Metropolitan Opera

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.

Opera for the Unemployed

Friends, are you like me? Out of work, no prospects in sight, slowly but surely spiraling down into an economic, social and psychological abyss? Yet still hankering not just for entertainment but for the grand display of opera? Then I have a deal for you!

Starting tomorrow night, Lincoln Center hosts outdoor HD screenings of some of the Met Opera’s past performances, gratis. The pleasure of outdoor movies and opera in one! Sure, there’s a tropical storm coming through, but that will just make it easier to snag a seat. Highlights will be Eugene Onegin on 8/31, Peter Grimes 9/3 and Orfeo ed Euridice 9/5.

Then, once fall begins, plan to head out to the Kew Gardens Cinema for their Opera in Cinema series; it’s not clear what the actual ticket prices will be, but compared to the cost of flying to Europe and seeing these productions in person, it’s will be as nothing. And the lineup is impressive; the first two parts of The Ring, Cosi fan Tutte, L’Orfeo and more. I’ve got plans already. See you there.

Satyagraha

I caught the new Met production of Satyagraha this past Tuesday. There’s been reviews of this everywhere (except, curiously, at The Rest is Noise – wonder what’s going to be in my New Yorker this week . . . ). I’m going to skip discussion and review of the subject, history of the work, etc., because that’s easy to find elsewhere.

What I want to convey is my thoughts about the performance and production. It’s superbly staged for the most part. What happens on stage both is appropriate to the music and also adds important narrative context to what is essentially a non-narrative drama. The puppet design and stage craft by Improbable is excellent, the only drawback being that one wants more of it. Paul Croft as Gandhi commanded the stage with the beauty and dignity of his voice. The singing was excellent overall, including the chorus, something which I think is important to point out with Glass. Most opera-goers seem to miss this aspect of his work; his vocal writing is one of his great strengths. Glass not only writes idiomatically for the voice but consistently brings out great beauty of line and timbre. He may be a radical in a world that endlessly retreads the same mediocre operas, but his aesthetic is dedicated to beauty, which must be part of his general appeal. If a composer wishes to successfully express ideas and drama in vocal music, the necessary first step is to write music that the ear wants more of.

As I wrote above, this is a non-narrative work. Not as ground-breaking in structure as Einstein on the Beach, it places the particular events of Gandhi’s life it covers out of chronological order. It intends to impress with meaning, essence and perhaps wisdom, and it does so through set pieces. Glass’ style is apt for this approach, as it concentrates on the illusion of the static moment, even as time flows and carries the music, and us, along. The one rough moment for the production is the first part of the second act. Here, the opera itself leaves Gandhi as subject and places him as object in the drama, and the structure suffers. The production team cannot quite solve this problem – the staging turns fussy and busy, with too many things going on in too many directions. Once Gandhi takes center stage again, this problem solves itself. More productions will hopefully solve this problem.

The Met is dedicated to the history of opera, and that history has a living component. There’s still an appalling paucity of works less than 100 years old presented there, but at least Glass it not a newcomer to the house. One of the features of the living, contemporary history of opera is that it is being made in the cultural context of non-linear narrative arts: I saw the revival of Last Year at Marienbad at Film Forum, and if the film has lost its surprise and provocation for me, it just means that it’s past ripening for more attempts at non-linear and non-narrative drama to take place on the opera stage. If it’s happening at all at the Met, and if the pleasure of charming 89 year old lady next to me is any indication, audiences are interested in more.

Update: I forgot previously to point out the excellent conducting by Dante Anzolini, who maintained focus and concentration on a difficult, idiosyncratic score, and built a line over the long time spans to powerful climaxes. He also managed the difficult moments of coordinating cross rhythms between chorus and orchestration with exceptional skill.