Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., shelters opera, instrumental music, dance, drama, film, the Juilliard School, and a research branch of the New York Public Library. It has operated since 1962, time enough to call for more than congratulations. Pebble-aggregate paving around the central fountain needs granite replacement.1 Carpeted walls on the State Theater’s promenade are filthy; its seats are sprung. An ominous fissure threatens the basement. Travertine veneer on Avery Fisher (né Philharmonic) Hall is eroded. Money donated for annual maintenance is no glamorous option; wear and tear slowly affect visible service. Much is always skimped in the final press of construction, with euphoric disdain of future patchwork. However, the reflecting pool facing the Beaumont Theater leaks no more and, despite blemish, the several “cultural” facilities are in uninterrupted use.

Lincoln Center, in its physical presence, is neither tragic nor unique. Edward Durrell Stone, architect of Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center, first proposed three free-standing theaters for music, dance, and drama. Forced to consolidate under one vast roof, they found inevitable leakage required emergency salvage from the Congress. Management of huge amorphous civic centers needs tact and compassion, to say nothing of intelligence, goods hard to buy from even the most expensive PR consultants. Lincoln Center, Inc., is a nonprofit real-estate holding company, a custodian offering light, heat, security, and fund raising, the returns of which, one way or another, its constituents share.

It is not a conglomerate masquerading as a Medici. Charming janitors are rare enough, but whoever loved a landlord? Adversary relationships were ingrained from the start. These persist. Personal energy is always wasted which neither prescience nor experience can staunch, but the act in performance more than compensates. All first steps in financing, land acquisition, bulldozing, opposition from the press and local community planning boards, however anguished or heroic, are forgotten. What Lincoln Center has become is useful, its results determined by the city’s infrastructure together with skills in singing, making music, dancing, and playing roles.

Edgar B. Young, executive vice president for its construction, has composed an official apology. Mr. Young, a close associate of John D. Rockefeller III, assigns to him a central influence. Realization might have been slower without so numinous a name, but it could not have been much different without it. Mr. Rockefeller had slight interest in performing art. Anyone sitting near him at a concert or the opera sympathized with his malaise. To him, such art was, at best, therapeutic, like population control. Control, per se, did interest him. Mr. Young’s narrative is an orderly if absurdly partial account of efforts in urban renewal, tenant relocation, financing. Striving to be judicious, he supplies post card captions.

Little is made of earlier proposals, the most evident of which was Rockefeller Center itself. Although the great art deco Radio City Music Hall still evades the wrecker, the large and beautiful Center Theater was lost to office space years ago. In the early Twenties, Josef Urban, the greatly gifted scenic artist of the Metropolitan Opera, made renderings for a new house in the taste of Vienna Secession. The Century Theater, above Columbus Circle, went some way toward an all-purpose house, but it was too large for the audience of its time.

There’s only self-indulgence worrying the bones of battles gained or lost, but as purge against confusion certain basics are best stated. As Auden wrote to Lord Byron:

It’s possible a little dose of history
May help us in unravelling this mystery.

Lincoln Center’s originators, as distinct from those later “invited,”were unified under a single concept. This was, and remains, the control of real property. If there is a single motto that might be carved on one of its walls it is: “Organised hatred, that is unity.”2 The central consideration of public trusteeship is tidy manipulation. Without it, there can be no housekeeping or continuity. It is claimed, with justice, that performing artists subsidize tax-free producer-custodians. Pelt and plumage of trustees are as vivid, indeed as peculiar, as those of performers. Neither has much time to probe the other. Trustees consider artists mysterious, magical, anarchic; naughty. Performers recognize boards of directors as remote, tiresome, heartless, and dumb.

The early meetings of the corporation were held at the Century Club. Catty-corners, at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue, shone a recently completed branch of the Manufacturers Trust, designed by Gordon Bunshaft. Its all glass exposed frontal, with the vault door plain to all in a splendid symbol of armored candor, greatly impressed Mr. Rockefeller. He was taken with its frankness, its seasonal nocturnal warmth. Lincoln Center was bid to have a glass skin on every face, whether or not transparency had any function. In this he was seconded by Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., chairman of the board of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society, and its president. He was also chief of Corning Glass Works. Today, if one looks at the back of Fisher Hall, it is sealed against the light of day. Despite Mr. Rockefeller’s displeasure, Philip Johnson sheathed the three service sides of the State Theater in stone, which requires no window-washing and opens on no gracious vista.


The Metropolitan Opera, designed by Wallace K. Harrison, serves as central magnet for Lincoln Center. There was thought of a processional from Central Park through to Broadway; this would have meant replacement for the West Side YMCA. Harrison was inspired by the majestic fallen vault at Ctesiphon; perhaps a nearer precedent was Walter Gropius’s 1957 auditorium for Baghdad University. As built, the Met boasts five identical arches with quasi-Mondrian glazing, lacking a centered emphasis, a facade sliced from an endless repeat. To have raised the first and fifth unit, or lifted the third, would have betrayed a formal symmetry, a lapse into Beaux Arts pattern, then aesthetic heresy. In the last century, Augustus Pugin, fanatic of neo-Gothic, detested Palladio as “pagan”; hence un-christian and un-worthy.

Lincoln Center’s overall aspect is monumental modernoid, a style as dated as art nouveau or art deco but less blithesome. Visible through the huge windows of the Met are Marc Chagall’s Hallmark Chanukah cards, less fanciful than the murals in Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra, which André Malraux, in the perfect-taste of his epoch, concealed behind an even tackier Chagall. The Met vaunts a demi-baroque grand staircase leading nowhere and a minimum of public space. An enormous open orchestra-pit lavishes hedges of sound which only the toughest larynx can penetrate without electronic boosters. Richard Wagner, hardly alien to public appearance, at Bayreuth sank his orchestra under the stage with the sound reflected by a curved wall; conductors did not appear as members of his cast.

With Avery Fisher Hall, designed by Max Abramovitz, we approach sorry science or a vase of worms. Acoustics as an objective absolute compares with sociology, psychiatry, and cancer prognosis. Acoustics are less a science than a scapegoat for trusteeship. As autarchic justice is but a consensus of legal opinion at a given time and place, as nuclear definition is a present accommodation of Nobel physicists, so the metric of acoustics is not about music, but about which expert gets the job. Most visitors to art museums scan paintings guileless of attribution, surface condition, provenance, or subject. Most concertgoers are content with what they think they hear. However, for those so sensitive to aural vibration that presence or absence of tone is torture, acoustics afford a proprietary conversation-piece.

There is all but unanimous agreement that Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston are criteria of acoustical perfection. Arguing about the defects rather than the qualities of a facility approaches the sport in metaphysics or theology. Carnegie Hall was not only salvaged; it was sanctified.3 It is hard to cite a single nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century hall with acoustics to complain about. We forget that older halls were half the size of our “best” ones and were never miked. Before Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Wagner, listeners were more aware of formal structure and clarity than decibels and sonority. The Philadelphia Academy of Music, accepted as a universal favorite, is essentially a provincial German opera-house, beautifully renovated for its 1959 centennial. Its famous orchestra plays within a portable shell permitting its stage to be shared by opera and ballet. In designing the State Theater Philip Johnson held its capacities in mind.

The original acousticians for Philharmonic Hall based their plan on similarity to Boston’s Symphony Hall, a classical double cube, rectilinear and unmiked, of medium size. Dominated by fear that Boston’s seating was too small to offset likely deficits and haunted by the stubborn rivalry in Carnegie’s survival, the board of the Philharmonic pushed for a swollen floor. When disaster struck, naturally acousticians were blamed. Paid for in part and named after a manufacturer of electronic equipment, a second unsuccessful treatment was gutted and Avery Fisher Hall evolved. Philip Johnson as architect submitted to the dictates of an assigned expert.

The new version, like its predecessors, was hailed as “best yet.” Then doubt wiggled. Some balcony subscribers seated facing the opposite walls complain they cannot see the orchestra. Some conductors feel they can’t hear centered solo virtuosi. A fractious, vocal minority in the band admit that while now they can hear each other play (impossible previously), overall sonority is both muddy and sharp with little upper-bass or midfrequency impact, while individual timbres are difficult to distinguish. Others deplore its ambiance of electronic edginess: transistor sound.

An inquirer wonderingly asked the man who reigns as Lincoln Center’s Delphic oracle, who indeed is ultimate acoustical authority? The answer, innocent of cynicism, was: “The incumbent senior music critic on The New York Times.” Acoustics, apart from uncommon common sense, is a matter of physics and P R, not of musical taste.


Circumstances surrounding design and construction of the State Theater are exceptional. A single patron empowered with public funds assigned two artists to build as they chose. In 1966, the Empire State celebrated its tricentennial. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller pressed legislation for a commemorative theater. In 1935 he had been among the first to back Balanchine’s stripling American Ballet. In 1941, as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt, he sent the company to every South American country save Bolivia and Paraguay. At his first inauguration as governor, in 1966, the New York City Ballet danced “Stars and Stripes” in Albany’s State Armory, transported by special train from Grand Central.

At Dartmouth, Nelson dreamed of becoming an architect. Politics were his real pleasure but he took a postgraduate course in engineering and real-estate, hobnobbing with his father’s colleagues in the construction of Rockefeller Center. He was known to suffer from an “edifice complex” by the time he projected the billion-dollar Empire State Plaza in Albany. He told Balanchine to name his own architect. In 1946, Philip Johnson had redesigned the foyer of the School of American Ballet à la Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion, using marbleized paper instead of stone. Since the New York City Ballet had no legal autonomy until 1980, it answered to no building committee or board of directors for dilution or division. Its management was sole client. Lincoln Center, Inc., had but casual interest in design. Building was completed in jig time, coming in within its budget, a single instance in the entire complex.

The existing State Theater manifests the last of three proposals. A site initially assigned to it is now occupied by the Juilliard School which contains Pietro Belluschi’s exquisite wood-clad opera theater. Perhaps the most perfect house for lyric theater in America, it is built on a miniature scale, a student facility without union contracts, half the size of State Theater. The commission to Philip Johnson was at first to design a theater specifically for “dance.” When the site-plan was shifted, he voluntarily conceived an enveloping frame which would have unified the entire Lincoln Center complex. For behind a magnificent openwork precast concrete screen he proposed an enveloping frame which would have unified the heterogeneous assemblage. The several units would have shared a common frontal, like the Place Vendôme in Paris, with individual planning behind a coordinated facade. In 1957, Johnson had not achieved his present gold-medal prestige. His vision of exterior unity commanding interior diversity was unacceptable as the condign hegemony of an egotist. Except in the case of private patronage, until reputations are canonized committee taste is median. As Beachcomber knew: mediocrity is always at its best.

The State Theater is the most rational in its bivouac. Here performer and form-giver were committed to each other. Specifications were simple; in the opinion of Johnson’s rivals, wasteful of public space. The architect planned a great foyer-promenade to serve as parlor for a town heretofore obliged to rent hotel ballrooms or National Guard armories for salutes to pope or prince. The city would share in housekeeping. Actually, there was no “waste space”; areas over the festive foyer support cheap seats. Absent were grand staircase and crystal chandeliers. Johnson decorated his hall with gilt-bronze grilles in a pattern borrowed from Jackson Pollock’s splashes. Its completely surrounding triple balconies are living murals: he said his walls would be “papered with people.” Backstage storage was sacrificed; no fancy gimmicks, hydraulic lifts, traps, turntables, or electronic winches. A very high proscenium frame, a stage floor the springiness of which Balanchine invented to cushion toe shoes and male leaps, make the State Theater the best theater for dance in the world. While construction advanced without opposition save a last gasp of hypocritical prurience over Elie Nadelman’s twin baroque burlesque divinities (paid for by the architect), Balanchine seduced by such ease came to ignore one vital factor. The orchestra pit, planned by Lincoln Center’s computation, was to hold but thirty-five men, normal complement for Broadway musicals. If ballet failed, Showboat or Oklahoma! could pick up the tab. The choreographer’s astonished wrath hauled in jackhammers; now the pit seats sixty-five, uncomfortably. A decent symphonic band needs thirty more. The Vienna Staatsoper, seating but 1,620 subscribers, enjoys one hundred twenty-five instrumentalists.

Edgar Young’s history of “the building of an institution” casts him as “coach and timekeeper.” Sport waged by his gentlemen-players was seldom genteel. While he avoids any pejorative reference to participants, he gives a fair picture of the vast real-estate caper accomplished under Robert Moses’s juggernaut. The great park commissioner himself gave good manners short shrift. Mr. Young’s recital is the report of a CPA whose fiscal statements stay clear of all matters not numbers.

The Metropolitan Opera Association, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a summit of affluence and social stability. The Met stands as the world’s premier vocal house, a position established since Gatti-Casazza was general manager, with the troika of Arturo Toscanini, Enrico Caruso, and Giacomo Puccini, backed by Otto Kahn, an investment banker with interests in the Hamburg-American shipping line. With the possible exception of Kahn, a communicant of St. Thomas’s at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, the Met’s board of directors early in the century welcomed few members of the faith into which his forebears were born.

The City Center of Music and Drama, Inc., parent of the City Opera and Ballet, came into being under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, immediately after the Hitler war, improvised as a people’s theater in the bankrupt Mecca Temple on West 55th Street. Thanks to the patrician taste and social responsibility of Mrs. Lytle Hull and Newbold Morris, a brave new orchestra was commanded for Leonard Bernstein. Morris, descended from a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, had been president of the City Council. Neither he nor Mrs. Hull needed flattering reassurance; their humane interests were matched by genuine appetite for music and dance. Torch and mentor of City Center was Morton Baum, a Harvard-trained tax-expert whose love of Brahms led Balanchine to compose his Liebeslieder Walzer in 1960. Baum was placed by LaGuardia on the Met’s board of directors to oversee municipal interests in its real-estate. He talked too loud and much and was got rid of. He absorbed bitterness, turning resentment to positive action by building a house where a large popular audience could enjoy approved music and dance.

During the early days, the chosen label was “Lincoln Center for Music,” tout court. While ballet was slowly becoming kosher, institutional drama barely existed. Eva Le Gallienne’s lovely Civic Repertory on 14th Street was lost by its location. The Theater Guild failed to found a permanent company, even with its investment in Shaw and O’Neill. The dazzling promise of Orson Welles’s and John Houseman’s WPA and Mercury theaters was siphoned to Hollywood. By 1955 City Center had a success with a drama company recruited from a group of young Harvard actors. There was some hope from the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. However, at its inception, Lincoln Center’s orientation was primarily musical.

If the Metropolitan Opera had been able to build a new house on its own, to replace the crumbling diamond-horseshoe on Broadway and 39th Street—it would have. It made common cause with the Philharmonic, a kissing cousin, which was losing its lease on Carnegie Hall. Even so puissant an alliance required a junior partner. By then City Center appeared to offer passive identify with political advantage. The mayor of the city was, ex-officio, its chief; Newbold Morris was an acceptable pol. Yet it was Morris who opposed the entrance of City Center into Lincoln Center. He was acquainted with Hamiltonian authority in “the rich, the well-born and the able.” Brooke Astor, daughter of a soldier, was not born rich, but she came from the same class and character as Morris. In her delicious memoirs she writes:

the very rich think they are never wrong. The arrogance of big money is one of the most unappealing characteristics and goes very deep. Most very rich people think of themselves as simple and undemanding. 4

Robert Moses, the greatest power-broker America has seen, was also unenthusiastic about the “invitation” to City Center, even though its inclusion brought sweetening to a situation which might read as elitist. Anxiety poisoned the Met lest the City Opera develop into a Trojan colt, unlikely as such a threat might now seem. The Philharmonic agonized should Carnegie Hall be reprieved. In 1957, promoters, intent on demolishing it, hired Pomerance & Breines, architects, to design a speculative tower on stilts, faced in crimson porcelain with a checkerboard window pattern. However, Isaac Stern and his magic fiddle sang and now Carnegie Hall has just celebrated its ninetieth birthday. In a single situation the compulsion of monopoly benefited Balanchine. The American Ballet Theater justifiably demanded a share in any public-supported theater dedicated to “dance,” but Lincoln Center, Inc., had enough whimsy on its hands and didn’t care to deal with still another secondary administration. Whereupon Morton Baum inserted the City Opera into the State Theater as City Ballet’s Siamese twin.

Lincoln Center, Inc., has had no effect, one way or another, on the Metropolitan Opera Association, the Philharmonic Society, the New York Public Library’s branch, or the Juilliard School. It has never hesitated to lay a heavy hand of more than eleemosynary benevolence on the City Center of Music and Drama, to whom it leases the State Theater. Although by 1960 Morton Baum would win a nasty battle freeing the house from the inevitable commercial exploitation of a Sol Hurok if costs grew beyond cash required by opera and ballet, habits of putative control die hard. Five years ago Lincoln Center imposed a single person who not only headed City Center Inc.—but also its opera, ballet, as well as the Beaumont Theater. This canny entrepreneur stead-fastly opposed the individuation of City Center’s shackled companies. When forced to resign, he brazenly claimed he had himself won their long fight for managerial authority. Struggle continues: eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

Dilemmas of City Opera are inherent and inherited. Fiercely opposed from the first by big battalions across the plaza, the Met’s hostility was invidious and short-sighted. In London, two first-rate opera companies exist in whatever anxious opposition. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, heavily subsidized despite Britain’s imperial shrinkage, affords Pavarotti, Sutherland, and two ballet companies. The English National Opera in the superb Edwardian Coliseum, twice the size of Covent Garden, operates with distinction using excellent English translations of an adventurous international repertory.

There is place in New York for both grand opera and opéra comique, but so far no boundaries are drawn. The Met is above collaboration; City Opera sings as victim. It stages versions of standard repertory at half price and efficiency, duplicating in reduced format the extravagance of its wealthy neighbor. Its pioneering revival of bel canto, its many contemporary debuts comprise a historical service which must continue. The Met’s success this winter with advance-guard music of fifty years ago was in great part due to the interest stimulated by earlier City Opera productions of Stravinsky, Ravel, Britten, Janácek, and many others.

The unique endeavor called into being by Lincoln Center, Inc., was a house intended for “repertory drama,” named Beaumont after a principal patron. Its chapter is one of all but unalleviated catastrophe. A coroner’s report might clarify the witless confidence of realtors, bankers, and plungers into their talent as theatrical producers. Drama is vulnerable in its “classic” areas whereas opera, ballet, and symphonic music are able to risk intermittent novelties within established repertory. Even prepaid subscribers, hungry as they may be for non-commercial theater, can be disillusioned by nerveless direction.

Lincoln Center’s aim, or hope, was, in some foggy way, to match or compete with the proliferation of traditional production in London. The United Kingdom’s first-rate academies and broad opportunities in regional companies supply an uninterrupted flow of character actors who speak the Queen’s English in consistent concert, as well as mastering Yorkshire, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Australian, and Chicagoan dialects. English actors are occupied in impersonating personalities other than their own accidental characteristics. Ours are caught in a system which pushes negotiable charm merchandised by agents for Hollywood and the soaps. Stars are liquid securities; Broadway has come to the gilt-edged sit-com formula of three-character, one-set delicatessen-drama. There is, however, excellent repertory to be found across the country in more than a dozen far-flung cities, often in elegant theaters built by the Ford Foundation during the lost years of its cultural greatness. In these, intelligent young players who judge their chances with as much moral commitment as muscular ambition, choose to remain and exercise developing skills, bonded in the companionship of professional expertise. Some will, of course, get to Broadway or Hollywood, but limitations of our theatrical employment damn any remote possibility that, under a Reagan administration or any other, we may come to establish a “classic national company” in Washington, New York, or anywhere else.5

As for Lincoln Center, the recent season at the Beaumont was not atypical. Finally, even Lincoln Center admitted that true repertory isn’t feasible. A tyrant-director or even a tandem system which was twice tried can’t keep within the nervous budgets that were licensed. So, after stubborn failure, policy was changed toward building a house-of-hits. Three individual productions were mounted any of which could have been transferred to Broadway had it been in any way successful. Lacking a trace of analytical intelligence, a Laurence Olivier as body and soul, or a Kenneth Tynan as dramaturge and brain, the Beaumont indulged its silliness with a feckless social-comedy from Katherine Hepburn’s premovie career, madly overproduced but lacking Kate. This was capped by an operatic Macbeth, second only to Timon or Titus Andronicus as a coffin for male-impersonators. In a nadir of moral irresponsibility, a gifted young actor was baited into a trap which all but destroyed him. The finale of this sorry adventure was a “comedy” by a hit movie maker who was expected to save the world when all else failed by presenting a rehash of his familiar genre scenes. It is not heartening to hear from the incoming chief executive of Lincoln Center, Inc., that all Beaumont needs to redeem itself is “a couple of hits.”

Needless to say, powers that be blame somnambulistic disaster on the architecture of the theater, rather than abdication of direction or management. Here were three risk-free packages—a bid for upper-middle-class nostalgia, a “classic” with “educational” kudos, plus Woody Alien. Now the house will be closed next season to reopen ostensibly under the identical producers. When it was new, Eero Saarinen’s building was hailed as the single architectural triumph of the complex, thanks to its stupendous slab-roof seemingly supported on two pinpoints. Why the big foyer was sunk a floor below the adjoining reflecting pool remains a mystery. The playing area was conceived as undifferentiated space in which anything might happen, proscenium frame or theater-in-the-round. A popular notion when stagecraft felt obliged to compete with cinema, the lack of a fixed frame and enormous stage-space encourages decorative parades making key-emphasis on action all but impossible. The auditorium is to be rebuilt by I.M. Pei—featuring that trendy enemy: the proscenium arch. “Modernism” in architecture, as in music, verse, and the plastic art, has had its dreary day.

In defense of architectural misjudgment, rather than want of sense or skill, brilliant stage directors from Max Reinhardt to Peter Brook have overcome awkward space to grasp victory from the very adversity of a given site. In London an ancient dock and factory, in Paris a one-ring circus, house “hits.” In New York, short miles from Lincoln Center, the Public Theater, the condemned office of a nineteenth-century immigrant aid society, has been transformed into the most useful and attractive theatrical complex in the country with unified but diverse auditoria for progressive dance, drama, film, and music. Its director, Joseph Papp, was six years at Lincoln Center; more than anyone else, he demonstrated what could be done at the Beaumont. Papp, more than anyone else, can play both sides of the tracks—Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway. He has learned how to operate art- and commercial-theater by handling real-estate without realtors. It is churlish of Young to dismiss Joseph Papp in a single reference of nine lines.

In summation, Lincoln Center shelters organizations with a proven ability to manage deficits. This is no trifling service. It is vain to pretend that, somehow, such a steward might perform better or differently. Like it or not, a satisfactory, even a satisfied audience from north of Soho to south of Central Park North, plus supplementary subscribers from New Jersey, Westchester, and Fairfield counties, account for support enough to attract federal, corporate, foundation, and individual aid toward the widest possibilities we are now permitted, perhaps in the world entire. On a fair night, with the gilt glow warming the shadows of filled foyers, it is a venue in which one may ponder one’s blessings. If there are flaws to flaunt or regret against some grander chances, there is no single adversary to impeach. The keepers of Lincoln Center, Inc., behave as their, and our, education forms or deforms us.

A distinguished cardiac specialist has this to say about the metabolism of merchants:

There is little sense in prim disapproval of the ways of the world, I would muse, once one has consented to accept them in the name of its fruits, but in the fellowship of aspirants to the laurels of Aristotle on the one hand and the descendants of the Philistines on the other, the coarse constantly threatens the fine, the means are always in danger of corruption, and the ends cannot help but reflect them.

All of which sounds perilously pharisaical, as if to say that doctors, thank God, are not as other men, but to settle for that interpretation is to miss the point. It is rather to say that there are few callings in a world of the marketplace, especially if men believe in them, that are not soul killers. Medicine may also be contrived as such, but it is not constructed inevitably to become one.6

What is true for the healing arts differs in no way from the performing arts.

This Issue

August 13, 1981