The Troubles With Opera

… It’s bad enough the company has such severe financial problems that they threaten disintegration. It’s worse that these problems were caused by supposed lovers of opera and are now being exacerbated by people who should know better, who should know what opera is yet instead demand their “Opera,” in all it’s trappings, a course that would surely sink the company as quickly as a gold bar placed on a balsa wood raft…


“I’m a young American woman living in Milan, and you’re not. I go to La Scala a lot, and you don’t” – Opera Chic

“When is an opera not an opera? Could I get any more insensitive to … quotidian realities … than to foppishly divert myself with redundant aesthetic issues related to the Western world’s most indulged and elitist art form?” – Chris Bohn, The Wire, Issue 329, July 2011

“The opera in society is an ornament of the lives of the people who have.” – John Cage

These three quotes encapsulate for me the fundamental troubles that opera faces today, in general and also in the quite specific and difficult case of New York City Opera. There is an unfortunate, and fairly long-standing divide between opera, the music drama form, and “Opera,” the cultural production, trappings and fandom surrounding the stars, the houses and some of the composers. It’s this divide that separates the loathsome attitude of Opera Chic, someone who loves “Opera” and appears indifferent to opera, and Bohn and Cage, powerfully attracted to music drama but repelled by what Opera Chic represents. She may be good for the business of “Opera,” but the damage she and the likes of her do to opera is deep.

You can see it in the teetering edifice of City Opera. It’s bad enough the company has such severe financial problems that they threaten disintegration. It’s worse that these problems were caused by supposed lovers of opera and are now being exacerbated by people who should know better, who should know what opera is yet instead demand their “Opera,” in all it’s trappings, a course that would surely sink the company as quickly as a gold bar placed on a balsa wood raft.

It is the season of discontent about George Steel, and that’s unfair. Steel’s charisma is easily matched by both his knowledge of the form and his commitment to it, and he is trying to not only carry the company out of the Straits of Messina but turn imminent disaster into opportunity. Alan Pierson is doing a similar thing with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but he is being praised (as he should be) while Steel is not being given a chance. Media coverage, led by the Times and Alex Ross, has been skeptical at its most generous, and public support non-existent. Sentiment from the inside and the outside has been wrapped up in the prestige of the Lincoln Center address rather than the art that goes onstage. It’s both understandable and incomprehensible that Julius Rudel and Beverly Sills Placido Domingo (thanks to Brian Hinrichs for straightening out my brain cramp) choose to criticize Steel for leaving the David Koch theater rather than support him for seeking to preserve City Opera.

Because the point is opera, and opera is not Lincoln Center. That too many people think it is causes a lot of these troubles. Before Steel presented his plans for the 2011-12 season at the Guggenheim Museum, there was a protest out on Fifth Avenue, organized by the Musicians Union and attended by orchestra and chorus members. The phrase “world-class opera” was tossed around a lot (what does that even mean?), Catherine Malfitano gave an impassioned, rambling, incoherent speech:

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal demanded that City Opera stay “in its historic home in Lincoln Center,” (the historic home of the company is the the New York City Center, where it opened in 1943, a generation before Lincoln Center was built) (not sure what, if anything, she’s done for City Opera before or since), Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi complained of a “total lack of vision” on the part of Steel. The crazy thing is, with the budget being cut, out of necessity, from $30+ million to $13 million, they obsess over a location where residency for the company comes to almost $5 million a year. They demand “world class opera” but what they really want is prestige, a shallow currency that is still, sadly, pervasive in New York City.

I like to look good — what can I say — but since I don’t live in Milan, I can’t get too self-conscious about what I am wearing to which event. This may shock, but I haven’t put on a tie to attend the opera or the symphony since the fall of 1992. If people like to get dressed up for the opera, good for them. If people want to declare to their friends and neighbors that they went to prestigious Lincoln Center for the opera, well that’s not so good — go for the drama, not the prestige. This is, as the composer William Bolcolm expressed to me in a recent interview, opera as “pageant.” The pageant onstage, especially the kind of thing common at the Metropolitan Opera under such dreary blow-hards as Franco Zeffirelli, and the pageant of gowns and tuxedoes in the audience become one, become the point, and that has nothing do with opera and everything to do with the prestige of Lincoln Center.

Prestige has a price, one few can afford. In recent years, City Opera strove for prestige, yet they couldn’t quite reach it. Hiring George Steel was an accidental result of that failure. The City Opera board pursued Gerard Mortier, an important and accomplished figure, but he demanded a budget that would bring the company within site of it’s bigger, more prestigious neighbor. The mandate was: become “world class,” like some superfluous vulgarity out of the Robb Report. Prestige and world-class are pretty effervescent qualities, ungraspable, things that fleetingly trigger some atavistic pleasure center and then disappear, leaving the craving for another hit, and this was prestige as vaporous as a something out of The Futurological Congress. That the company itself was essentially shut down while sociopathic industrialist Koch paid for a monument to his own prestige set the concept of world-class onto an edifice of nothing other than will (or perhaps lust); a budget was set in order to pay for … absolutely nothing. Mortier, probably realizing that the board was a bunch of fools and oafs (and certainly board member Mark Newman’s utter, clichéd rudeness to those of insufficient prestige at the July press conference was an example of everything wrong with the 1% of New Yorkers), hurried back to Europe, having produced nothing.

Steel’s first two seasons have produced truly world-class opera in Don Giovanni, A Quiet Place and Three Monodramas, productions that presented profoundly, thrillingly deep music drama. He did the work, yet somehow now he’s the villain, he’s the one left holding the bag. It is a necessary evil that arts organizations need trustees, and while I’m sure many board members feel they are truly committed to support an art form here or an institution there, it seems to me that they should stick to fund-raising, where prestige is the lingua franca, and stay the fuck out of artistic and even administrative decisions, where they show themselves as meddlesome boors, with an endless appetite for the Chopin “symphonies” and verismo productions. They have money, and so in general American culture they are good and worthy people to whom we are supposed to defer. They see opera as “a hypertheatrical medium that holds a magnifying mirror up to nature,” and so those who follow them see it as such too.

But it’s not, or perhaps it’s best to say that while it can be (too often) hypertheatrical, that is neither its origins nor its destiny. The earliest “world-class” opera we have is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and what makes it an enduring masterpiece is that it is so naturalistic; it takes a myth and makes it a human experience, through music that is immediate, earthy and emotionally true. It also resists pageantry and grand scale. Even an ultra-contemporary production like this exceptional one from Robert Wilson is deeply human and powerful:

This is a fantastic DVD (on the Opus Arte label) that I wish every opera director, trustee and follower of Opera Chic would watch, as an example of what it is they claim to love. It is small, quiet, and right there. Of course, it takes a budget to put this one, but the drama is in the music and the people who execute it, not in the set dressing and scene changes, not in the aria designed to show off the diva/divos vocal and sentimental range — a completely anti-dramatic affectation in an already artificial form – not in who’s wearing what gown.

La Scala can do this because it’s a relatively modest house, seating 2,800 which is just at the limit of physical reason. The Metropolitan Opera seats 3,800 and that’s simply too big. Yes, they do great work there, but it mostly demands a pageantry that can reach all the way to the back of the ceiling. So they invest massive amounts of money in stage apparatus, turning drama into a form of engineering, while wonderful productions like Mark Morris’ L’Orphee get swallowed up. He really belongs at City Opera, and opera itself, for the most part, belongs in smaller venues.

In opera, size does matter, and small almost always beats big. The bigger the house, the bigger the orchestra, the more resources a singer must use to project. Gigantism in opera production is ahistorical. For centuries, small orchestras played in small theaters with singers who could concentrate on musical line and drama equally. John Moran currently does brilliant work with a laptop and one other performer — his results are dramatic and remarkable. The sound and quality of music from Monteverdi to Mozart has that sense of size integrated at the core. One of the luxuriant charms of Baroque opera is that the assiduous artifice of the drama and the musical expression is set at such a human scale. The Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music holds just over 2,000, the Harvey Theater less than a thousand, and these are two premiere venues for opera. BAM will be hosting City Opera’s La Traviata (and maybe the ideal future for City Opera is that they become Brooklyn’s opera company), and they are already one of the most important houses in the country for their consistent support of Baroque opera. Last month they hosted the revival of Les Arts Florissants production of Lully’s Atys, and not only was it one of the greatest things I have ever experienced in my life, but it was a lesson in why opera exists, why composers are compelled to create it.

The extravagance of the production is the costumes, elegantly modernized versions of the dress from the court of the Sun King. There is essentially one set, dressed simply to convey various different rooms and times of day. Everything else is drama, and everything in the production is designed to convey it. In this era’s rediscovery of Baroque opera, the stars are conductors like William Christie, vivacious and artful advocates of what they consider great music. And the music of Atys is great. A steady diet of Handel and Vivaldi can dull the senses to the expansive variety of works like this, where both the steady core and changing reactions of the characters are so interestingly and clearly expressed that there’s really no need to consult the supertitles to understand the detail and nuance of what is happening. If the group had just presented the music in concert, that would have been completely satisfying.

But the production, directed by Jean-Marie Villégier, is possibly the greatest opera production on record. Every moment on stage is dedicated to integrated physical and musical elements into an expression of the drama. The balance between musicological scholarship, interpretive intelligence and musicality is ideal. Two small things, seemingly literal, are profoundly affecting. One is setting the prologue in the King’s court, with the ensemble appearing as his courtiers to match the gently mocking figure that Lully installed in the opening scene. That touch makes us all witnesses to the world that created the piece. The second touch is something at once so strange and so perfectly simple, it is the full realization of dance into the production. During the Baroque era and up through Gluck, ballet was integral to opera and composers wrote music specifically for dance sequences. In this Atys, all the dance is fully realized and performed, like the music, in period style. We see courtly dances that are an accompaniment to the music and that express the aesthetic and social values of the era. It brings the drama to immediate life — rather than looking into a historical era, we witness a drama that feels fully contemporary.

The dance does something more as well. In the third act, Atys, tormented, falls asleep, and his dreams and internal state are realized around him on stage. Opera is a dramatic form where characters can express themselves only through music, conveying a character’s subconscious, without that characters knowledge, is what the music can do and what opera does that nothing else can. So groups of musicians step out onto stage, in costume, to play the music of his dreams. Messengers appear to sing about the terrible problem Atys faces, and what he must decide. A regal figure steps slowly out of the background to dance what the words cannot express, a dance full of difficult balances and physical tension, and done with the grace and control so important to late 17th century. It is incomprehensibly beautiful:

It would be lost in a big house, on a big stage. It is meant for intimacy, a sense of closely shared experience. A whisper is more dramatic than a shout. A whisper is what is inside a person, and it is the whisper that makes opera, the amplification is the medium, not the essence. But pageantry and stardom, and all their shouting, have become the norm. The best opera productions I’ve seen have been whispers, that is what made the Mets production of Nixon in China so marvelous. I have seen Akhnaten performed in a garage by the Oakland Opera Theater in a production where the cast mingled with the unwitting audience outside the venue, before we all wandered inside  to eventually discover that some of us had begun singing. Vertical Players Repertory La Calisto outdoors at Proteus Gowanus this past summer was wonderfully smart and simple. Both were imaginatively directed and sung with skill and musicality, and none of those qualities cost even a fraction of the the mechanical stage for the Met’s current Ring cycle. In a more conventional space, the semi-staged production of Don Giovanni that Ivan Fischer brought to Rose Hall (1100 seats, none more than 90 feet from the stage) at Lincoln Center this past summer was utterly brilliant, and it’s smallness accounted for that brilliance. With it, Fischer could use smaller, lighter voices, the singers could concentrate as much on acting as on projecting, or perhaps even more. Too many productions of this opera cast a Don and a Leporello with similar dark, bass-baritone voices. They are interested in exploring the idea that the two men are döpplegangers, but I’ve not seen a result that ever followed-through on that concept. With a lighter, more elegant and insinuating Don, and a dark, deeper and more buffoonish Leporello, the results were clear, effective and truly dramatic.

There was really no stage setting, just a couple large, boxy lumps and chorus members who doubled as tableau-vivante constructions, so there was one brief intermission, nothing more than a break for the musicians. The positive effect of this on the drama cannot be overstated. Large-scale productions have too many long intermissions that disrupt the flow and spell of the drama even more severely than applause for each aria. I have never seen a Don on stage that clocked in under four hours, and always left wondering why so many consider this disjointed, heavy-handed piece Mozart’s best work. In the Rose Hall, the three-hours-plus total time flew by with a supple swiftness and dramatic intensity that made the opera sound like a true masterpiece. The forward drive was so great, so thrilling, that as the Don’s final fate approached, I found myself in a gleeful internal argument between mind and my body, the latter refusing to believe that the climax could come without another hour of sitting in my seat, the former exalting that yes, yes! It’s here! With less artifice than Atys, this Don was one of the high points of my opera-going life. Opera Chic appears not to have attended.

It is in the swift and the small that opera succeeds and lives on as a form. Necessity is forcing swiftness and smallness on City Opera (the complaints that disparage the idea of an itinerant opera company are ahistorical and again mistake prestige for art). Small and short operas themselves are just as much operas as is Wagner’s festival play. I strongly recommend that anyone who loves or is even curious about opera go see the Remarkable Theater Brigade’s Opera Shorts program at Weill Recital Hall, Friday November 4. Their 2010 program was full of imaginative, well-crafted, successful ten-minute operas (and music has the expression power to convey a lot of information in a very short time), performed by a talented roster of singers. The composers this year include Tom Cipulio, Jake Heggie and Bolcom, one of America’s most accomplished dramatic composers. His contribution is Barnyard Boogaloo, a short work that he told me dates back to around 1980. It’s both comic — the characters are animals — and has a strong popular music element. Bolcom says it would be good with singers like Wilson Pickett, and he’s one of the few composers who can unselfconsciously make good popular music. The performance is going to be a premiere of sorts; the piece had an unsatisfactory reading during the 1980s but has essentially lain on the composers shelf, waiting for both an opportunity and for the type of trained singers who are also comfortable in popular idioms that are more and more prevalent.

Bolcom explained that although the idea of the piece is about how a bunch of barnyard animals view pending Thanksgiving dinner, he feels it’s “terrifically relevant” apropos of our current national ‘leadership.’ The short duration would seem to put an emphasis on the comedy, and although he’s written some notable large-scale operas (A View From the Bridge, McTeague), Bolcom enjoys working in the shorter form. “You can’t go into the same depth, but it’s a smaller universe, is all. I do see an increased interest in short opera, I just got a note from the Washington National Opera asking me if I would help look at the work of some younger people doing short, ten-minute operas. The idea is hardly new. Every so often there’s a vogue for short operas, then people forget about them for a couple of decades!”

The essence of his operas, long or short, and of the Opera Shorts program is drama. Budgets make productions possible, but they are secondary, as is the level of pageantry and, especially, the venue. City Opera is going to put drama on stage, and where those stages are is irrelevant. Although, it’s actually not, it’s important. And since City Opera will be bringing opera to East Harlem, Brooklyn and Central Park, New Yorkers who care about the form should be ecstatic. The people’s opera is going out to the people. Lincoln Center is not an unfriendly place, but it’s still not a populist place, and there is more than a little psychological difficulty in stepping into a theater provided by someone who seeks to do so much damage to the lives of others. People have lost jobs, and that’s awful. It is George Steel’s responsibility in that he is making the decisions, but it’s not his fault, and those whose sympathies are on the side of musicians, singers and administrators set adrift should turn their attention to the Board, which has left City Opera with this crisis.

It’s an opportunity too. We should all wait and see what they do with it. My first (or second, or third choice) for a production would never include Telemann, but Steel is an advocate for the qualities of his operas, so let’s see what he has to say. Cosi fan Tutte and La Traviata are safe choices hopefully presented with the safeties off. I’m leery of how Steel picked up Rufus Wainwright’s opera after the Met turned it down, but I know why he did so; to make a splash with the public and sell tickets. They tried that last season, with Stephen Schwartz’ Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and that turned out to be an artistic and financial mistake. The piece ignored all the things opera can do and stuck to what seemed like the same five chords and two rhythms throughout, and made unfortunately sentimental sap out of what should have been the real conflicts. It also sold poorly, a surprising lesson that I would have taken to heart. Stick with opera, bring it to the people, and see what happens. We have to wait until February to hear the whispers and experience the drama, the least we can do is give Steel and City Opera a chance to demonstrate their ideas and their execution, without all the drama.

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.