Did AIDS Kill New York City Opera?
When I think about the death of New York City Opera — and it will be dead soon, if it’s not already — I think about another death. His name was Richard Gold, and he died of AIDS-related complications back in the late 1980s. Richard was a good-looking, slightly portly young man who came from a hyper-bourgeois Jewish family from Queens that did well in the health care industry (in fact, they ran a group of nursing homes); he moved to the Upper West Side in the early 1970s and worked for the family company, and back when most of my friends were struggling artists, he had a coop, a car, and one of those prosperous lifestyles that simply befuddled me. He was nuts about New York City Opera. Actually he was nuts about Beverly Sills, or “Bubbles,” as she was known to her family and close friends.
“I’m an über-fan,” he told me gleefully. (This was back when “gleefully” meant “all aglitter,” not “in the manner of a fan of the FOX television series Glee.”)
He saw Bev for the first time when he was still in high school. His parents took him to New York City Opera, and he was smitten. It was hard for him to keep it a secret like he did the fact that he was queer. (He went through an obligatory engagement to a Nice Jewish Girl in Queens, then panicked and got out of it.) He could not contain that he was crazy about Bev, and even his family caught Bubbles fever. They all got repeating subscriptions to New York City Opera season, and when Richard was able to leave Queens and set up housekeeping (with a boyfriend who was a high-style interior decorator), he volunteered at the opera selling opera tchotchkes in the second-floor-promenade lobby at the New York State Theater.
He was around the opera so much that the miracle happened: He met her. She became his friend. Maybe not a close friend, but definitely someone Sills knew and, with her own sharp eye to New York City Opera’s survival, cultivated.
Richard Gold and his numerous peers represented the next generation of New York City Opera supporters: young, aggressively crazy about opera, and solvent enough to do something about it.
By the time I met Richard, in the mid 1970s, through a mutual friend (OK, mutual once-boyfriend), he was awash in the opera, and financially and socially in a place to bask in the reflected magical glamor that opera is all about. (Richard got his parents to endow a scholarship for young singers at New York City Opera; he became active on committees to raise funds for it.) And magic was what it was all about in that period, before the bean counters completely took over the arts. Life in New York was still cheap enough and easy enough that you could exist as a total “culture vulture,” someone who lived for art, and not drive yourself crazy over a job or money.
Many of my friends were culture vultures, and culture, high culture, nosebleed high, was being made here. For an almost ridiculously small sum you could go to New York City Ballet every night, and when it was off and New York City Opera was in season (they both shared the same stage of the New York State Theater, built to George Balanchine’s dance specifications), you could hyperventilate your way through their season.
The Metropolitan Opera, across Lincoln Center’s plaza, was stupid. It was stodgy. It was fat, old people with fat, old money. At the New York State Theater you saw hot guys in full leather gabbing about Bev’s Violetta in La traviata, or Samuel Ramey’s naked chest in Boito’s Mefistofeles. You met your friends there at intermission, sometimes a dozen of them. There were no cellphones, so you talked to people. Opera was high art that sometimes dickered with the dirt, but it had to remain high. It was where kings and the common people mixed, under the eyes of Phoebus Apollo, god of light and music. That was what made opera so spectacular: You completely forgot yourself in its magic. It took you to that white-light-post-orgasmic place that bypassed most of the brain but still, strangely enough, came through the intellect. New York City Opera tried to expand it. Push it. Years before the Met went experimental, they did a Traviata where Violetta, the courtesan with a heart of gold, dies of AIDS.
People were horrified. Opera was not supposed to do this. It was scary to the point of revolting. We were sure that we could see Apollo in tears. But we were the ones in tears. A whole generation was dying — the guys who lived for New York City Opera — and the question, never answered, was who would take their place.
Beverly Sills went to Richard Gold’s funeral. I sent his mother a condolence card. She wrote me back that his whole life had been devoted to music. I remembered earlier that he had broken up with his interior decorator boyfriend because he simply did not love opera enough. Certainly New York City Opera. The boyfriend was more of an occasional, old-money-Metropolitan devotee. Richard started having symptoms early: losing weight, diarrhea. He waved it off. He told me, “Perry, the difference between us is that you are involved with the gay community, and I am involved with the music community. My world is bigger than yours.”
I replied, “Don’t bet on it.”
It’s painful to think about it. Life changes. Regarding the last seasons of New York City Opera, I felt that they were grabbing at straws, trying to figure out how to get another generation interested in an art form that is basically alien from “normal” life and yet is big enough to contain it. We have gone back to a Louis XIV “Sun King” economy — the top 0.01 percent owns most of us at this point — without the genius to capture art and use it as Louis did. Art, like opera, is revoltingly elitist, and that is where its glamor and magic comes from. The big money is still at the Met because the Metropolitan Opera has retained its role as an international company. The amount of money necessary to save New York City Opera — about $7 million — people like David Koch and his crowd could belch out after dinner. But what is so heartbreaking to me is that a whole generation that would have fought like mad to save it is now dust.
Perry Brass is the author of 16 books, including the bestselling, Ippy Gold Medal Award-winning guide The Manly Art of Seduction: How to Meet, Talk to, and Become Intimate With Anyone, which takes on the assumption that “men are not supposed to be seductive.” His newest book is King of Angels, a gay, Southern, Jewish coming-of-age novel set in Savannah, Ga., in 1963, the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a finalist for a 2013 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction. You can learn more about Perry at his website, perrybrass.com.