|from CROSSING by Matthew Aucoin at A.R.T|
What's needed to renew opera is new operas. The crisis is very real. These figures are from Opera America. The "main season attendance (not counting outreach, student performances, etc. 4.1 million in 1990), went from 3.6 in 2007 to 2.9 in 2009. This decline is a steady slope since 1990."
In America of all the Arts opera is the most endangered because it's the most expensive. "Regie production", is possibly not the answer anywhere. Those are director-driven presentations of popular operas that none the less go in radical directions far away from what experienced American opera lovers are used to seeing. We need a reinvention of the form through its basic unit, the opera itself.
This has dawned on people for at least the last fifteen years and is getting its annual attention in the press. The New York Times did a big piece on Matthew Aucoin, the "boy genius" who appears to be abundantly gifted as a conductor but who's new opera, Crossing, was just given at ART, the theater at Harvard and was covered widely, including in the New York times.
|OSCAR Opera Philadelphia|
Opera Philadelphia did two new operas in 2015: Oscar by Theodore Morrison, with a libretto by John Cox, which concerns the downfall of the famous playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde. It was jointly commissioned with Santa Fe Opera which gave the world premiere in 2013. And on June 5, 2015, Opera Philadelphia gave the world premiere of Yardbird, the nickname of Charlie Parker, also known as Bird. Music was by the Swiss, Daniel Schnyder, text by Bridgette A. Wimberly. I saw both of these.
|Yardbird Opera Philadelphia|
San Francisco will soon give the world premiere of Two Women, an opera by Marco Tutino, to be directed by Francesca Zambello.
Interestingly, Italian conductors provided the impetus for Yardbird and Two Women. Corrado Rovaris, the Music Director of Opera Philadelphia, spoke to the "fusion" composer Daniel Schnyder. They arrived at the idea of an opera that takes place on the last day of Parker's life. Nicola Luisotti convinced David Gockley the General Director of the San Francisco Opera to commission an opera of "lush and powerful" music to relieve the audience of the pains of "modernism" and "musical torture".
But a local spy confided that San Francisco Opera sent out an email advertising a 40% discount on seats for Two Women. Is the issue that people who pay for live performances only want Tosca or equivalent and won't even take a risk on something that has gotten sweaty assurances by all that it will be at worst a dental checkup with lolly-pop and not a painful procedure?
This informant also wondered if Two Women could possibly be worse than Gorden Getty's Usher (words and music by Mr. Getty, an 81 year old billionaire) on a bill with a recent completion of Claude Debussy's Fall of the House of Usher by Robert Orledge in December. This bill has already been given by the Welsh National Opera in June, 2014 to less than a rapturous reception (Debussy left very little, Mr. Getty reportedly remembers too much).
Nico Muhly writes a lot of music. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned and gave the world premiere of a new work of his called Messages at its last concerts in the Kimmel Center in May, 2015 (I heard it May 16). Afterward, the orchestra's music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin called Muhly "a genius, a great genius!"
|Two Boys, Metropolitan Opera|
Meanwhile, the Lincoln Center Festival will give Written on Skin, a new opera by George Benjamin with text by Martin Crimp. Benjamin was a pupil of Olivier Messiaen and is now 55. He works slowly but has composed much beautiful music in a sophisticated contemporary style, which both invokes the past and has many remarkable, personal aspects. Written in Skin had its world premiere -- an enormous success -- in Paris in 2012. It was a sensation at the Royal Opera in London, in 2013 where a DVD was made. Americans will weigh in this July, 2015.
This summer, Minnesota opera will give the world premiere of The Shining based on the Stephen King novel. The composer is the veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning mediocrity Paul Moravec.
This August, Santa Fe Opera will give the world premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, another veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner, text by Gene Scheer. It will then be given by Opera Philadelphia in February, 2016 and by the Minnesota opera in 2018. All three companies co-commissioned the work. This kind of sharing, of productions and commissions, has become commonplace in American opera since 2000, it's considered a survival tactic. Higdon is a former composer in residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra and teaches composition at the Curtis Institute.
More will occur; there is clearly a determination to create a repertory of new and recent operas that can be produced often and attract a public. The rather chilling insistence that a new opera should be "lush" and "powerful" suggests that as in all things in fecund America today, soon to be renamed Koch Country, there is a large element of philistinism. Higdon and Moravec are conservative composers (although Higdon is talented), and Morrison who wrote the hopeless Oscar, composed it in a very derivative style (Benjamin Britten).
The late Daniel Catan (Florencia en al amazonas and Il Postino among others) and the very much alive Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking among many others) write in a quasi Puccini style and have been praised for it. Opera News, a worthless rag run by a bunch of fools has used the phrase "movie music" as praise. So why not just show Robin Hood on a huge screen in the opera house? It has a "lush" score by Erich Korngold, as does Gone with the Wind, with its famous score by Max Steiner.
When I've heard Catan and Heggie they've reminded me of how daring and challenging Puccini actually was. When La Boheme was first given in New York it was called a "tuneless sewer". A great diva of the time, Nellie Melba, who wanted to sing Mimi, nonetheless had to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia after the opera, to be sure her fans came and stayed. But within a few years of its world premiere in Turin, in 1896 it had been given in an amazing number of opera houses and by 1900 was a massive worldwide hit.
|Teresa Cerutti Italian sorpano dancing as Salome|
Salome by Richard Strauss was considered musically cutting edge and shocking in its subject matter. It had its world premiere in Dresden in 1905. Within two years, it had been given in 50 other opera houses. It was withdrawn after one performance by the board of the Metropolitan Opera on moral grounds in 1907. The review quoted by the Metropolitan Opera Data Base contains the following "There is a vast deal of ugly music in "Salome"-music that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a course (sic) file.." The writer was the appreciable Henry Krehbiel in the Tribune.
But Salome was a hit when performed by Oscar Hammerstein's company at the Manhattan Opera house. Hammerstein also had hits with the more difficult Elektra and the elusive Pelleas et Melisande by Claude Debussy.
When new, Puccini, Strauss and their operatic competitors were not heard as "lush" at all. Now, we can hear much of their music that way (but not Elektra's confrontation with her mother, sections of Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten, or parts of La fanciulla del west or Turandot).
Wozzeck by Alban Berg has been given at the Metropolitan Opera 67 times, that is more often than I Puritani, Nabucco, Porgy and Bess, La Rondine, Rusalka, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Dido and Aeneas.
Wozzeck had its world premiere in 1925. It was a scandal and a sensation and became enormously popular in German-speaking countries, and then gradually elsewhere in Europe. It made Berg an international celebrity. The Nazis stopped that in 1933. However, Leopold Stokowski had given a staged performance in Philadelphia in 1931. Extended fragments were broadcast in England in 1932. The complete opera was given in concert in London in 1934. It was given at the Rome Opera in 1942 despite the Gestapo by Tullio Serafin with Tito Gobbi. After World War ll it began slowly to become a repertory item all over the world. The Metropolitan Opera was late doing it in 1958 and frightened too. It was an enormous success. No one would call Wozzeck "lush" or suggest that it was essentially background music.
But we are in a culture of distraction. The goal behind doing new operas has been in part to lure "the young" back into the opera house. But we know that in America at least, the average person under thirty is looking at three screens at once. Attention jumps back and forth to multiple entertainments as well as real life situations happening simultaneously.
As someone who deals seriously in press for "high art" put it to me (and he is in his early thirties), young people "curate their own entertainment today". They don't leave it up to stodgy opera companies or symphony orchestras, or theaters, or ballet companies to organize elaborate seasons and sell them subscriptions. They decide on what they're in the mood for and indulge that for as long as they're interested, moving on to something else with the lightening speed our amazing technology allows.
In a country that despises the well-being of a huge percentage of its population, education, science, rationality, all the arts, one can't expect American youngsters, even those from "good backgrounds" to know anything, to have a frame of reference, to concentrate for long, to retain information, to know much of anything other than what is hot right now, what is "happening" that the corporations are using to make massive profits while deadening their brains.
Yes, the elderly idiots on the various opera lists dislike "difficult" music, which is only difficult if you're brain is deadened by age and seventy years of listening to Tosca and Adriana Lecouvreur hundreds of times ("I have 300 performances of Norma," one of these fools bragged on a list. But could he read a piano/vocal score of Norma, or even a few arias from it? Of course not.)
We've betrayed ourselves, those of us who are old; we've allowed this country to be bought and the brains of our young to be crushed. And we argue over Milanov and Callas and Tebaldi as though it were eternally1958.
Zambello and Gockley looking to produce a "lush" opera where perhaps no one has to strive to understand what is going on, are old too. Whatever they may really believe, and they are both the tough survivors of many a battle, they think assuring an audience that it can come to the opera and not work, even doze to pleasant sound is a way forward.
But I will end by quoting Flannery O'Connor: "Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.” But an opera impresario will say, "Nice. Now how do you pay for it?"
This, alas, is part one. I've heard many of these operas, read the scores of others and of course have irrelevant opinions. But that must wait for --dare I call it -- part two?