Planning for Lincoln Center, one of the world’s major cultural centers, began in the mid-1950s. Ground was broken in 1959 and within a decade six theaters, a school, a library and museum, a fountain, and landscaped parks, all with Modern works of art, had been completed. The buildings that house music, opera, ballet, theater, and the Juilliard School were designed by leading American architects and all are faced in Italian travertine.
New York State Theater
Philip Johnson was one of the major figures involved with the design, completing the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) in 1964 as the home of the New York City Ballet. The east lobby contains a monumental work, “Numbers, 1964,” by Jasper Johns, made from Sculpmetal. Composed of separate panels bolted together, this is the largest of Johns’ Numbers series and is his only public work of art. The size of each panel was determined by the size of his friend, choreographer Merce Cunningham’s foot, and Cunningham’s footprint can be seen towards the upper right.
State Theater was designed specifically for New York City Ballet (NYCB), the company co-founded by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. Kirstein was determined to see ballet become a major art form in the United States. He brought Balanchine to America in 1933 to establish the School of American Ballet and a related company. In 1946, he founded a company called Ballet Society with Balanchine, which became NYCB two years later. When Jerome Robbins decided to leave Broadway in the mid-1960s for ballet, he choreographed for NYCB, creating such seminal ballets as Dances at a Gathering (1969) and The Goldberg Variations (1971). On October 5, 1987, he served as the artistic coordinator for “Dancing for Life,” a historic AIDS benefit gala that included performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, American Ballet Theatre, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, Feld Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, the Joffrey Ballet, the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group, NYCB, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Twyla Tharp Dance.
New York City Opera relocated from City Center, where it had performed from 1944 to 1966, to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, where it remained until 2010. As at City Center, the company featured the operas of a number of significant 20th century gay composers. Among them were: Benjamin Britten, Albert Herring (1971) and Paul Bunyan (1998); Lee Hoiby, Summer and Smoke (1972); Leonard Bernstein, the premiere of the “Opera House Version” of Candide (1982); Tobias Picker, Emmeline (1998); Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All (2000); Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking (2002); and Samuel Barber, Vanessa (2007). An opera about San Francisco’s first gay elected official, Harvey Milk (1995) by Stewart Wallace, had, according to the New York Times, probably “the first homosexual loves scenes in an opera house.”
A number of gay men were instrumental in leading City Opera in the late 20th century. Christopher Keene, a protege of Gian Carlo Menotti, was the company’s Music Director (1982-86) and General Manager (1989-95); he died of AIDS in 1995. He was followed by Paul Kellogg as General and Artistic Director (1996-2007). Mark Adamo was named Composer in Residence (2001-2006), and the company performed his two operas, Little Women (2003) and Lysistrata (2006).
When the time finally arrived that opera performers could be more open about their sexuality, gay and lesbian singers associated with City Opera were in the forefront. These included Christine Brandes, Beth Clayton, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Bejun Mehta, Kurt Ollmann, Patricia Racette, Sanford Sylvan, and David Walker.
The first theater to open was Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall and now David Geffen Hall). On September 23, 1962, Leonard Bernstein conducted the inaugural concert which included a new piece, Connotations, by Aaron Copland. Besides Copland, other composers attending the opening-night concert were Samuel Barber, Henry Cowell, and Virgil Thomson.
Metropolitan Opera House
The Metropolitan Opera House opened on September 16, 1966 with the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in a controversial production by Franco Zeffirelli, who not only wrote the libretto and directed, but also designed the lavish sets and costumes. The production was conducted by Thomas Schippers and choreographed by Alvin Ailey. For over forty years, beginning in 1976, the Met reached new musical heights under the baton of music director James Levine, who was suspended by the Met in December 2017 for sexual assault allegations.
At the southwest corner of the Lincoln Center complex is Damrosch Park. This was the site of the rally that kicked off the first AIDS Walk on May 18, 1986, sponsored by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The walk has been an annual fundraising and memorial event ever since.