Jay Nordlinger on the pianist Cyprien Katsaris, plus some thoughts on the embattled City Opera

We are in the middle of a “Liszt year,” meaning a Liszt anniversary year: The composer-pianist was born in 1811. In February, Jean-Yves Thibaudet played an all-Liszt recital in Carnegie Hall; in March, Evgeny Kissin played another one in the same venue. The two recitals were very different, because the pianists are very different—but both recitals were stupendous.

We had another Liszt recital—though not an all-Liszt recital—in New York last month. The pianist was Cyprien Katsaris, a veteran virtuoso from France. He is a wizardly fellow, the kind who likes to explore music off the beaten track. For example, he’ll play Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, in the composer’s own arrangement.

Cyprien Katsaris performed a recital last month at the Yamaha Piano Salon.

Cyprien Katsaris performed a recital last month at the Yamaha Piano Salon. Photo by Carole Bellaïche.

Katsaris recalls another era even in his appearance. He has long hair, pianist’s hair. Do you know this Irving Berlin lyric? “When Paderewski comes this way, I’m so delighted if I’m invited to hear that long-haired genius play.” Katsaris also shows up in white tie and concert tails, skipping the present-day Mao suit.

He began his New York recital with a piece of late Liszt—“visionary” Liszt—the Funeral Prelude and Funeral March. He played with authority and solemnity, mixing in several colors, causing the piece to build. It was hypnotic and demonic—two prime Liszt qualities. Also, Katsaris knows how to make a big old sound without pounding.

Next he treated us to some improvisation. He first explained that this is a dying art, left to jazzmen and organists. We still have a classical pianist or two who will improvise, however. Gabriela Montero is a famous improviser, taking requests from the audience. (They name the tune, she improvises.) Katsaris gave us a smorgasbord, playing with snatches of opera: “Di Provenza il mar,” “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” etc. When he is a showman, he’s not merely a showman: He is musical too.

He closed out the first half of his recital with a variety of Liszt pieces, maintaining that spirit of improvisation. He displayed much strength and agility. His playing was not impeccable. But I like to say, “Life is not a studio recording” (thank heaven).

After intermission, Katsaris turned to Chopin, last year’s bicentennial boy (born in 1810). He played a concerto—Chopin’s F-minor concerto, in the composer’s own arrangement for solo piano. Katsaris had the score at the ready, in case he needed it. He warned that he might call on a page-turner. “Girls only,” he added (true to his playboy image). Because the pianist is doing double duty in this version of the concerto—playing both the piano part and the orchestra part—the temptation is to overplay. To storm the heavens, or overstorm them. Katsaris resisted the temptation, keeping things pianistic all through.

He played an encore, and it was an American one: The Banjo, by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. This piece is hard and flashy enough in the original. But Katsaris soups it up, enjoyably.

His recital took place in a small venue: the Yamaha Piano Salon, on the third floor of a Fifth Avenue building. It took place in front of a small audience, too: maybe 30 people, at least half of whom were pianists themselves. That was high praise, for the recitalist. And every professional knows that whether the audience is five or 5,000, you give them your best.

Everyone has an opinion on New York City Opera, and I will give a few of my own. The company is having to revamp, scale down, rethink. It is leaving Lincoln Center, for parts unknown. This is a shame, because its theater, the David H. Koch Theater, is essentially new. By that I mean, it was just renovated, and it is wonderful. City Opera got to perform in it for about two seconds.

I think of an aria from Barber’s Vanessa: “Must the winter come so soon?” I also think of a Kenny Rogers song: “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.”

One question bouncing around town is, “Can New York support two opera companies?” (meaning the Met and a second company). I think so, yes. But the market will give us the actual answer, as it always does, when allowed to operate.

Glibness and smugness should be avoided when it comes to City Opera, because there are no clear reasons for the company’s woes. I am speaking of the dearth of fannies in the seats. At least those reasons aren’t clear to me. People aren’t coming to the avant-garde fare, yes—the kind of fare beloved of administrators and critics, but not so beloved of audiences. But they aren’t coming to more traditional fare either.

I find last season’s A Quiet Place a particular puzzle. This is a Bernstein opera, and New York is supposed to be a Bernstein-mad town. Time was, you could place the name “Bernstein” on virtually anything, and New Yorkers would flock to it. City Opera had an excellent production of A Quiet Place, with an excellent cast. Should have been a smash hit. Apparently, it was not.

In times of crisis, you go to fundamentals: What is City Opera’s raison d’être? For years, the company has been known as “the people’s opera.” I think this is a conceit. Besides, what does it mean? Does it mean that you can dress worse than at the Met? You can dress plenty badly there, believe me (I do, sometimes). Does it mean that the tickets are cheaper? Not necessarily. Plus, the Met has movie-theater broadcasts now, very popular.

I will dispense some free advice, which might be worth what it costs. Put on a variety of first-rate operas—at least good and interesting ones—from the Baroque period to the present. Have your productions be imaginative, but non-screwy. Cast the best singers you can get: Americans, foreigners, up-and-comers, veterans, what have you. Keep the budget lean and mean. I know excellent singers who are just dying to sing, for peanuts. Stand up to the unions, to the extent you can. Make them ask themselves, “Do we really want to sink the ship?”

Eschew faddishness. Don’t try to be cool, or hip or “downtown.” Let artistic integrity be the North Star. Stay away from hype and drop all gimmicks—such as “Boys’ Night at L’Etoile” (L’Etoile being a Chabrier operetta). City Opera had a drag queen at intermission. Come on, people: Every night is “boys’ night” at the opera.

Be the best opera company you can be, from an artistic point of view, and let this artistic striving be accompanied by shrewd, tough-minded, unsentimental management. See what happens. I have a feeling that the market would respond positively. And if not—you have given it your best shot, done something to be proud of.

Has City Opera already done the best it can? If so, then I, along with everyone else, must really shut up.