Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Callas Crazies

THE CALLAS CRAZIES





December the second was the ninety first birthday of poor Maria Callas. It was also the anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock and his bride and life long assistant, Alma. Who, I wonder made the greater contribution to Western Civilization?

Callas was only a singer, in an art form that is badly outmoded and in America at least, in trouble. Judging from my experiences with the guppy generation, Hitchcock's name has been forgotten but his mastery of a form that still matters is remarkable. None the less, the encomiums of Callas hysterics will appear on the opera lists; last year there was even a doodle on Google. Isn't that a thrill?

There's a picture of La Signora Maria Meneghini Callas, as she was then, already losing weight but clearly able to bench press the older man beside her. That is the famous conductor, Tullio Serafin. He conducted Callas' debut in Italy, La gioconda at the Verona Arena in 1947, and promptly forgot her.

The man she lived with and then married, Battista Meneghini, kept after Serafin and anyone else he could find to give Maria another chance to no avail -- until Maestro Serafin needed an Isolde (or Isotta as Wagner's potion poisoned heroine is known in Italian) and couldn't find one. Battista assured him she knew the role cold. She didn't know it at all. But she went to the audition and sight read parts of the score. Serafin was impressed that she read it so well and he hired her. Associated with her in the moron mind because he was hired to conduct many of her records, he declined to list her among the "miracles" he had known among singers. Some of those records he conducted by default.

EMI, run by the Nazi sympathizer Walter Legge, kept trying to interest Herbert Von Karajan who had pulled off the amazing feat of joining the Nazi party twice into conducting her records. Karajan did do a tour of Lucia with her when her voice was starting to fail (their performances from La Scala1954 one of which is a pirate in quite bad sound  are remarkable, though she doesn't make pretty sounds, exactly, but the famous Berlin Lucia from a year later finds her struggling. Of course for anyone with an IQ above poodle the musical point of Lucia is very likely to prove elusive).

The picture, where La Signora Meneghini Callas evidently needs a milkshake, is of her confrontation with a process server in Chicago. Callas was being sued by a manager named Bagarozy with whom she had had a fling though he was married to one of her friends but far more unwisely, she had promised him a share of her eventual earnings (if any) as he paraded her around America in the late forties to no avail.

Although the uniqueness of her sound was part of the problem, and the fact that her timbre was "arresting" rather than beautiful, she was a fat girl from a provincial background with no important patrons. 

Bagarozy is the one who hustled La Callas to an audition in New York for the first Verona Festival after the Second World War. Giuseppe Zenatello, of an age but still a famous tenor, was organizing this. He had chosen Faust (already cast, starring Renata Tebaldi) and an opera called La gioconda. La gioconda's primary value is as an intelligence test. To like it is to fail. Sadly, I love it. Poor La Gioconda, who, with her blind mother, wanders about Venice, singing and putting out, has fallen in love with a john named Enzo, a prince in disguise who drops her in favor of a princess, already married but who's counting? The music is to match. So we have established that poor Widder Claggart is an idiot (well look who I married!).

Bagarozy had heard that Zenatello had offered the title part to a singer of no value but who in the fifties would come to be adored by the queens of the Metropolitan Opera, Zinka Milanov, a master of extreme sharpness in tuning with more rump than musical sense. She had made a specialty of faking her way through the role by holding a long high note very softly as she moved across the stage in act one. That's all those queens cared about (look, Ponchielli was no Palestrina but was actually a musician of ability and there is music of a certain appeal and even accomplishment in the opera. But queens never like or know music). Milanov was an established singer, though she had left the Met in anger (temporarily, it turned out), and she wanted a big fee, all expenses, and round trip first class travel. Zenatello didn't have the money, so that was that with Zinka.

Although the exact truth of Zenatello's encounter with Callas is a little hard to discover (the story of his being so excited he got up to join her is a lie you can find in her Wikipedia entry, written by some fool), she sang, he was encouraging but felt he could only offer her the understudy, if she could get there under her own steam. He turned to a Buxom Italian-American, Herva Nelli ("Helluva Nervi" as the campy scamps called her), who later became a cook, but in those days was loved by Arturo Toscanini. Nelli accepted the part. Bagarozy fumed. Then Nelli pulled out. No one knows why. Though she did try to have an Italian career, and the Toscanini faction in Italy was powerful, this once she got cold feet. I've always thought Bagarozy who doesn't seem to have had a savory background threatened to break both her legs if she didn't. But there's no proof. (By the way, Bagarozy's suit was sufficiently legit that Callas had to settle.) 

With time galloping on, Zenatello had no choice but to offer the role to Callas. According to legend, not only was her fee pitiable, but she was not offered travel expenses of any sort. She jumped (figuratively) at the chance and took the job, taking ship with Mrs. Bagarozy, and the bass, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who was enjoying Miss Callas' sexual favors.

Michael Scott in the only biography of the younger Callas (it ends with her divorce from Meneghini in favor of Aristotle Onassis) that actually uses documentary evidence as opposed to the improbable lies of the Callas fan girls, is skeptical that the deal was so disadvantageous. But those documents have vanished, and he has only the pictures of Callas sporting beautiful clothes for the chic but chubby on board ship to raise his questions.

All great careers involve improbable good luck. In Callas' case, the luck was her meeting another man exactly like Bagarozy: middle aged and a chubby chaser. But this was the better catch. Battista Meneghini laid bricks in between well upholstered sopranos and ran a prosperous company with innumerable brothers and a domineering mother, who all hated Callas on sight. He hadn't married, perhaps had never been in love. But it was love at first sight with Callas. He insisted she reciprocated. Others have had their doubts and we'll never know. (Meneghini published Callas' tender and romantic love letters to him, then published her tender and romantic love letters to Bagarozy, written earlier. The only difference is the Italian translation.) What is certain is that she was a fat lady with an odd voice and no options. She was broke, she had failed to make an impression in New York (where she was born and lived long enough to develop a sailor's vocabulary), and Greece, where she had studied and matured, was in political turmoil and offered no prospects. 

Moreover, in Greece where she had sung professionally as a teenager, probably starting the destruction of her voice by forcing and artificially darkening it (among her roles was Fidelio of all things; apparently she was wonderful -- Michael Scott has the reviews in his book -- but it's a role that leaves few singers unscathed), she had made more enemies than friends.

She was stuck; Meneghini was struck, better, he was rich. Like La Gioconda, she gave herself to him, but this prince was loyal. For ten years he took care of everything, but first he saw to it that she was well dressed, comfortably housed, legal in Italy, and able to travel anywhere there was an audition. He used what contacts he had to get her auditions. He paid for intense coaching with the esteemed Ferruccio Cusinati who taught her Italian, drilled her in the various styles of Italian opera and helped her refine her roles. 

Meneghini (who just liked fat women, not opera) never had a doubt that she was great and the world would agree; she had lots of doubts and needed someone like him; many have testified to her combination of ruthless arrogance and paralyzing insecurity. Eventually her reputation grew; when Serfain planned the florid I Puritani and the heavy Die Walkuere (La Valkyria) back to back in Verona in 1949, and lost the scheduled coloratura for Puritani with no substitute to be found, he let Callas try them both. That sensation propelled her into national prominence in Italy. La Scala, which had resisted her strongly, gave in. She even eventually ousted the great favorite there, Renata Tebaldi (Tebaldi found adoration at the Met).

Callas' early triumphs extended to Mexico and to Covent Garden; at both places she was adored, and the pirated records show why, along with technical issues that in retrospect are warnings, but didn't seem so at the time. 

Decca (known as London Records in America) made a big commitment to Tebaldi, EMI did the same for Callas. Decca's recent Tebaldi collection is halfhearted, though it includes the first commercial release of a spectacular Verdi Requiem conducted by the great Victor de Sabata.

But Warner Records has issued a wonderful sounding, complete collection of Callas' studio records. The only problem is that Decca recorded Tebaldi only in roles she actually sang and was right for. EMI recorded Callas in many roles she never or rarely sang and didn't have much spontaneous feeling for (reading the score scrupulously is something else) such as Mimi, in La Boheme, Manon Lescaut, Carmen, Nedda in Pagliacci.

In the story, Nedda is the victim of the evil clown, Tonio, who incites her homicidal husband Canio into killing her. In the recording, Callas' Nedda sounds like she'd have ripped Tonio apart alive, and gouged Canio's eyes out before running off with her lover (a case of life intruding on fiction!)

EMI re-recorded Callas as Lucia, Norma and Tosca in stereo when her voice was waning badly rather than documenting her in roles where she showed a remarkable sympathy for the emotional impact of the florid writing (not automatically obvious). Despite her vocal trouble in the late fifties she could -- at least in the studio -- have done Rossini's Semiramide, Donizetti's Anna Bolena, Bellini's I Pirata and other operas in that style. One can only tremble at the coarse, cut besotted conductors they might have stuck her with -- but Giulini was an EMI conductor, maybe they could have brought Von Karajan aboard for one of those, he was also an EMI artist. Leonard Bernstein's imaginative and musicianly treatment of the somewhat dubious La Sonnambula live at La Scala makes one wonder if they couldn't have enticed him (with Columbia's permission -- as Sony was then known -- into doing one of those works). At that time EMI had Gedda and Kraus under contract, Simionato might have been sprung from Decca for the Semiramide (Sutherland had not yet become a sensation and when she got to the opera preferred Marilyn Horne), Cossotto was also an EMI artist. It would certainly have been possible, but EMI gave us Callas' SECOND La gioconda instead!

Anyone with an interest knows the bad luck of the Callas story. She was in obvious trouble by 1956. Joan Sutherland, one of the miracles of the last "golden age" in opera but who began in small parts, sang the servant, Clothilde in Norma, the opera of Callas' debut in London in 1952. She said, later, "if you didn't hear Callas before 1955, you didn't hear Callas." 

That poor woman when asked in her last years how things were, would reply, “one day less!” She ended up miserable and alone. She was 54 when she died in 1977; her voice had collapsed ten years earlier and she had sung with reduced volume, range and control for four years before that. She had, a few years before her death, made money touring the world, sort of Sunset Boulevard meets The Marx Brothers with the then broke tenor, her once famous colleague, Giuseppe Di Stefano. One hopes she knew it was a joke but perhaps she didn't. 


Some say she needed an infusion of cash, too; that her widely reported affair with Aristotle Onassis gave people the wrong impression of her finances. Onassis’ sudden marriage to The Widow Kennedy hoping for her in- laws’ influence in his American businesses and the ensuing stresses, kept Callas before the public as the cast off whore of a billionaire. Only Jackie the Greedy won in this strange interlude. But Callas became a tabloid floozy instead of the great artist she had aspired to be. She also didn't need the money, it turned out. She had fourteen million dollars in her American bank accounts alone; in the 1970's that was a huge amount.

Sadly, she had bought into her myth. Privately, she continued to work on her voice; a few late fragments on tape even sound like her. Could she perhaps have mastered part of the huge song repertory as the great Victoria de los Angeles did when her opera career ended early? But as Callas thought of herself as a diva, that was beneath her. She did try two sets of master classes and found the students poorly prepared and not stimulating. Her reward was an internationally successful play by Terrance McNally. A clever writer of soap operas in Boulevard Play form (his work lacks the intelligence of a true Boulevard Playwright such as Somerset Maugham). Many thought it was true to Callas, though the complete tapes of her Julliard master classes, some of which I saw, show a very different person: shy, correct and helpful. The brassy, bitchy, competitive, sex obsessed fictional character is of course the product of a profound hatred of women.


When a woman is magic she is either burned at the stake, or, worse, sometimes, set upon an altar where her achievements in reality are obscured by sick men, mostly morons. Why, one can read one of the opera lists, Opera-L, run by an idiot named Robert Kosovsky to make the world safe for such as the the ravings of a dog handler named Patrick Byrne who has ripped Callas off by publishing pirates of her performances (as have any number of the mentally crippled). Byrne, a barely literate goon, scum personified, belongs in one of his kennels muzzled like the rabid mutts he pleasures with his tongue all night to one of his distant swishy pirates of poor Maria. This is a lover of art? This is someone who responds to music?  Even in a society where pretty much everything has been defined down, and the notion of il sacro fuoco — the sacred fire — that Callas embraced is now a joke, she deserves better.

How could she have come to that? 
But what really can be said about her without qualification? You and I have read all the lies: she was a "great actress" but the complete second act of Tosca televised from Covent Garden, staged when she had lost her voice, shows a well past her best opera singer going through the usual business (though well drilled by the opportunist leach Franco Zeffirelli who had apparently managed to stay away from the docks, or maybe he had just juggled his schedule). Callas moves awkwardly, has dandruff and a faint mustache. That's acting? She "rediscovered the great works of the bel canto period." Not really. Norma had always been in the repertory; Puritani and Sonnambula were familiar works. She did do a highly cut, horribly edited version of Rossini's Armida, desecrated by Serafin and she did a handful of performances of Anna Bolena, Poliuto by Donizetti, and I Pirata by Bellini. All of these were heavily cut, re-scored and done in "verismo" style. She did not use her clout to get these operas recorded complete in scholarly versions; she defended the unmusical cuts.

The many idiots who adore her forget that the singers from the early 19th century that she was compared to all sang NEW music. They put their own careers on the line with the creators of operas. Callas we are told was a fantastic musician but she mocked the one chance she had to create a role in a new opera (Vanessa by Samuel Barber) finding that "he did not know women" (he probably didn't but given the orientation of her craziest fans even in her life time, one has to wonder at her contempt). Unlike the singers who really were superb musicians (I always mention Jan deGaetani but we can look at the great Eleanor Steber, Arleen Auger or Lucia Popp) in her time, she stayed safe, inserted high notes and held them for dear life, even though that was unstylish and it sounded as though it would kill her. Of course, the crazies will all die off, like Patrick Byrne, throat ripped out by one of his poodles probably. So what will be left of Callas?

Meryl Streep evidently planned to play her in a movie with Mike Nichols directing, but all the fake hair in the world disappeared and he died (she's now reportedly doing a film about the American nut case Florence Foster Jenkens who shrieked and gurgled serious music thinking she was great. It's all the same to Streep. She of course has never produced one of her own projects or developed a property as many movie stars have, nor has she juggled stage with screen work. Instead she has made a fortune, and I guess, secured her name, in masterworks like Mamma Mia to the indelible horror of eons of Abba's "music" (I think ISIS must be behind that) and a white wash of the monster, Margaret Thatcher, recently shown to have been -- in addition to all her ghastly political grotesqueness -- den mother to a ring of child molesters who appear to have killed some of their victims. Well, after McNally, how much worse could a Streep tic filled exploration of an accent be? 

But is it possible for an opera singer to be a "genius"? Normally, we think of genius in the creative sense. But are there a few, a very few, singers who have a density of affect in what they do, who when the stars are fortunately aligned and the opera is the right one, can work a spell, way beyond what enormously talented, deeply serious, hard working performers do? Are there people we can never understand who transform in front of us into an bolt of electricity, one that might singe us if we get too close? And are there mere performers who can take artistically equivocal work and somehow breathe truth into it, provide -- despite the tinsel and contrivances, the conventions and the noisy idiots -- an ecstasy where horror at what we know life is and joy at being alive anyway combine into an unforgettable moment? For the music lover sometimes, hardly often, a microphone can capture that bolt of lightening and let us revisit it. Perhaps this is something that Tallich and Furtwaengler and De Sabata could do, even with music hardly worth the effort of beating time, or that Cortot or Richter could manage even in the simplest and most familiar piece. Who can understand the motives of these people, their personalities, their destinies?

One hesitates to put a mere singer in that category, for one can sing to the great satisfaction of the mental defectives who love opera, by having only high notes, or volume, or flamboyance; the fans are mostly too dumb to notice anything else. But if there has been a singer who had some of that quality, a mysterious, bizarre, unkempt allure, achieved with an ugly/beautiful tone, with odd register shifts, within the sometimes primitive style that prevailed in her time and very often in laughable, inferior music, it was Maria Callas. No, not always or in everything but now and again. Oddly enough, I would chose the despised La gioconda — her second recording, made when her voice was failing, as an amazing, perhaps unique, example of spinning pathos out of dross.

Yes, one can read the score and notice her elastic but marvelous rhythm, her powerfully inflected words, her imaginative phrases, and yes there is the tight rope walk through a role beyond her by then. Above all though, there is the magic of what she does, a heart break one might have felt but could never express, wouldn't know how to express, a moment of exultation that stings, of ferocity that trembles in terror at itself. I personally don't think Ponchielli did all that badly, or all that well; and the surrounding performance is routine. But for those with that disease, the opera disease, Callas creates sounds that become part of one's own life. One might chose otherwise, one can't help it. So yes, one can bristle at all the idiocy, and the grotesque fan fools, and the indiscriminate fetishists, and the preposterous fantasies and outright lies and pirate industry. But a few moments of Callas in those rare lightning strikes erases all that. So, yes, perhaps she was, now and then and against the odds -- as much from her own strange nature as from destiny -- a genius. And maybe that's why all of us now and then, just for a little while are Callas crazies. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

ANNA MOFFO







I'm going to write what I know, for the hell of it. She was a wonderful person, right to the end of a protracted, gruesomely painful fight with cancer. Even at the end she answered fan mail (there was always a lot) promptly and by hand. She was generous to talk with, by which I mean she was funny, observant and emotionally available. Sick as she became there was something healing about her.

She was a phenomenal musician; the best among singers that I met before Renee Fleming (who can reduce an orchestral score at sight and play an arrangement of it at the piano without preparation). Moffo could also read a partitur, she was a master of solfege, she was harmonically very sophisticated, she could dissect modulatory movement like a professor and she had broad tastes in serious music. She adored music with both an emotional and an intellectual passion (I have met singers who didn't much like music at all, they just happened to have the sort of voices and training that let them support themselves better by singing serious music than they could have by doing any other kind of work that was feasible for them). 

I think she had one of the most beautiful natural voices ever documented. The audition tape she made at seventeen, "dead with nerves" to get considered at Curtis, is a heart-stopping, beautiful and deeply felt "un bel di". Her performance of that aria on her complete recording sounds IDENTICAL.

That suggests an amazing innate ability, musical (she taught herself the aria), emotional (it is really felt and utterly sincere but within the style and line of the piece as indicated in the score) and vocal (it is a gorgeous sound). Of course she got in, and that began the odd mixture of great and awful luck that characterized her career,

That she sang the same way after an extensive course of study meant she was singing as she felt, not with awareness or understanding of the process. But at Curtis she was snatched up by Madame Gregory (nee Eufemia Giannini of the Giannini family, as prominent a musical family as ever was native to Philadelphia, her sister was the great if eventually rather steely toned Dusolina Giannini, and her brother was the very gifted composer Vittorio Giannini, who though born in the wrong time, given how conservative he was, was really gifted and ideally would be rediscovered.)

In Moffo's time, Madame Gregory wore a hearing aid and seems to have been largely ignorant of vocal production (she also taught the wonderful Frank Guarrera, whose family were neighbors of my family). As with Frank, whose early self-made records show a gorgeous voice, and who recorded some tenor arias showing such bright richness and squillo that he was very likely a tenor, Madame Gregory tended to miss overtones and the "hints" of potential in young voices. Moffo thought she was (improbably) a mezzo, and when she won her Fulbright, the only arias she took to Italy to audition with were mezzo and contralto arias, including Dalila's from Samson, as well as a sheath of songs in the contralto keys!!!! 

It was Mercedes Llopart who taught Moffo for a time in Italy, Llopart also taught Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus who swore by her, Kraus thought she was a genius as a teacher (she also taught Cossotto and then, yes, Elena Suliotis!!!) Llopart identified Moffo's voice as a high set lyric coloratura and was supported in that belief by Luigi Ricci, the great coach, sometime conductor and best musical friend of all the verismo composer (he was personally devoted to Mascagni). 

Moffo said these two got her to vocalize higher and higher, and to do scales and fioriture. They also thought she had to sing Lucia (she had never thought in those terms, and would have agreed to a degree that it wasn't much musically). But from a working class family, having studied for four years with only a year in Italy paid for by Senator Fulbright, she had to make a decision. She needed to start a career. So she started auditioning around, instead of staying at least another year with Llopart.

She did not secure her breathing, or the way she managed register shifts, and although she had the high notes easily, was insecure singing them and was apt to force and move off the breath (the earliest habits a singer develops very often become what governs their singing for their entire career; if they are bad habits, problems will occur. It takes someone made of steel to change, the good kind as with Birgit Nilsson, who abandoned most of her training after being forced to sing Salome over a bad cold and having a triumph by doing exactly the opposite her teachers had recommended, or the Krupp's kind of Madame Schwarzkopf who invented a technique for herself and kept it going).

But the Butterfly RAI film was a sensation and she worked constantly after it. For a while she still sang high, florid roles but her temperament and musical taste was geared more toward the challenges of Pamina (she was the first person to point out to me that the g minor tonality of the aria is a "secret" in the way the aria is written with its shifting dominants, showing up only as Pamina accepts death at the end, until then, the unthinkable; Violetta and Melisande for example (where her looks were a great asset).

Sadly, she made a bad first marriage to a husband who micromanaged her career and never let her rest. Besides her stage engagements, she had TV shows in Italy and Germany, sang concerts at the drop of a hat, sang live on radio in various countries, acted in movies, made tons of records, and needing to fulfill contracts, got through indications of vocal trouble, papering over nascent but obvious vocal problems. She had at least one physical collapse. But she often had to sing ill, and she did not have the technical savvy not to damage herself by doing so. 

Born in 1932, she was from a generation and background that was not sophisticated socially. Her first husband was gay. Many heterosexual female opera stars who have weathered vocal or emotional crises have told me that the love of their husbands (or a caring man in their lives) had helped them survive. Moffo had neither and no one to save her from the crazy schedule or to point out that increasing evidence of vocal decline was not a passing indisposition.

Her voice remained quite beautiful (heard when she was relaxed) into the early eighties, but by the late sixties she was often exhausted, her nerve and courage was shot, her marriage was a shambles and even getting away to think was difficult for her.

She began seeing teachers for quick fixes but had to maintain her schedule. I believe, as Beverley Johnson did -- she was the person who really tried to help her -- that had she simply taken two or three years off, practiced a sensible vocal routine every day under the microscopic ears of an expert, she could have regained much of her earlier form and sustained a career. However one issue was never going to be solved, she had barely had the power and stamina for singing in a house the size of the Met at her best, and she might have had to limit herself to European houses and concert tours in America.

But this was hard for her to hear, as inexorably waning success while still relatively young is hard to bear for anyone. However, luck struck again, with a wonderful second marriage to a wealthy man, Robert Sarnoff. He provided the love and support she had needed all along and helped in the early years of her illness, but he predeceased her by almost a decade.

I think in her best work, Moffo is ideal. She sang gorgeously into the sixties, is wonderful musically, always expressive and loves the words. On records, she manages some heavier music memorably for she retained the enticingly ripe lower octave that had misled Madame Gregory. She also made unforgettable records of lighter music; this rep has rarely been sung with a timbre so beautiful, such lively words and such musical sense, which does not cause her to condescend to the material or tempt her into mannerism. 

She had some very bad luck and that included a documented wildly circulated disaster during a Met broadcast. But I can't tell you how visceral my loathing is for pigs who have done NOTHING with their lives but pirate the work of others, who on the face of it are unmusical fools, who are stupid scum, mocking this wonderful person who might well have been a vocal genius for a time (if such can be said to exist). We can all grant that after about twelve years at the top (sensational Salzburg debut 1957), she declined and then fell precipitously. But that at her best, she was great; and the documents, live and canned are there.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

OPERA NEWS AND THE ARTS ARMAGEDDON






Reading about opera has been discouraging. It seems that many people who comment on the Opera 'Net don't understand reality. They don't know the difference between not-for-profit (as the Met is) and commercial funding (such as Broadway, movies and TV). There is a tight dislike of unions. There is the cheering for Peter Gelb who has no experience producing anything, was dumped by Sony after a bad showing there, knows very little about arts in general (I wrote for him at Sony and know his limits).

But there is a loathing for unions, even though they represent highly specialized, trained and experienced people who are essential for production of opera, and who in most cases have studied long and borrowed much to finance their educations. That these people have a right to decent earnings and protections in one of the world's most expensive areas in which to live leaves the wealthy or stupid list commentators cold. That Gelb was rebuked by the leader of the union that represents the chorus for trying to contact individual members enraged some fools.

A union is a collective, divide and conquer are maneuvers by management of long standing to destabilize unions. But union members vote on their representatives and will vote on any recommendations those representatives suggest. It is proper and fair for Gelb and henchpeople to meet with union representatives who understand from the point of view of their members what is essential and where compromising might be acceptable. Certainly art unions are in a more precarious situation than the movie and TV unions (I belong to three). There are problems in LA certainly, but there is also so much money, and so much potential for profit from many different platforms, that union members who work there can demand high pay, good benefits and tough protections. But the arts are terribly vulnerable in America; no institution can survive if two thirds of its cost are union costs (the claim of Met management and probably the truth). Union members may need to accept some reductions in pay and benefits, and redefinition of special services and overtime. Will they? Should they? Well, that is a long, speculative piece.

But I am more interested right now in Opera News. There is a new publisher, the second in a year. During some debate about the value of Opera News and the challenges that face it, one elderly lady notorious for her solipsistic gushing on various lists, cited the magazine's "frank" interview with Anna Netrebko earlier this season and cried out that as long as SHE loved Opera News it was safe and good.


Why is that stupid? Well, if one moronic reader were enough, Opera News would be golden. If ten were enough, if a thousand were enough, if ten thousand were enough and not all were idiots there wouldn't be a problem. Nor would there be the odd turnover of publishers. The new one follows another lady by only a few months. 

Presumably there are two connected issues that one dope given to fan drooling isn't going to fix.

1. ADVERTISERS
2. Circulation numbers (consistent as opposed to intermittent).

I wrote for the magazine a lot in the 1990's and liked the second publisher I dealt with very much (he was very Metropolitan Opera Guild, a white Anglo Saxon Protestant from money). But he was a smart, decent man.

At that time there was much hand wringing over advertising in Opera News. Although the magazine was subsidized directly by the Guild, the Guild was subsidized by members who joined for a lot of reasons. Although back then I don't think Guild memberships were falling off significantly, advertising in Opera News had stagnated by 2000 and I assume has fallen off considerably since then (Brian Kellow kicked me out as a contributor around 2001). Advertising revenue was necessary to supplement what the average Guild member paid (Opera News was a perk for joining at the lowest level).

Opera News had begun as a pamphlet focused solely on the Saturday afternoon broadcasts and based largely on the Met. It's important to be clear though, the Guild and the Met are two different entities with different missions. Opera News was an "official" document only at the beginning (1936) and perhaps for twenty years afterwards. Because the magazine was small, it had a small staff, paid little, offered limited photography in black and white, not typically of the highest quality. There was advertising from the first but not a great deal and since the pamphlet style was inexpensive, it wasn't crucial.

However, in the 50's Opera News began to expand. Though it kept its small size, there was a slow but inexorable increase in pages. The staff grew. While the staff wrote a lot of the articles, there was more of an effort to recruit free lance writers from America and Europe (so long as they could write in English) to provide "articles". These included interviews with stars who were not in New York at the time of the interview, or even Met artists. These were also think pieces, expanded pieces about the history and time period of a given opera, articles on composers, famous singers from the past and trends in the opera world.

These writers needed to be paid, and the Guild to its credit understood that you get the best by paying well. Photography became more a part of the magazine and it was of a higher quality (Erica Davidson was quite a gifted New York arts photographer but the magazine also bought photos made by others, some in England and Europe). Making sure those photos looked good in all the issues was itself an expense, and getting good photos by outside photographers meant paying competitive prices. This meant a need for more advertising.

Mary Ellis Peltz, the first editor, a smart, tough minded arts journalist was replaced in 1957 by Frank Merkling who was a highly sophisticated editor in this period of expansion. But the most important editor (and probably the best in the magazine's history) was Robert Jacobson who began in 1974. A visionary, and an intense worker, obsessed with opera but arts savvy in general, he expanded the magazine to its current size, added pages, added color, wrote long articles himself, and recruited others to do the same. He increased the amount of reviewing the magazine did not only of the Met and occasional New York offerings, but of opera around the country and in Europe. I believe he was the first to go to Europe and report first hand on happenings there (and I think he sent a few others to do the same). 

Jacobson changed the tea and crumpets aura of Opera News for a more flamboyant, newsy, sometimes gossipy and much tougher minded magazine. It had been stated before that Opera News was not a house organ for the Met, but Jacobson abandoned the euphemisms, high church tact, and omissions that had been in use from the beginning for franker and tougher assessments of the performances reviewed, and the policies of the house in general.

I don't think the magazine had ever pretended there wasn't opera elsewhere but Jacobson covered opera in America thoroughly, recruiting often tough minded local journalists (Stephanie von Buchau, among the best of these, was one of Jacobson's first hires. Her beat was the West Coast. She was sharp. funny, sophisticated. She was one of the first fired by Brian Kellow, the power though not the editor from 1999).

Jacobson dealt with the City Opera (now dead), smaller companies that did new, unfamiliar work often in challenging productions (most gone now or much reduced) and got "you are there" type articles about European endeavors, including one he wrote himself, a memorably frank analysis of that era's Bayreuth Festival. But all of this meant a greater outlay of money for fees, and for writer expenses, and to print the magazine. 

His confidence was based on the explosion of the classical record industry that followed the first years of long playing records and the need of those labels for advertising and endorsements. He also courted manufacturers and sellers of audio equipment who found willing buyers among those who wanted to realize spectacular sound in their homes. He glamorized a lot of the "divas" of his era (he was friendly with many personally) and used them to advertise clothes, jewelry, accessories and so on. It was very likely the last era when Opera meant glamour. social status and seemed important. 

He got the job by telling the Guild's Board that he was Norwegian when he was Jewish, which he did not admit on the job, One of his important writers changed his name from Zinzer to Wadsworth for similar reasons. 

Jacobson died a lingering horrible death, and I think that was the end of the great Opera News. He was replaced by a long time staffer, Gerald Fitzgerald, small minded, mean, who was taken off by the plague as well. The Guild refused to appoint another staffer, the invaluable Jane Poole, because she was female, and hired an Englishman who soon became famous for his drinking. It was Roberta Peters, the great coloratura, who asked at a meeting of the Guild Board "why do we need an English editor when we are an American arts organization?"

The Englishman staggered out to be replaced by Patrick J. Smith who hired me to write, which I did a lot. He was another WASP of wealth, good manners and discretion with a strong interest in American opera, new work and challenging productions of familiar operas. He followed Jacobson's example of allowing reviews of Met productions to be frank, and sometimes even allowing articles to be critical of Met favorites. I wrote two of those, so three enraged phone calls were received by the first publisher Patrick worked with, Patrick and me. I thought Joe Volpe was funny but I grew up like him and knew many people of the same sort. The WASPS shook. But Patrick stood his ground bravely.

Brian Kellow had been hired in Fitzgerald's time. A very ambitious not to say lean and hungry type, he became Patrick's right hand, and was a great help. For all Patrick's excellent intentions and right mindedness he was indecisive and disorganized. He had run a valuable small magazine about serious music with an emphasis on the new but Opera News had become quite a big proposition needing a tougher minded and more decisive editor. It is my memory that Kellow added pages, expanded photography and like Jacobson, allowed longer articles by a range of expensive writers. I also think he and Patrick expanded the staff. Advertising became more and more important to underwrite ambitious articles about opera everywhere, not just in New York. 

And that was when I was aware that there was anxiety that the magazine was becoming too expensive. Patrick left in 1998. During an interregnum, Kellow cleaned house but decided not to become editor, getting his long time friend, F. Paul Driscoll, an authority on Gilbert and Sullivan, to do that job, officially in 2003.

These two have run the magazine since. They tried various initiatives. Seeking to expand readership especially among a younger demographic, they put good looking, hunky baritones on the cover; they commissioned PEOPLE like tabloid interviews, such as the idiot I mentioned above, loved. They were dumbing the magazine down but not without reason. They were seeking advertisers and hoping that by presenting a hip, contemporary look and "vibe" they could attract people in the 18-39 year old demographic that advertisers want, and thereby attract more advertisers and perhaps increase the cost of advertising in the magazine. The gay angle became important. I believe the thinking was that gay men, supposedly and perhaps actually, the backbone of opera in America, have on average higher disposable incomes and even when older are more conversant with current trends.

However, they had to weather continuing crises in the economy, as well as a huge cultural shift, of which so many of the elderly and about to be ancient commentators on the 'Net (I am one myself) seem unaware. 

"High Culture" no longer means anything, there is no longer glamour and social status to be gotten at the Opera. Even Netrebko's impact is "soft" compared to the pop, movie and reality TV divas that get huge coverage in the most accessible markets of our culture, while opera and all other high art endeavors are entirely ignored. Surveys show not only a tiny number of people interested in various art forms (2.5% of Americans say they have an interest in opera and the spoken play for example) but younger people are farther and farther away from being exposed to any of the art forms inherited from the 19th century.

The death of newspapers and general interest magazines nearly all of which had substantial cultural pages thirty years ago, the total lack of mainstream TV production and discussion of any of the arts (in fact there's not even an on demand or pay cable channel showing the telecasts of opera, concerts and plays that are frequent in Europe) is devastating. PBS scheduling of Met HD telecasts and occasional concerts is often confusing, slotted in inconvenient time periods, and not carried at all in various parts of the country. Education in the arts is hap hazard when not lacking entirely. As he writes in Inside A Pearl, Edmund White was shocked that when he returned from twenty years writing in Europe that what he accepted as commonplace there, frequent discussions on main stream television and the radio of all the arts, with new novels, works of non fiction and their authors frequent guests not only to promote themselves but to debate and analyze what their colleagues were writing about struck Americans as bizarre. He and his many writer friends in France and England, in Germany and the Czech Republic were at least known by name to a large public; in America no one knew of any serious writers at all and there were absolutely no mainstream outlets for discussion of literary, historical, philosophical work. 

Moreover the cultural change I refer to means that people under 40 are far likelier to stay home and play video games, surf the net and multi-task in their rooms than they are to go out to anything. For example, overall attendance at movies has suffered as much as anything else. The wiping out of a serious, artistically oriented but commercial movie industry by remakes, endless reiterations of sci fi, superhero, cartoon character, "gangsta" style films of chases, shoot outs and mayhem, frat boy comedies and recently, movies that show that women can behave as disgustingly as men and achieve profitability is a tribute to the death of a varied but often seriously intended adult culture in this country. Movies now, many dependent on mechanics rather than scripts or acting and none in need of ideas, are an attempt to lure "tweens", teens and young adults in America. But they are also a concession to an unfortunate reality: a huge foreign market, which accounts for almost half and sometimes more of the money made by movies in general release. Extensive, sophisticated dialogue is hard to translate and means hiring expensive voice actors fluent in the many different languages, ideas can shock or enrage foreign cultures, better a fantasy about giant monsters and cars that become lethal people than anything that concerns real human beings. Old people can watch pay cable and the endless reruns in syndication of the sit comes of their youth and middle years.

Even if many of the popular movies of the studio era (its best years ended by 1955) were pulpy and manipulative, they included a huge range of actual human experiences, characters and dilemmas, enacted by recognizable human beings. Joan Crawford walks into the sea to kill herself after smoking a carton of cigarettes and knocking back a bottle of vodka. Her one time lover and protege, now a famous violinist, is playing the Liebestod in a concert being broadcast nationwide. That is the end of Humeresque, a hit of 1946, partially written by the great American playwright, Clifford Odets.

Although it has its amusing aspect, her sorrow and mourning for love lost, her understanding of what making serious music demands from those who would make careers doing it, the power of the music itself (played in a Franz Waxman arrangement by Isaac Stern) make an effect still for that waning population that understands what is happening. Showing this to a texting, sexting college class elicits yawns or guffaws and when questions are asked, much puzzlement about everything that has happened. Even bright young people who have educational backgrounds beyond the usual, no longer have the frame of reference such a movie demands; 90% of its original viewers had not gone to college and many had not finished high school. The brighter College students may be astute enough to disdain Godzilla or Transformers, they may agree that Neighbors is unfunny and improbable and oddly, titillatingly and pointlessly or dishonestly gay in subtext, but their brains and cultural awareness have been sabotaged anyway.

One statistic that has borne up through different kinds of polling is that the average person under 40 is watching three screens at once most of the time (some watch more screens simultaneously). For forms that require concentration, good short term memory, patience and intense focus, this is death.

So suddenly the light of day hits Opera News. Advertisers work from numbers. How many people read the magazine regularly and carefully. How many people get the magazine because they are Guild members but throw it out after at best a skim? The advertisers discount the skimmers. 

What is the age range of the average reader of Opera News? Advertisers want that younger demographic, but if they don't dominate the number of readers, it's not worth the money to advertise. What is the average amount of disposable income of those younger readers? For example if you have a circulation that is 250,000, people on limited incomes are only a part of the readership, you will have a significant number of well to do and rich readers.

Specialized industries, the producers and sellers of music that people actually buy, the makers and sellers of high end sound and picture reproducing equipment, "high priced opera tours", glamorous hotels -- the standbys of Opera News advertising, are either out of business or stressed by contemporary economic realities and ever changing trends in leisure time. Those who sell very high end fashion and accessories, trendy clothing, and gadgets have research that shows that customers are no longer mostly middle aged and older but a smaller number of younger people with large disposable incomes, But those people have no idea about opera, no interest in it and are better reached elsewhere than a magazine that no matter how broad and obvious its coverage has gotten does not attract them.

For young gay men The Opera, the Ballet, The Symphony, The Theater are no longer rights of passage into a cultured circle, but irrelevant, silly (visits to the gay discussion board Datalounge >get your fix of gay gossip, new and pointless bitchery< (http://www.datalounge.com) shows long threads where nothing but contempt is spewed at these arts forms beloved by elder scolds, as people younger than me who dare show an interest are called ("hisssssssssssss" is the way people my age are indicated.) But when I moved to New York in 1974, the hoards -- it seemed -- of younger gay men could be seen in standing room, as guests of better off older connoisseurs of those art forms and everybody had arts oriented talking points however superficial their interest was.

I assume this new Opera News publisher, from an odd background (the higher level skin magazines seem to have been her breeding ground), has demonstrated to the Board that she can turn some tricks to attract advertising -- maybe she has done it before. Presumably she has contacts in mass market advertisers and perhaps she can make a case to them. I have no idea if she will have an impact on what Opera News covers, how it looks, or how it is distributed and I don't know how dire the problem is (if she can do somewhat better than her predecessors it may be enough for now, particularly if the magazine cuts back on the number of pages and there is some thinning of the staff, Kellow is no kid and might be looking to retire, I assume he has the highest salary).

But Bob Kosovsky of Opera-L made a good point: Opera News itself is on line but other on line forums compete effectively with no or limited cost, especially among the somewhat younger people the magazine needs to BUY it and what it advertises. I wonder if the fate of Opera News is to become an exclusively on line enterprise? This can be done with a very small paid staff (three people?) and operate like Musical America and The Huffington Post. It can pick up articles published elsewhere (say in England and Europe, translators work cheap), it can find bloggers who will work for free, or if there are a few favorites they will blog for a pittance. Portal enterprises have not been a huge success except in porn (as witness the troubles of the New York Times on line and in general) but perhaps there can be a sort of subscription level to lure the obsessed to more detailed and "insider" style articles -- save those can be had in a lot of places for free on the 'Net.

Opera News was certainly a great institution for American opera lovers but one begins to have the feeling it is going to be yet another victim of the Koch Brothers culture: the creation of an uneducated, culturally ignorant, poorer but huge underclass, easily distracted, contemptuous of the higher things, who disdain unions and think it only just that they be exploited by a smaller ruling class.