Bright Futures

For creative, challenging music-making and culture, Lincoln Center may just be the place to be over the next few years. The plaza is redone and is both gorgeous and welcoming, City Opera is back and hopefully off life-support, the New York Philharmonic is almost entirely transformed as an institution from where it was even two years ago, and the Metropolitan Opera has also been showing a great deal of dynamism. Their new season schedule looks very exciting. It’s not new news that their are starting a new Ring Cycle production, what is new, and important, is that they are doing their first production of Nixon in China with Peter Sellars making his debut at the house, and they are adding through subtraction by phasing out Zeffirelli’s productions, which represent everything wrong with how opera is done nowadays. Bartlett Sher is going to be back and the rep features, including Verdi’s great Don Carlo, are going to be put through new productions. It means so much that the Met is cleaning out the mummies and breathing life into things again.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

10 thoughts on “Bright Futures”

  1. Although I agree that Opera needs some new fresh ideas (and I am very excited about Peter Sellars making his debut – he is great) but your indictment of Zeffirelli may be a bit harsh. I love seeing fresh new takes by directors such as Lepage’s interpretation of La Damnation de Faust. Lepage has is able to make bold strides in his productions while remaining sensitive to the tradition and the music. Gelb is pushing people into opera production that are not opera lovers and do not approach the medium with the sensitivity that the ‘old guard’ requires at the Met. Zimmerman’s aesthetically pleasing production of La Sonnambula last season was proof that when you put a non-opera lover at the helm they may feel the need to make the production more complicated for their own lack of love for the score and weight of tradition that comes when handling an opera. Bartlet Sher’s productions havent given me 100% confidence as of yet, Barbiere di Siviglia’s set didnt impress me much, and the blinding white background in the final act made it difficult to concentrate on the singers or the music. I liked Sher’s Hoffman better, in fact I like the set quite a bit, but I found the stage direction much too scattered and often found myself wondering where to look
    (in many cases I happily chose bare breasts, which you wont hear me complain about). I guess I like to see a good mix of produciton styles at the Met, and I certainly enjoy some of Zeffirelli’s work, especially his Turandot. Some operas are certainly more conducive to modern interpretations but some require the realist detail and loving care that Zeffirelli and Schenk bring to them. If there is one older production in the Mets current rep. that I would be more than willing to chuck it would, without a doubt, be Trittico, with the exception being the Gianni Schicchi I found the sets to be lacking in creativity and not spectacular enough to justify their realist style. I have rambled enough! Cheers to seeing Peter Sellars at the Met at last!

    1. My indictment of Zeffirelli in this post is actually much milder than what I wrote in the Brooklyn Rail! We are not going to agree on any of these things – I found Sher’s Barbiere to be winning in every way, and Turandot to be the most meaningless, vulgar distraction. Opera is drama, and if the drama can be made to speak to us, then it works on stage. The results may be spectacular, but opera is not spectacle and to start off by treating it as such means the drama is not served, the opera itself needs to succeed, not the sets and costumes. Zeffirelli turns drama into museum pieces which display his own less than mediocre taste – he is bad for opera. The great success for the Met so far this year has been From The House of the Dead, an opera with almost no action, and for which the production was both spare and stark; everything was focussed on the drama and it was completely gripping.

  2. Haha, well I will agree that your Brooklyn Rail article was more critical! Zeffirelli’s Turandot was huge, gaudy and dramatic, so is the score! The congruency that existed between the large golden set and the lush Italian score was such that one enhanced the other. If purist drama is what you’re after, Sher’s Barbiere certainly tainted that by bringing the stage around the pit, bringing the singers out in front of the orchestra, which made the audience all too aware of the apparatus of the opera house and of themselves as a part of it in a way that the opera itself didnt call for, detracting from the dramatic experience if you ask me! I can agree on your assessment of Chereau’s handling of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, the sets simplicity certainly enhanced the drama while remaining true to the libretto and the context of the score. Although we have drastically different views on Zeffirelli, it is really great to have a good critical discourse with another young opera fan!

    1. You misapprehend me; I am against purism which is small-minded, selfish possession of something and has nothing to do with music or art. Sher’s Il Barbieri was a success to me in part because the singers are moving around, as are the sets. Everything is fleet, febrile and dynamic, like Rossini’s score – the production served Rossini completely, and the on-stage scene-changes were lovely and an entertaining abstraction of the music. If the apparatus of the opera house needs to be invisible, than surely Zeffirelli fails that test. He is all apparatus, all sets and costumes, and the forty-five minute scene change is like a lead weight of apparatus around the neck of the opera. When the audience applauds the scenery, they are applauding all that apparatus. I must point out that ‘lush Italian score’ has no real meaning – Puccini favors extended chords in his harmonies, but Turandot is self-consciously “Oriental” just as much as “Italian” and, as some of his most dynamic music, is ill-served by the sets. Puccini’s harmonies serve an expressive purpose, Zeffirelli’s vulgarity serves and egotistical one. Most important, though, is that the singers are portraying characters and require direction most of all, not sets, and Sher directs singers while Zeffirelli couldn’t direct his way out of a wet paper bag. Just because singers have parked and barked for decades doesn’t mean that was ever a good thing to do. It’s not, and never was. The characters should be applauded, not the sets and arias. Opera is a living form, not a museum form, and the Met is doing the whole opera world a favor by phasing out Zeffirelli.

  3. I agree with the way the mechanics of Sher’s set and stage direction correspond to the score, the physical and aesthetic qualities of the set however made for an unpleasant visual experience. The white aesthetics of the radiating white background were not only non-inventive but created a physical response from the audience who were all forced, suddenly to squint to see the stage. By wrapping the stage around the pit, the magic of production is lost for the orchestra is suddenly sandwiched within the set, suddenly throwing a foreign object into the scene while making the audience aware of themselves and the house surrounding them. My biggest issue with Sher is that I often find that the scattered direction leaves many wondering where to rest their eyes, which makes them lose concentration on the opera and panic while sifting through chaos. Zeffirelli’s 45 minute pauses for set changes dont bother me, in fact, I appreciate them as moments to digest and recharge before the next wave stimulation. Scene changes also can be used cleverly to enhance the feeling of passage of time. Zeffirelli’s Turandot is most successful for it is grand without being too scattered and his sense of composition and weight always leads the eye to the right spot within the scene, even if it is a park and bark, I am able to concentrate on the music and set and take it all in. Puccini’s score is most certainly Italian, for all of its oriental influence comes second hand – nothing is more European than Orientalism! Zeffirelli, an Italian, creates an Orientalist view of the east in his set the same way Puccini does by including themes from eastern music in the score. No matter where the influence comes from, Puccini’s score is Italian in form and execution, Nessun Dorma does not sound like Chinese music to me (or to my chinese brother who went along with me for that matter). Zeffirelli utilizes the themes of Orientalism in his stunning set and it makes, as Wagner would put it, a Gesamtkunstwerk. I agree that grand and lavish sets are not always the key to a successful opera, but in certain cases are successful. Opera is about masterpieces, they are few and far between, modern composers do bring some to the table and it is fun to see a contemporary take on an art form steeped in tradition. One of the things opera lovers love about the art form is the minutia between productions, singers, conductors. True opera lovers will see a hundred Bohemes and enjoy comparing the minute details between them, purism is about the minutia and the tradition. I think it is good to progress from the tradition but for an art form with few outlets, to phase it out completely is a mistake and betrayal to the art and its in many cases the patrons who support it. I think it is important to present fresh takes on the classics, yet I think in most cases they can be appreciated more if one is familiar with a more traditional take, for instance, Peter Sellar’s storied early production of Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem would be dramatic for any member of the audience, yet has much more meaning for a viewer who is more familiar with the tradition that surrounds the opera. Like any good score, balance is the key to a successful repertory.

    1. Yes, I understand you dug Turandot and didn’t like Il Barbieri, and you are telling us why. But this isn’t criticism, it’s just you explaining your taste. Perfectly fine, but you are using your own personal criteria in place of taking a thing on its own terms and evaluating how well it supports them. Certainly, my taste has to do with my criticism, but there are some things that are actual things and others that are assertions. Sher’s production, like it or not, is dedicated to the form and meaning of Rossini’s score in detail. You may find it distasteful to surround the orchestra pit with the stage, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I suffered no such physical problems during the production as you did. Zeffirelli’s production is simply not a gesamtkunstwerk anymore than Sher’s is – neither fulfill the definition. Costumes and sets do not one make, a great deal more is needed in form and concept. And I do feel that if Puccini’s name was Nagy, you would be extolling the Hungarian qualities of the score. Once past specific Baroque forms and gestures, there is nothing inherently Italian in form and execution in classical music, although there may be particular nationalistic features of style. For anything you might point to in the score and call it Italian, I could easily find the same element in the music of composers from different countries. Puccini was a Fascist as well, it’s just as meaningful to assert his score is Fascist rather than Italian, i.e. not meaningful at all.

      On your own terms, I am not a true opera lover. On mine, I would argue that I love opera more than the supposedly true opera lovers. What you describe as love strikes me as gossip. I am not a fan of opera stars, I’m a lover of the works themselves. I compare notes on differences in production, like the two different productions of Dr. Atomic, in terms of how they convey ideas and meanings in the musical drama. A fresh take is valuable only insofar as it has something to say, which made this season’s Tosca a worthwhile failure. Sellar’s production of Don Giovanni is dramatic only if it works or not, newness and setting don’t make it work, once it sets those terms it has to make them work. If opera is to work in front of any audience, old or new, it has to work in the moment on stage; if previous experience productions of Mozart’s opera is required to appreciate a new production, then there is something wrong with the production. I feel much of opera ‘fandom,’ this focus on ‘masterpieces’ and ‘tradition’ substitutes fetishization for love. Opera is no more about masterpieces than any other form in classical music, if it were than there would be a hell of a lot fewer works seen on stage. Seriously, there are very, very few masterpieces in the history of the form, there’s a much larger number of mediocre to good works that are suitable for both spectacular staging and stop and go aria singing followed by applause and bows and onto the next number. People enjoy them, that’s great, but an opera is not by definition a masterpiece. What opera is really about, and here I urge everyone to read this book, is characters who have no other choice but to sing, their internal drama cannot be expressed in any other way. Ask the question, do these people have to be singing, and if the answer is at all “no” then it’s not a masterpiece nor should it be an opera.

  4. I have read the dialogs with interest and don’t want to inervene on a two way conversation…but, let us eliminate what I call “buzz words” like Zefferelli, etc. An elaborate stage set and costumes can add to the validity of a musical presentation (i.e. opera), but the primary sensitivity should be to the music and singing. Yes, opera is drama set to music, but aside from a few operas, most people cannot name either the librettist nor the source of the drama. The production can add to the enjoyment of the evening and one hopes even bring additional enlightenment to a previously heard work, so that one hears the music and feels the emotions anew or even in a different mode. The conductor can add/subtract drama and production value to an evening as much as the producer/set and costume designer as long as the “on stage team” doesn’t get in the way of the music man leading the band.
    Criticism is always based on personal likes and dislikes…no work of art exists in a pure form, even to the artist. I can consider a production “misguided”, but not wrong. I rarely say “it was bad”, as opposed to “I didn’t like it.” : A large scale production that definitely added to the understanding of the music and drama for me is the Met “Billy Budd”. An overwhelming stage set that was awesome and was really instructive in understanding the life of the ship’s crew in relationship to social standing in England at the time. In addition to the Joseph Kerman, I would recommend Gary Schmidgall “Literature as Opera”…Oxford University Press 1977, a valuable resource.

    1. Thanks for joining the discussion, I do welcome these comments. I of course agree that all the aspects that go into putting an opera on stage can add or detract from it’s success, that’s certainly true. However, some things are what they are. I want to point out that Zefferelli is not a buzzword, he’s a man who does specific work, and I mean to specifically be critical of him and his work. He has one virtue, which is obviousness, and that’s a pretty minor virtue. There are people who enjoy obviousness, but that doesn’t make his work good. And he is a terrible director of singers. His obviousness in production and his lack of direction do not enhance the virtues of opera or the success of what is on stage.

      As for criticism, the best criticism, and it is out there, is not based at all in personal likes and dislikes. It is based on understanding the terms that a work presents for itself and then evaluating how well it fulfills those terms. Something can be disagreeable, (it’s best in Italian I think, non mi piace), but succeed as a work of art. My fallback is example is Strauss, who writes astonishingly skillful, effective music that usually does exactly what it sets out to do. Personally, what Strauss sets out to do does not please me. However, things can be not only misguided but wrong. An opera production is an example of something that can be wrong, as an opera is not a tabula rasa. There is a story to tell, and there are ways to tell a story that are wrong, that the story itself cannot support. Stage Fidelio with Don Pizarro as a hero, or even a sympathetic character? Well, that would be wrong.

  5. Concerning your comment about Strauss operas that what he sets out to do does not please you…do you therefore not go to a Strauss opera because you do not think you will enjoy the evening and elect to do something else instead?
    I have gone to many an opera performance, admittedly mostly to the Met, expecting a mediocre evening of a production I don’t particular like, of an opera that I could easily live without, cast with singers I have never heard of and/or don’t care for. I go because I never know in a live performance what night “lightning will strike” and it will all come together. Perhaps I have had a couple of drinks, a successful day, and am with a good friend….or perhaps the conductor has had a couple of drinks, a successful day, and had a pleasurable afternoon experience….except for the operas that I truly find difficult to like, and they are rare, I always go with the attitude that tonight they will be doing “My Favorite Opera”. I am often disappointed, but that doesn’t prevent me from hoping that the next performance of said opera won’t be better.
    I believe I am probably older that the both of you and have been going to the opera since I was a child…my Xmas present…starting in the old house. In those days of “park and bark”, if it was Milanov, Tucker and Warren parked in a La Forza, even a not very knowledgeable 12 year old with no operatic history and background would be bowled over….Those folks could sing. They didn’t need a director to give them the emotional resonance of a character, they looked at the score and the composer did it for them. The sets were two dimensional at best, even Eugene Berman, and frequently could have been interchanged from one 19th century country to another…change the name of the opera, change the name of the locale, and still use them same village set.
    One more note on Zefferelli: I understand your thoughts and will frequently agree with you. The first time we saw his Boheme, we couldn’t find Rodolfo and Mimi in the cafe; and my friends went ballistic in the third act with all of the supers going up and down the back of the set with their umbrellas…a scene that should essentially be a quartet. His Act I of Tosca (compared to the previous production) also was not to my liking…too many visitors crowding the stage which made the sacristan-children scene a come down/ the entrance of Scarpia less effective, and certainly the overwhelming crowd scene at the end of the act has precluded even the stongest of baritones from being heard when he “sings” his great line that “Tosca you make me forget God”. On the other hand, his productions of “Otello” and “Falstaff” were both in character and I thought directed very well.
    I am also looking foward to the next season. I have very high hopes for the Lepage Ring…I thought his production ideas in Damnation lend themselves to the mythological background of the plot. I did not care for the Chereau Bayreuth politicalization of the Ring when I first saw it (on tape), but with time and recent reviewing it is becoming more to my liking, certainly better than some of the European space ship concepts.
    I will find out more about the John Adams Nixon in China this weekend from a friend involved in the production. and also Dr. Atomic comparisons since she worked on the San Francisco performance.
    Don’t mean to be so rambling, but I just add the notes as I think of them. My rewrite assistant and editor must be stuck at home in the snow.
    To be continued.

    1. For Strauss, I will go to a performance of one of his operas if it needs to be reviewed, but not for personal pleasure. I have seen many performances of multiple Strauss operas, and I simply do not want to hear what he has to say. He says it extremely well, it’s just not for me. A rough and unfair analogy would be if Sarah Palin actually learned how to say anything coherently, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in it.

      I think your reasons for seeing a performance are true for most people, the difference live is that it is alive, something special may certainly happen, whether it’s the Met, Carnegie Hall or the Village Vanguard. Especially in opera, recordings can only do so much. Hearing Hildegard Behrens as Leonore never did anything for me, but seeing her onstage absolutely inhabit the role is still perhaps my most profound opera experience.

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