater and give up its search for another home. Consequently, City Opera wants to undertake the upcoming renovations to make the venue more workable for opera.
The improvements to the auditorium will be an enlarged orchestra pit with a mechanical lift, a new stage lighting system, new seats and carpets and new audiovisual and media facilities. Johnson's landmark design for the State Theater will be left intact.
The most contentious of the proposed changes, the addition of a center aisle in the orchestra seats (City Opera was in favor, City Ballet adamantly opposed), was taken off the table early in the planning process, according to the Times.
One key element for improving the sound at the State Theater — acoustical paneling installed around the proscenium, to be used when City Opera is performing and removed when City Ballet is using the theater — has been postponed to a second phase of renovations whose timing is undetermined.
"It's about keeping things manageable financially," NYCB chairman Barry S. Friedberg told the Times.
Baker told the paper that the acoustical paneling could wait because the orchestra pit would make more of a difference: "There is an enormous amount of acoustical benefit to having an orchestra pit that is able to rise and fall. It enhances the ability of the orchestra and the singers to hear one another."
The second stage of renovations would also include improvements to the box office and lobby areas.
Part one of this project of the renovation is expected to cost about $40 million; both City Opera and City Ballet will undertake capital campaigns to finance the work. Some of that funding will come from a matching grant provided by Lincoln Center to its constituents as part of the complex's overall redevelopment plan: 20% of the first $25 million raised (i.e. up to $5 million) and 15% of any money raised beyond that amount. In addition, representatives of both companies will meet with New York City officials in coming days in hopes of securing a contribution from the municipal government, which has ultimate title to the State Theater.
Design work for the first phase is underway; construction will begin immediately after City Ballet closes its season this coming spring. A spokesperson for Lincoln Center confirmed to Playbill Arts that the State Theater will not be used as a venue for the 2008 Mostly Mozart and Lincoln Center Festivals.
For the period that the work is underway, "New York City Opera is currently planning a non-traditional 2008-2009 season," according to the statement released by the company over the past weekend, "which may include operas in concert, semi-staged productions, educational outreach as well as its annual showcase of VOX: Showcasing American Composers, produced at various venues in the city. Actual plans for the 2008-2009 season will be announced in February 2008."
Though Mortier does not officially take up his New York position until the fall of 2009, he is involved in planning the programming for the upcoming "season-in-exile." His plans for 2009-10, his first full season at City Opera, include at least one production offsite, Messiaen's Saint-Fran‹ois d'Assise at the Park Avenue Armory; Mortier also said that he plans to present and/or co-produce operas at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and other locations.
"We will use some better-known venues and some lesser-known venues," in the 2008-09 season, Baker told the Times, "to foreshadow Mortier's modus operandi, which is to use the State Theater as a home, but to take City Opera to the city."
These plans for offsite productions over the coming two seasons could potentially point toward a way for New York City Opera to (as it were) leave the State Theater without actually leaving it — performing at more acoustically suitable venues, at least part-time, while keeping the box office, scenery, costume and administrative facilities at the State Theater and maintaining the invaluable marketing connection with Lincoln Center.