After The Circus

The last great American circus is about to pull down its Big Top for the final time! Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, heir to the legacy of the great nineteenth century impresario P.T. Barnum, has announced that its pair of traveling shows will close after appearing in Providence and Long Island in May.

The business executives of the circus partially attributed their declining ticket sales to the retirement of their performing elephants. But before we decide to heap blame on the mammoths for the closure, perhaps we should remind ourselves just how long the show lasted as a pillar of western culture.

The first modern circuses were introduced in England and the United States during the 1700s, and the genre flourished during the following century. Well into the 1900s, it was widely accepted as a popular form of mass entertainment, along with carnival shows, boxing matches, vaudeville performances, and other amusements that came of age during the Victorian era.

That’s not to say, of course, that the circus occupied the lowest rungs of the entertainment universe. During the heyday of its clown, trapeze artist, and animal performances, a night under the Big Top was considered far more respectable than an evening at a cock fight, crap game, or burlesque show. On the other hand, it never quite matched the respectability of high-brow nineteenth and early twentieth century activities like the opera, the symphony, and the public lecture.

By the way, have you spotted a common characteristic across all of these venerable forms of public entertainment? Each and every one has suffered through a deep and enduring decline in popularity, with some essentially reaching extinction. Even a once-powerful entity like the New York City Opera has struggled to remain open in the heart of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan metropolis.

So instead of blaming the elephants for the demise of the circus, perhaps we should simply tip our hats to a venerable institution that has run its natural course after thriving for centuries. After all, how many nineteenth century amusements are still entertaining twenty first century audiences today?

Well, of course, we still do enjoy at least one such amusement. It’s spring training season in the United States; time to play baseball!

NYC Opera: The Final Curtain

It appears that the final curtain has fallen on the New York City Opera. Unable to raise the $7 million that it needs to pay its obligations, the company filed for bankruptcy last week and began to prepare to liquidate its possessions.

Does the loss of a single operatic arts company significantly impact the cultural environment of New York City? Perhaps not; after all, New York City continues to host the world renowned Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center.

In fact, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose nonprofit foundation supports cultural organizations around the world, declined to save the NYC Opera. When asked about the possibility of a donation, he simply noted that the company’s “business model doesn’t seem to be working.”

Once again, perhaps not … and yet few other New York City organizations have earned social reputations that are quite as illustrious as the NYC Opera’s. Founded during the Second World War and lauded as “The People’s Opera” by legendary Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the company’s original mission was to deliver performances for all New Yorkers at highly affordable prices.

Based in the old City Center Theater, the company spent only $30,463 on operating costs during its first season. Ticket prices ranged from 85 cents to $2.20, amounts that were equivalent to four to nine times the price of a cup of coffee or a slice of pie. Imagine how many New Yorkers would still be attending the opera if tickets could be purchased for such prices!

The NYC Opera was also a trailblazer in the civil rights movement. Two years before Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn to break baseball’s color barrier with the Dodgers, Todd Duncan became the first African American performer to integrate the stage of a major opera company in 1945’s production of Il Pagliacci.

So what went wrong? In 1966, the company joined the mighty Metropolitan Opera by moving to Lincoln Center, celebrating its arrival with Placido Domingo’s starring role in Don Rodrigo. Although the company subsequently enjoyed years of enhanced exposure and acclaim, its operating costs and ticket prices necessarily rose to Lincoln Center levels. The company also struggled to differentiate itself from The Met, its far wealthier co-tenant.

Thus began a downward financial spiral that culminated in last week’s bankruptcy announcement. Although it is always sad to lose a major performing arts company, it may be even sadder to observe the gradual (and, likely, irreversible) abandonment of Mayor La Guardia’s original vision of operatic performances for The People.