Metropolitan Opera

The Troubles With Opera

“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.

Spox Vox Reax

The line up for the 2011-12 season of the Metropolitan Opera is out, and it’s surprising. The Met is the Met, and their strengths are their own, so it’s not a disappointing season to me. Opera has a broad range and I expect the outlying parts to be filed in by City Opera and other companies. On the Met’s terms, the surprises are good, bad, and, well, just plain surprising.

For the bad, and only slightly so, there is nothing that is truly ‘new,’ whether Dr. Atomic from two seasons ago, last year’s debut of Patrice Chereau with From The House Of The Dead, or this season’s production of Nixon in China. I’m truly surprised because each of those were remarkable successes, and would seem to make it easier to continue that trend. However, Satyagraha is now part of the house repertory, and that’s amazing to me and truly a watershed mark for the Met, Phillip Glass and contemporary opera. A subtly brave and bold decision.

On the surprising side there’s lots of Donizetti. Snobs from both ends of the spectrum look down on him as fodder for the board members and the patrons who sleep through performance, but the guy wrote a bunch of good works, and there’s never anything wrong about doing something that’s simply solid and musical. The new productions of standard works move apace, but that has been a mixed bag under Gelb. For example, this season’s Don Carlo, from Nicholas Hytner, seemed mostly pointless. The sets were sleek and stark but without unifying idea nor any concept that specifically had to do with the opera. The subversive comment on Ratzinger was bracing, but the other symbols seemed accidental. I’m also wary about the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island. Pastiche is problematic, of course, though there’s no reason this can’t be good. From the evidence of WIlliam Christie’s appearance conducting Cosí fan tutte I don’t know what to think. I had expectations for at least an interesting collision between the Met’s thinking about the repertory and Christie’s, but the stature and legacy of the house seemed to subvert the conductor’s personal views. Everything was fine, solid, capable if standard and pleasingly bland.

Fundamentally what the Met is known for is singing. In that, they have an interesting companion, and possibly a rival, in the New York Festival of Song. NYFOS is holding their second night of the program “Night and Day/USA: Americans Working and Dreaming” tonight at 8PM at Merkin Hall. The first was everything that I have come to expect from a NYFOS concert: a program of simply great songs, laid out in a narrative full of musical and emotional intelligence, presented with humor and humanity by Steven Blier and, of course, with great singing. On Tuesday, the voices were soprano Sari Gruber, mezzo Liza Forrester and baritone James Martin, with help from tenor Christopher Tiesi and additional accompaniment from NYFOS co-founder Michael Barrett.

A NYFOS concert is not just singing, it’s performing, and I give Blier a great deal of credit for that. He is clearly a marvelous coach, not only adding judicious theatrical touches and bits of choreography, but opening up great musical charisma that is part of the evening. The singers become the characters in the songs and the performances become deeply human. The idea of people waking up in the morning, going off to work and heading home to bed in the end was conveyed through songs that covered the twentieth century from Charles Ives “In The Morning,” sung with exquisite control and plangent feeling by Gruber, to a selection of four of Kurt Weill’s songs from Broadway, to a recent and lovely song, “The Night You Decided To Stay,” from composer Steve Marzullo. In between there were some real discoveries of obscure material and fantastic performances of truly great songs: Hall Johnson’s “On The Dusty Road,” with a lyric from Langston Hughes in a “Wow!” performance from Martin, a great setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem by Lee Hoiby, “Insomnia,” and the brilliant choice of Tom Waits’ “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue),” a song that, when removed from Waits’ own overwhelmingly distinctive voice and placed in the hands of Martin, Barrett and Blier, is revealed as a great song, proof that Waits is one of America’s greatest songwriters of any generation.

These are particulars, though, and the ultimate point is that a NYFOS concert is one of the greatest pleasures you can have hearing music. The singing is so fine and the performances are so welcoming and expressive that they make everything sound and feel like a masterpiece.

Go See: Opera 2010-11

If you love or are even interested in opera, the Metropolitan Opera and City Opera are self-recommending. Taken together, the two institution put a lot of work on stage and effectively cover most of the history of the form. The question isn’t whether to go, but what to see?

The big event this year at the Met is the start of their new Ring cycle, staged by Robert and with a cast that includes Bryn Terfel and Eric Owens. Das Rheingold is sold out through the end of the year, but there are more performances in the spring, where it will be in closer proximity to Die Walküre. The Ring is deeply important regardless of how much one likes it, and any new production is worth experiencing.

It may not be the best or most interesting thing the Met is doing this year, though. There is a new production of Verdi’s great Don Carlo, two of Gluck’s greatest works – Iphigénie en Tauride with Susan Graham and Placido Domingo, and Mark Morris’ production of Orfeo ed Euridice – Simon Rattle is coming to conduct Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and Nixon in China lands on stage in 2011. In musical terms alone, though, if you only go see one production at the Met this year, go to Così fan tutte, where having William Christie conducting the singers and the Met Orchestra is going to be absolutely fascinating and, hopefully, completely wonderful. If you can’t make to Lincoln Center, check your local movie theater listings for their HD Live series.

At the Met you get that kind of star power. At City Opera the focus is on the works, the combination of music and staging, making it not only the people’s opera but the place for lovers of the form who are not so interested in the extra-musical drama and theatrics. The company may be still in the midst of financial struggles, but the music making and performances under George Steel were absolutely wonderful in the productions I saw last year. The newly renovated theater has greatly improved sound and the most comfortable seats in New York City, the orchestra is playing at a level that I never imagined I would hear, and the casting emphasizes singers who can perform the music.

Although there is no Handel on the program this year (a little disappointing), City Opera is presenting Leonard Bernstein’s final dramatic work, A Quiet Place, for the first time ever in New York City. Go see it. Also, go see the exciting collection of short monodramas from Arnold Schoenberg, John Zorn and Morton Feldman, which, in terms of sheer musical interest and excitement, is going to be the opera event of the season.

UPDATED: If you don’t believe me, listen to George Steel

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.

Institutionalized

A recent rant by classical music gossip Norman Lebrecht makes me wonder just what all his fuss is about. A complaint that the Metropolitan Opera does not produce the most cutting edge work is both absolutely correct and absolutely meaningless. The Met is dedicated to the entire tradition of opera and is already demonstrating that under Peter Gelb’s direction they understand that tradition includes contemporary works as well (an article of mine in the upcoming issue of The Brooklyn Rail will discuss this). They are not an experimental house, they never have been and they never will be, and that’s perfectly fine. If they can, and should, be criticized it is for failing to understand the scope and meaning of the history of opera and again they are proving this awareness. Other houses may and do decide to question that tradition, the Met chooses to present it. Good for them.

In this, in New York City, they are like the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, which are each like the Metropolitan Museum. These are institutions that are about preserving and presenting a history and tradition to the public, and striving to widen that audience. Their roles are important, just as the roles of avant-garde ensembles and cutting edge art and performance spaces are important. Altogether, they are complimentary. And on a personal level, the Met Opera, the Phil and Carnegie Hall have shown their openness to the interested public. I am an independent writer in every way, hopefully in that my ideas and values are the product of thinking for myself, but especially in the sense that I am completely on my own, working for no one but myself. There are benefits in that I am my own Assignment Editor and the blog format allows me to go on at some length (hopefully not too great). The drawbacks are that I have no institutional resources or connections. I am sent music to review, and I am occasionally offered tickets, but a great deal of what I write about comes from my own decision to spend what is a very limited amount of money. That means there is some bias involved in that I’ve already made the decision that something is worthwhile, but I am confident that my criticism is completely honest.

Because I’m serious about this work, I have presented myself to a variety of New York City performing institutions, offering my work and requesting access to performances so I can write about them and share them with my readers.  Miller Theater has already been a welcome partner in the discussion of great music.  The institutions that at first thought would seem to be stuffy and thus dismissive of someone without an institutional domain in my email address have proven to be accessible, open and generous, putting effort into making it possible for me to see and review their performances, while the institutions that would seem to be cutting-edge, hip, looking for alternative audiences have been silent, rudely unresponsive. So in the coming months my readers will see my thoughts on the wide variety of musical art being presented at the Met Opera, at the NY Phil, at Carnegie Hall, while unfortunately there will be no news from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Surprising and disappointing, perhaps, but there it is.

As a postscript, I would like to quietly announce a general fundraiser for my work here at The Big City. I do this work out of something more than love, something more like the idea that this is important for the world around me, but it is work. Any donations (via the PayPal button upper right) obviously would go directly to supporting my work generally and make it possible to do some additional things on the blog, such as add more media, including examples of my own work. The same is true for the items on this blog’s Amazon Wish List, which is a mix of things that I would write about specifically, things that would give me context for other reviews and projects, and things that would further my own music production for the long term. If you find value for yourself here, even the smallest donation would be helpful and deeply appreciated. Thank you all, and keep reading.

"Thank you sir, may I have another?"

The Met made the evening news.” Indeed it did, in the only way anything in the high arts could make the evening news, by becoming juicy gossip. The story is that the audience booed the opening night production of “Tosca.” Please note, they booed the production, not the singers or musicians.

The new Met director, Peter Gelb, is on the record as wanting to bring in new audiences to the opera house, and his means for doing so seem to be a combination of creating new productions of standard works and commissioning new operas. I am in complete sympathy with his means and goals, but fundamentally the results, as Alex Ross points out, need to be good. The boos had nothing to do with the quality of the performance, however, and so I’m actually glad they came.

I have not seen the production yet, but reliable critics have weighed in on the musical shortcomings, as well as those of the stage sets and direction. The tell is that the singers got the usual ovation, and that’s the problem Gelb, hopefully, is working to solve. He will ideally save opera from its fans.

Opera is sung drama, with music which tells us about the characters and the overall story. The characters sing because they can find no other way to express themselves, and the singing and music tell us about what is going on inside them, especially the things they themselves are unaware. The use of music gives opera a dimension no other medium has, not even film, in that the drama can run on separate, parallel tracks and still be together and mutually supportive in real time. The great example of this is the quartet from “Fidelio,” Mir ist so wunderbar, where the four characters privately sing about each other, and do so in simultaneous consort. Nothing else in human culture can express something so indescribably complex in a way that is immediately transparent and apprehensible.

Too many opera fans miss this drama, though, and think of opera as a collection of arias to be followed immediately by applause, not for the character or the music, but for the star diva/divo, “Brava Angela,” rather than “Brava Violetta.” Verdi, however, did not write arias to display a star, but to allow Violetta to reveal herself to us. When the experience of this dramatic characterization is so overwhelming that the audience must respond, then by all means, allow me to join in (there is a live recording of “Fidelio” which is so overpowering that the audience overwhelms the finale with deserved, passionate shouts and applause), but attending opera just to gush over a particular star does not indicate an actual appreciation of the form or the work. Same for accepting the most literal production and nothing else. By all means, again, boo a lousy production – I have – but also boo a lousy performance – I have – even if it’s by a star whose name is up there in lights.

I’m encouraged by the booing in this sense, that if Gelb manages to drive away the type of audience that sleeps or chats through most of the production, only to perk up for the obligatory applause after Vissi d’arte, then he will have made the Met culturally relevant by replacing them with audiences interested in the drama, and in what the production says about the drama. The idea that the drama is important should be implicit, but that’s rarely the case in the greatest hits parade of decrepit warhorses like “Tosca” which burdens most opera houses. I think the future is exciting for the Met, and they have already brought in new audiences with “Satyagraha” and “Doctor Atomic.” They should be able to keep that new audience, and gain more, by making the standard repertory something that matters, and the fact that it still exists means it does indeed matter. Treating it as such means that some productions will fail, but nothing ventured nothing gain. Bring us more things to boo, please, Mr. Gelb.