well, it’s been quite a busy week for opera around here. some of it i’m interested in, some of it i’m not but i know you all are so it’s best if i just lay it all out there, right? right!
nothing like reading the Times and seeing a nice big article with the words “Rossini Scholar” in it. it seems that the Met asked Phillip Gossett to write program notes for their new production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory which opened last week but he would have no part of it. according to him, there is a new version of Ory that has been put together for the new Rossini critical edition put out by Bärenreiter, one that was available in time for Munich Opera’s production last year. this is where i’m going to stop with all the musicological lingo (if you want more of that, head over to another musicology blog!) and just ask the question: why do we even care? everyone with whom i’ve talked who has heard Ory has expressed very little interest. i mean it’s only program notes. (please note the facetiousness in my voice — i write program notes, for god’s sake) while the new version (complete with over 100 new measures of music) could provide a more complete experience for the viewer, my guess is that if we took a poll of the audience, few would register any concern. now this is not me saying that the regular audience isn’t capable of noticing these changes, i’m sure that many are but it seems that the idea of change is not one that’s very popular in the par terre. i think it’s interesting that Anthony Tommasini states in his article that one element that might have attributed to this reluctance may have come from Juan Diego Florez (and a stubbornness to change things already in his wheelhouse — more on him later).
we see this idea of change, and the negation of its existence, all throughout opera. whether it’s a new production, new singers, new tempi, what have you, audiences don’t tend to be receptive. (LePage’s brilliant staging of the Ring cycle a recent example). somehow, operas have turned into old friends with whom we’ve become comfortable. change then turns into the facelift they decided to get that went horribly wrong. but what if that change isn’t horrible? and what if people hate it just because? i know i’m guilty of this on a small level — when i hear performers in operas with which i’m intensely familiar or attached and i’m not feeling it, i get upset. we want to hear it the way we like it, the way in which it became special to us. but this codification/museum/masoleum-like culture does not bode well for opera. in the nineteenth-century, people changed operas all the time. adding arias, changing voice types, replacing music with other people’s music, often at the audience’s behest. i don’t know if that’s a concept to which we can return (the work concept is a little too ingrained in our conscious) but we’ve got to take a step back and ask ourselves why and if we should respond to change with such vitriol. plus, this is like, you know, what i do for a living? you people are gonna put me out of work!
and speaking of JDF, congrats to him and his wife on their new baby and for being the embodiment of “the show will go on”, though if you go to the Met website they make it seem like he delivered the baby himself and then got into his nun’s habit covered in amniotic fluid. but then again, the Met would.
across the plaza, my baby, the opera company that could, New York City Opera is putting their fall season on the backburner. for those of you acquainted with NYCO, you know that this is one of many challenges they’ve had to face in the last few years. i worked their right before their major woes began and i remember how excited they were about the upcoming arrival of Gérard Mortier. his sudden departure raised several questions (especially, in my mind, that of state-funded arts) and left them in somewhat of a pickle. it had seemed as though they were pulling themselves up out of the well. i will keep you apprised of the situation and everyone send good vibes.
so my newest venture is singing in the UWS vocal ensemble Cerdorrion which has been great so far. everyone is super nice and just love the fact that i write about opera and Britten. of course, they take every opportunity they can to talk to me about it (which can be a blessing and a curse). after our saturday rehearsal, i found myself walking with one of my fellow choristers when she told me that she just loved contemporary opera and couldn’t really get into the nineteenth-century stuff. o happy day! we had a great conversation about our experiences, Doctor Atomic (i swear this opera will come up in every conversation i have for the rest of my life), and upcoming local productions. it was nice to hear someone so excited about twentieth-century opera and i told her that it’s not a statement i hear often. this could work out…
and the president of the ensemble, a self-proclaimed Brittenophile, is still trying to come up with an answer to my Midsummer Night’s Dream question. he doesn’t like the Met’s new production of Grimes (strike number one!) but he’s so damn eager that i think it might be a nice relationship. maybe he’ll feel less inclined to talk to me if he reads my thesis.
To attempt to write about the undocumentable event of performance is to invoke the rules of the written document and thereby alter the event itself. Just as quantum physics discovered that macro-instruments cannot measure microscopic particles without transforming those particles, so too must performance critics realize that the labor to write about performance (and thus to “preserve” it) is also a labor that fundamentally alters the event. It does no good, however, to simply refuse to write about performance because of this inescapable transformation. The challenge raised by the ontological claims of performance for writing is to re-mark again the performative possibilities of writing itself. The act of writing toward disappearance, rather than the act of writing toward preservation, must remember that the after-effect of disappearance is the experience of subjectivity itself.
-Peggy Phelan, Unmarked, The Politics of Performance
i’ve recently been thinking about opera as “third space”*, the odd place where realism and fantasy coexist while rendering each other obsolete. i think opera is at its best when it exemplifies all of those qualities that make it opera and not something else. i’ve been reminded of that a few times this week which, in my opinion, is quite extraordinary.
i wrote about the Monodramas at NYCO earlier this week which got me in this world of third space. plotless while with direction, it did something that only opera can do which is tell a story without a story. the operas of the Figaro Project did the opposite while accomplishing the same goal: telling incredibly vivid stories (both real and imaginary) in the best way opera can. i kept coming back to the idea of stories while watching and i think that’s important. but i’ll come back to that later.
i knew i had been watching too much Law and Order: SVU when i watched Paul Mathews’s Piecing It Apart, the story of an interrogation and a love affair gone wrong as many do. i realized i was being hooked with a backstory between police detectives Margaret and Max while learning about Dylan’s story, his affair with hometown girl Janey. it seems simple at first but unfurls into something so understandable and real that it surprised me that i was even taken by surprise. But the simplicity of it all, enhanced by the music and strong singing of the cast (especially Andrew Spady as Dylan) came as a breath of fresh air as it could have been as melodramatic as anything on TV.
(on that note, there is something quite refreshing about hearing a work done in a small space with very little between the performers and the audience. it was intimate in a way that most performances are not and i think it was a bold move, even if partly out of necessity.)
the stories continued, this time with something along the lines of the Neverending Story with Douglas Buchanan’s Lux et Tenebrae. the story was familiar: a child who can’t sleep pestering her grandfather with questions and asking for a story, only to find herself on a great quest. the music was as imaginative as the story and the cast’s willingness to enhance the already present humor (see the Snake with Two Names played by Jason Buckwalter and Nathan Wyatt) made it thoroughly entertaining. the Child played by Nola Richardson was inquisitive and endearing, an identifiable heroine. i think this would be a great opera for kids, especially if it’s pulled off the way it was saturday night, because we all know that children need more opera.
the last opera, Joshua Bornfield’s Strong Like Bull, was one of those great adult satires that, when you see it, makes you glad you’re smart enough to get the joke. i’ve always been of the belief that nothing is funnier and more absurd than history and i think this proves me right. loosely based on historical events in Russia after the September Revolution, the opera tells of a political puppet master (both literally and figuratively) pulling the strings of the interim government. with catchy hooks (“Mother Russia, here’s to you”) and moments bordering on parody (especially if you caught the reference), the music was inviting and set the stage for a great story. the cast went the distance in terms of acting and the result was uproarious laughter from the audience. and apparently, i got to see some last minute additions from other Figaro Project cast members (including conductor Jim Stopher) — one of those things you let yourself do on the last night of a show’s run. the four person cast sang the work with conviction, each bringing their own humor to their roles. (and brava to Jessica Abel for playing a pants role that’s so anti-en travesti with such gusto — and an almost too-realistic insanity).
all three operas were conducted and played brilliantly by Jim Stopher and pianist Younggun Kim, respectively (including violinist Mark Ericksen and cellist Peter Kibbe in Lux et Tenebrae) and made a formidable challenge look like child’s play.
i told many of the cast members afterwards that in addition to great singing, about which of course, we as opera-goers all care, what struck me most was their acting ability (something which those of you have talked to me recently know we’re supposed to take for granted) and their willingness to tell stories. while, true, not everyone can get on stage and sing, those who do can do it with a fair amount of similarity. when that happens, yes, there’s a story but it doesn’t resonate. and even the most ridiculous and absurd of stories can resonate with us if they’re told with authority and conviction.
*for those of you in my physiognomies class, yes i know this is not the definition of “third space” that we discussed but i mean, is it really necessary?
so many things to say about this i can’t even. from overgrownpath.com:
A visionary National Lottery funded project linking the 2012 London Olympics and the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth in the following year has been revealed by sources close to the Britten-Pears Foundation in Aldeburgh. Following the close of the sports Olympics in August 2012 the first ever cycle of all sixteen of Benjamin Britten’s operas will be given fully-staged productions in the Olympic venues over a fifteen month period. Orchestral forces are being provided by an augmented Britten Sinfonia and the ensemble’s involvement is reflected in the grant increase awarded by Arts Council England this week.
In an initiative inspired by the 2008 performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen at Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport the site specific opera productions will include Gloriana at the Olympic Stadium, Death in Venice at the Aquatics Centre and The Turn of the Screw at the Velodrome, with the Olympic Festival of Britten ending on the centenary of the composer’s birth, November 22, 2013 in a gala performance of Peter Grimes at Lee Valley White Water Centre which will be attended by HRH the Prince of Wales.
All the operas are to be transmitted as global HD simulcasts and directors whose names have been connected with the project include Francesca Zambello, Bob Wilson and Hans Neuenfels. Full details of the Olympic Festival of Britten are expected to be announced by UK Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt in May.
you play with my heart, april fool’s day, you really do.
it’s not very often when something makes you watch and listen. tonight was one of those nights for me, and luckily, i enjoyed every part of the experience. i attended New York City Opera’s trio of contemporary monodramas: La Machine de l’être by John Zorn, Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg and Neither by Morton Feldman. when i was sketching out what i had planned to say here, i found myself at a loss for words. i was both subsumed and overwhelmed by the works, understanding and not understanding all at once. from the very beginning, i knew it would be a production. in front of the curtain as the orchestra warms up are a man and a woman in suits…they immediately reminded me of Pulp Fiction (especially the woman who had a striking resemblance to Uma Thurman in that sexy black bobbed wig) as they stared out into the crowd with cold looks on their faces. The Zorn began with masked bodies on stage, revealed to be culprits, participants and this singers themselves. though some aspects of the piece elicited laughter from the audience (the giant thought bubbles rising from the stage, revealed to be the canvas for the animations of Antonin Artuad’s art), everyone soon settled. i found myself absolutely captivated by everything happening: the dancer in the lace negligée, the soprano’s rapturous and explosive lines, the repetitive images. soon it all dissolved in a flash of fire.
before i move on, there is something that must be said about the three women performing these monodramas. an intense amount of vocal skill is needed to pull off these works and they did it with power and commitment. if there’s one thing that stuck, it’s how incredible these performances were.
the performance went straight into Erwartung with this beautiful connection that immediately made me smile. the blooming spring that turned into the cold, desolate forest of the soprano was heartbreaking. everything about this piece was visually astounding. and though i thought the schoenberg-iness went on a little long (which has always been my problem with this work), sticking it out to the end was worth it (READ: spoiler alert). the Feldman was chock full of all the things i love about Feldman: light, reflection, piercing, encapsulated sound. now THIS was a tour de force. and of course, a room filled with spinning reflective cubes never hurt. and the soprano struggled with her alter ego and the light that seemed to be trapped and beyond her reach, it seemed to me that an epic battle was taking place. one that could only be fought on a sonic level and Feldman’s fragments were the perfect weapon. there is a beautiful moment where the soprano is standing over a whole in the stage, wind and light emitting while her alter ego watches in confusion as the others leave the stage. it felt like a moment of pure sadness only accentuated by silence.
now i’m sure that nothing i just wrote falls into the majority’s understanding of what opera is. and i’m sure that these monodramas are not for everyone. but if you leave yourself open to experiencing, not listening, not looking for a narrative but experiencing, i think you’ll find all the things you would look for in a non-contemporary opera. what that means is you might just like it.
QUESTION: when did the words “contemporary opera” become so dirty?
anytime anyone in my vicinity hears it, they wince like they just bit the inside of their mouth. what are people thinking of when they hear the word “contemporary”? i’m always hearing some horror story of some super new opera that didn’t make any sense that someone heard up in the Berkshires. i then try to explain that contemporary is a pretty broad term. and if that doesn’t hook ’em, i then explain that there are bad operas out there but they’re not bad because they’re new. this, in turn, means that all new opera is bad. there have been plenty of bad operas…time and the canon have taken care of that (though i stick thoroughly to my argument that Fidelio is a bad opera).
now yes, i am bias but the twentieth century gets a bad rap. it’s not all Klangfarbenmelodie (though that would be pretty awesome) but things you might enjoy on a purely sonic level. i guess my job will be to convince people to give it a try. well i’m doing it, one medical tech at a time (here’s looking at you, ms. Julia).
now i realize that i’m writing this before next week’s trip to Baltimore for the Figaro Project’s Contemporary Opera Trio premiere. we’ll see if anyone in the audience adds any more insight to this quandary.
i was asked several months ago to write reviews about the operas i would be seeing once i moved to the fancy schmancy big apple. now, knowing me, i thought i wouldn’t be spending too much time at Lincoln Center. boy was i wrong.
so in the six or so months that i’ve lived in New York, I’ve attended a handful of performances including Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, John Adams’s Nixon in China and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon. but attending these performances has done more than make me get out of the house. it has forced me to change my personal view about and relationship to opera. and being the creature of habit that i am, i have to write about it.
hopefully, this will give me some insight into why i am, personally, so transfixed by opera. and of course i have other reasons. i write about opera. a lot. (basically every major paper written during my Master’s degree was about opera) and my PhD dissertation focuses on opera on more than just a musical level. this is a place to work out some of those thoughts that are so incredibly specific.
and yes, i want to brag. there, i said it.
so what’s coming up next? Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Morton Feldman’s Neither at City Opera and Berg’s Wozzeck at the Met. also some thoughts on gendered operatic madness in Lucia di Lammermoor and Peter Grimes. oh yeah, it’s gonna be fun.
POSTSCRIPT: how could i have forgotten? i will 100% be at the Figaro Project Contemporary Opera Trio premiere in Baltimore in a few weeks. for those who are not familiar, The Figaro Project is a wonderful opera startup with which i had the great pleasure of being associated during my time at Peabody. they commissioned three 40-minute operas from local composers and i can’t wait to see the productions. for more info, check out The Figaro Project at thefigaroproject.com.