December 5, 2011

NYCO Archives in Jeopardy

Beverly Sills 

The history of America's beloved soprano Beverly Sills and the opera company she championed for a decade as general director is in jeopardy. Why? The New York City Opera is vacating its Lincoln Center offices by December 31st, and in doing so, is poised to throw out its archives. Not idle speculation, this knowledge was gleaned from two former archivists, one having left the company only recently. Both fear for the legacy, not only of Beverly Sills, who gave the company many of her scores, but of thousands of musicians, singers, directors, artists and conductors that have appeared with the company since 1943. Since current management is in the process of re-writing its mission statement, there appears to be little interest in preserving its past. Suggestions to donate the archives, which is comprised of scores, documents, correspondence, programs, audio and visual tapes, television and radio broadcasts, oral histories, historic photographs, casting records, set pieces and costumes to institutions like the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts and the New York Historical Society were rebuffed. This is unconscionable. To lose this information to a dumpster would be a tragedy of incalculable proportions.

What can you do? Write and call NYCO and let them know you want the legacy and history of the People's Opera preserved for future generations and made available to the public.

UPDATE December 5th, 2:20 PM

I got a call from a young lady asking me if I was the "blogger who wrote about New York City Opera." When I said yes, she wanted me to know that the information in this post was untrue. How? I asked. She replied that "we are taking it with us." Not knowing who exactly I was speaking with (I was in the checkout line of a local supermarket at the time), I suggested she was free to make a comment on this blog if she wished. "Why would I lie to you?" She said. I replied that I didn't know who she was.

When I got home, I called back the number on my Iphone and got through to an entity called HRA Advisors, which has Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts as a client on its website. I found no mention of New York CIty Opera however. I spoke with the young lady who called me previously and asked if she could please tell me where the archive would be housed and why it wasn't being made available to the public. So far, I haven't heard back. When I do, I will certainly let you know.

UPDATE December 5th, 11:45 PM

In the nearly 24 hours since this post was written, 1100 people have read it, which, if nothing else, shows the level of interest and concern with regard to NYCO and its legacy. My caller from earlier in the day has not contacted me.

One colleague forwarded a letter from a NYCO company member which asserts that this writer is a "mischief maker." If the preeminent concern is the welfare of the archives of a historic institution which has fired more than half of its employees; dispensed with the position of archivist and thrown away the dressing room name plate of every star to grace its stage; is not reachable through its own website because the email addresses are non-functional; has declared an impasse in contract negotiations with its orchestra and chorus; has vacated its long time home and chosen to speak through third parties, then indeed, one has to wonder what mischief is being made.

A closet in an office doth not an archive make. 

Though I have no personal interest in the archives of NYCO (they do not- strictly speaking- concern themselves with matters of vocal pedagogy), I have an appreciation of their value and importance since I have greatly benefited from many a keen-eyed archivist who knows his/her way around the block.

Archives are precious things since they can be lost through negligence and indifference. They require the oversight of those with expertise in the field who understand the complexities of conservation. Does NYCO have such a person on staff? Are they advertising that a position is available? Does NYCO have the space for the large amount of material that the archive currently comprises? What happens to the archive should NYCO declare bankruptcy? How is NYCO going to handle the many requests for access? Has a complete inventory been made? What steps towards transparency and accountability have been taken? All these questions remain to be answered.

Please convey your concerns to NYCO which will be relocating to 75 Broad Street, NYC, 10004. I understand the move-in date is December 16th. You might also contact Mayor Bloomberg which you can do here. His predecessor, Fiorello La Guardia, established NYCO as a public trust, forever emblazoning it in the minds of New Yorkers as the People's Opera, a moniker which many believe to be in doubt. 

UPDATE: December 6th, 2:35 PM


To those with a professional interest in the NYCO archives: please keep this writer informed as to their accessibility, status and condition. For those who have no idea what archives are and what archivists do, I recommend this site.

This writer firmly believes that access to information leads to true knowledge. This is why public libraries are so important: anyone can study what interests them. The professional researcher, however, functions on a different level: his/her interest shapes and informs a whole field of study which circles back to the public. To restrict access to archives serves no public good, and, ultimately, limits self-knoweldge and - in this case- Music herself.


UPDATE: December 7th, 11:00 AM

Questions have been raised about the veracity of this writer and his motivations concerning the NYCO Archives. To put these questions to rest, I remind the reader that the concerns on this page have been raised, not by the singers or musicians who have been in contract negotiations with the company, but rather, by former members of the company who were in charge of the archives. I have simply provided a vehicle for their voices to be heard. My own tenure as a member of the chorus with NYCO ended November 20th with my resignation, 11 days before NYCO declared an impasse. The reader who spends even a short amount of time on these pages will glean that I am interested in scholarship, not innuendo.

In conclusion, I wish to quote the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who so adroitly said:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. 

FACT: This blog posted that the NYCO archive was in serious danger with its impending relocation from Lincoln Center and lack of an archivist.

FACT: NYCO subsequently announced via the NYTimes that it intends to house the archive in storage space at 75 Broad Street (a friend sourced NYCO's new address which I posted here the night before the NYTimes article appeared).

FACT: NYCO has not announced that it has hired an archivist or stated its intentions regarding the archive's administration. It has nine days in which to process a vast amount of information without -apparently- any guidance whatsoever. As "Jewel" has stated in the comments section:
Perhaps one might write to George: gsteel@nycopera.com, but when people are asking, it seems that reassurances are being given but no details have been published. A friend writes: "Several years ago, private donated funds were designated for a major archive project which was to include an online database similar to the Met's, an oral history project, and the cataloguing of NYCO's massive holdings of documents, photos, and recorded materials. We had a p/t archivist (Susan Woelzl) for a short time and some volunteer support, but these efforts didn't get far and eventually ground to a halt during 'the time of troubles'. All the well-meaning folks asserting that NYCO is moving the archival material downtown must be told this: 
There's no way NYCO is currently equipped to preserve, catalogue, and curate those materials. Because of that the archives are A) useless and B) in peril

UPDATE: December 20th, 11:00 AM

I posted an open letter to Opera America CEO Marc Scorca last week which resulted in the assertion that NYCO was going to re-hire their former archivist who would oversee the transportation of the NYCO archives to their new offices. Unfortunately, this assertion could not be verified. As a result, I felt it necessary to remove the post and wish to apologize to Mr. Scorca for involving him in matters beyond his control.

As of this writing, the status, condition and location of NYCO's archive is unknown.


Note: The New York City Opera archives were irreparably damaged in hurricane Sandy, having been stored in the basement offices of the relocated NYCO under the direction of George Steel as reported in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (November 1, 2012). Barring updated information, the NYCO archives are presumed to be lost. 

21 comments:

  1. Nancy Guy, Dept. of Music, Univ. of CA, San DiegoDecember 5, 2011 at 2:48 AM

    NYCO's history, as documented in the archive materials, belongs not only to the company, but also to New York City. I suggest that calls and letters be directed to NYCO and to Mayor Bloomberg's office.

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  2. Reposting this everywhere I can think of -- thank you so much for the heads up. This is a travesty.

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  3. Why in the world did the Performing Arts Library refuse the archives??

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  4. Katherine: please go back and re-read my post. The NYPL did not refuse to house the archive. Rather, the current admin rebuffed the suggestion that the NYPL house it- quite the opposite matter. Daniel

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  5. What the fuck is going on at that place?! This is a disgrace!!!

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  6. Thanks for this Daniel. I have reposted and sent your link along to friends who have press contacts to get them involved. I agree with Sam! WTF is going on there - this would be unbelievable if they really trash them!

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  7. Has anyone contacted the Board of Directors of Lincolncenter.org? I'm not sure how much ownership the Lincoln Center Organization could claim over the records and and artifacts, but there may be some legal issues regarding the destruction of certain types of records. I agree with Nancy's post that City authorities should also be notified. It wouldn't hurt if someone could get an article about this published either.

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  8. Well, I don;t think that really was Maestro Ramey. But if it was, no one would fault him for his comment. What can we do? We have to save the archives!

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  9. Charles Freeman StamperDecember 5, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    I have what is believed to be the largest private collection in the world of anything and everything Beverly Sills. I would gladly receive the entire collection of NYCO programs without cherry-picking only those of Sills performances or during her performance tenure. My collection is "cradle to grave," not just performing career. Now I need to figure out where to direct my plea.

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  10. Why not give it to Julliard?

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  11. this is all rubbish. i don't believe it.

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  12. This actually turns out not to be true. Marc Scroca of Opera America called George Steel who confirmed that this is absolutely false. The archives will be moved to the new offices of NYCO.

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  13. A friend writes: "There needs to be a more specific and transparent accounting of exactly what materials they're holding and moving. And the materials rightly belong in a proper archive like the NYPL, Library of Congress, or NY Historical Society, in the hands of professionals who know how to properly handle and catalogue archival materials, and who possess a better knowledge of the history and importance of NYCO than the current leadership of NYCO does."

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  14. First of all, who would believe George Steel, a pathological liar? Without an archivist to care for these things they are in serious danger. I would like to draw attention to the annals as a presumed item in the archives. Since the wonderful Martin Sokol history "The New York City Opera, an American Adventure" was published in 1981 there have been no continuation of the NYCO annals. Marty died shortly after he finished his book. I always assumed that each night along with the performance report by the stage manager on duty, that a corrected cast list was filed. When I worked there I had extended access to the archives and never found any continuation of the annals. I questioned everyone who could have known about such a file and no one could tell me if it ever existed. There was some indication that starting sometime in the Kellogg era an electronic record was begun.
    I don't believe that Steel would have any interest in artifacts of the City Opera's past since he has so radically abandoned NYCO's original mission of bringing high quality opera to New Yorkers of middle and lower incomes. I wish someone would step forward and rescue the archives. I also wish someone had stepped forward before Steel yanked NYCO from Lincoln Center and reduced it to a non-professional company. Alas, no one with enough clout came to save it.

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  15. Daniel, links your blog have been making the rounds on FaceBook. Darren Keith Woods of Fort Worth Opera (and a NYCO veteran himself) posted this on his own status yesterday (I don't think he'll mind if I repeat it here):

    "FYI - there is no truth whatsoever to the blog about NYCO throwing away the archives. I spoke to Marc Scroca of Opera America who then called George Steel who confirmed that this is absolutely false. The archives will be moved to the new offices of NYCO."

    Best,
    Cindy

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  16. Dear Cindy,

    Thank you for your comment. I am well aware of the statement by Mr. Woods and appreciate his concern. Unfortunately, he won't be administrating the archive.

    All best regards,

    Daniel

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  17. The current director and board of NYCO chooses to move the company not only out of Lincoln Center, but substantially out of the standard operatic repertoire and venues. It also chooses to rewrite the mission statement of the company, moving away from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's vision of the "People's Opera" (apparently this is too 'socialist' for the values of the current administration).

    Since the current administration is rejecting NYCO's heritage it cannot have any further use for the archives that were typically mounted for display at the former State Theatre for ticket holder to enjoy during intermissions. Such displays today would constitute a personal embarrassment to Mr. Steel (given the contrast in achievement) and it is in his interest to bury the archives. As Mr. Steel continues to deconstruct NYCO and its mission, it is in his interests to bury the memory of past achievements, and for this reason his intentions and statements of reassurance must be regarded with healthy skepticism.

    The archives should be donated to the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, or to the Museum of the City of New York, or the New York Historical Society, given NYCO's prominent place in the cultural history of New York City.

    Susan Baker and George Steel have killed New York City Opera, and it now deserves a dignified burial. Its priceless archives deserve a home where responsible researches may access them freely .

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  18. What Plans are in place to protect against pilfering of or damage to valuabl items? Is there even an inventory? These items belong to th citizens of New York City. How can they see them? Transparency is needed immediately. December 16th is 10 days from now.

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  19. If you follow Ramey on Facebook, you'd know...that was Sam Ramey!

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  20. Perhaps one might write to George: gsteel@nycopera.com, but when people are asking, it seems that reassurances are being given but no details have been published. A friend writes: "Several years ago, private donated funds were designated for a major archive project which was to include an online database similar to the Met's, an oral history project, and the cataloguing of NYCO's massive holdings of documents, photos, and recorded materials. We had a p/t archivist (Susan Woelzl) for a short time and some volunteer support, but these efforts didn't get far and eventually ground to a halt during 'the time of troubles'. All the well-meaning folks asserting that NYCO is moving the archival material downtown must be told this: That there's no way NYCO is currently equipped to preserve, catalogue, and curate those materials. Because of that the archives are A) unusable and B) in peril."

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I welcome your comments.