New York is a helluva town, as Gabbie, Chip and Ozzie, sailors on the lam in the 1949 musical, On the Town, kept banging on about. They didn’t even scrape the surface. Low dives and speakeasys were pretty much their sole concern. 

In 2022 The Bronx may still be up and The Battery down, as the song New York New York, otiosely reminds us. But seven decades on there’s even more to discover, making the city a helluva cultural destination.  

In the Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly film of the musical “helluva” was replaced with “wonderful”. We shall stick with “helluva”. 

One of Manhattan’s joys is that it throws up an endless supply of surprising performance nooks and crannies, hosting myriad operas and concerts. It’s not just The Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. This week I take readers downtown, the NYU Skirball Theater, and midtown, The Park Avenue Armory.  

Lots more on tap. In the past I’ve patronised The Flea Theatre, 92:Y, National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Radio WQXR’s The Greene Space… the list is endless. The wackiest was the Navy Yard in Brooklyn for a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth performed by The No Name Collective. No kidding. Told you it was a helluva town. 

Catapult Opera claims to be launching the future of opera. For Neal Goren, conductor, founder and artistic director of the small company, that is no idle boast. Hanjo, by Toshio Hosokawa, is so cutting edge there’s danger of laceration from picking up the program.  

I pitched up at New York University’s Skirball – not a minority sport; a benefactor called Jack H. Skirball funded the venue – oozing scepticism. Based on a Japanese Noē theatre production, Hosokawa turned a symbolistic story into an opera that premiered at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2004. He blends musical cultures and has created a sound world all his own. This was the first time I had experienced his work. I found it sensitive, engaging and very difficult to perform. Sounds often fade to whispers. Precise execution is critical. Goren was more than up to the complexities.  

The story-line sounds very woo-woo, but isn’t. Inspired by the long-distance love between Hanako, a geisha girl, and her young paramour Yoshio, Hanjo tells the tale of Hanako’s dizzying experience when a man calling himself Yoshio finally reappears on the scene after a long absence.  

For Catapult Opera’s production, the inner life of each of the opera’s three characters was expressed in movement and song by a dancer. In the Noē tradition the dancer is a narrator bridging the fourth wall between audience and performers. Classical chamber musicians from the Talea Ensemble provided the music. 

According to the composer, Hanjo “expresses the fragility of the lives that we construct for ourselves when challenged by events beyond our control.” 

On first reading this struck me as slightly less interesting than spending the afternoon watching paint dry on a bathroom wall. 

Boy was I wrong. Goren’s company did what many small opera companies do when they work sensibly within their limited resources. The singers performed the hell out of the music, transforming a relatively simple tale into a spellbinding ninety minutes.  

The production was spare. Action was within a well-defined space, scenery pretty much non-existent. The dancer/narrator performed on the periphery.  

“It wos the singers wot won it!” Goren had assembled an astonishingly talented cast. Eri Nakamura, a Japanese soprano who has sung the lead role in Madama Butterfly in Covent Garden, amongst many others, was Hanako, the Geisha Girl who has been let down by her lover. She is a catch for any major opera house. That Goren had persuaded her to play Skirball was extraordinary. 

Abigail Fischer, an American soprano and cellist, sang Jitsuko, an older lady who falls in love with Hanako and persuades her to come to Tokyo and move in. Throughout the piece Jitsuko is terrified that Yoshio, who has jilted Hanako and failed to turn up at the station as arranged with one of the fans they had exchanged, will eventually pitch up and steal her away. 

When Fischer sang her first lines I sat bolt upright. What a sound. Soprano? Not a chance. She is a mezzo, verging on luscious contralto. Her voice has stately elegance, reminiscent of Janet Baker at her well controlled best. In the lower register it blossoms. This was a remarkable discovery. 

A couple of days later I had a drink with Goren at The Century Association. He agreed Fischer’s voice was remarkable. Goren is exceptionally well connected in the world of opera, hence the quality of the singers he had managed to persuade to perform for Catapult. 

Fischer is on a mission, known for her commitment to contemporary music, having premiered works by composers Missy Mazzoli, John Zorn, Nico Muhly and Elliot Carter. Why she insists that her voice has moved up the register is a mystery to me. I want to hear her singing Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Now! 

Topping out the trio was Adam Richardson, a powerful baritone, singing Yoshio. The unreliable lover who had taken Hanako’s fan and given her one in return as a token of recognition was skating on thin ice. Having failed to turn up the next day at the station as planned, he blamed Jitsuko for stealing Hanako away to Tokyo. She still went to the station every day to find him. Snag. Wrong station. 

Yoshio’s passionate protestation that he had spent the time since seeking her out was almost convincing. As convincing as Kwasi Kwarteng returning a day early from an IMF meeting insisting there is no trouble at mill. Richardson imbued the role with passion. 

This production was absorbing. Movement was undramatic, almost mesmeric, not as artificially stylised as Noē theatre I have seen before. The personal dilemmas of the characters, especially Hanako, were beautifully illustrated.  

And when she finally rejected a life with Yoshio, preferring her obsession with unfulfilled expectation, the audience was confronted with a reality. We, in our hash-tagged, obsessive world, often prefer alternative realities too. 

Goren and Catapult Opera are now on my watch list. If he continues with such well-crafted productions and plunders his contact list of top-class singers this small, innovative company is set to produce even more wonders. 

Uptown, at the fabulous performing space of The Park Avenue Armory, an 1880 Gothic Revival red brick building that used to be home to The Seventh Regiment, a different scenario was playing out. 

Much vaunted composer Tyshawn Sorey, a specialist in atmospheric music, was trying to recreate the mood of The Rothko Chapel in Houston. On that chapel’s walls hang fourteen paintings by Mark Rothko. All black. With the slightest variations in tone.  

Sorey has written a work to match. Ninety minutes of repetitive, clanging music. All atonal. With the slightest variations in tone. He wrote the piece as a homage to Morton Feldman, a member of the John Cage gang of musical terrorists, destroying eardrums and driving folk nuts in the 1970s. Feldman wrote his own Rothko Chapel dirge in 1971. 

Why critics treat composers like Cage, Feldman and Sorey with reverent solemnity is beyond me. Cage – infamous for his 4’33”, a piece which contained no music at all – also wrote pieces based on selecting notes from the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text. Monkeys on typewriters. 

But churn out this drivel with a straight face, defended by a carapace of political correctness, and the usual sycophant suspects crumble. Except, that is, for Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker: “In a space of abyssal stillness, Tyshawn Sorey conducted his new work”. Sounds like praise, but an observation stripped of commentary completely. A Ross stiletto.  

American audiences are polite. Tolerant of all sorts of guff. But, as I watched increasing numbers make their excuses and slip away into the night, it was clear tolerance levels had been breached. Sorey had been sussed. 

The Rothko Chapel was represented by a circle of huge, elevated, wildly abstract canvases by artist Julie Mehretu enveloping the audience in the round. Sorey, his percussionist, keyboard player and violinist occupied the middle space.  

In a circular gallery beneath the canvases, above the audience, ballet dancers performed spectacular but seeming unconnected movements in front of and sometimes, in shadow, behind the paintings. It was impressive, but what was it for? A portentous figure walked around, in and out, up and down, intoning. Wow! 

Peter Sellars, the infamous wild child of operatic productions, directed the show. The shock-jock of opera was at his unfathomable worst.  

Like a 60’s backing group of heavenly voices The Choir of Trinity Wall Street lurked in elevated gloom, occasionally chanting.  

You can’t win them all. But the Armoryville Horror simply made Neal Goren’s Hanjo stand taller. What choice there is in this city of contrasts. New York, New York.