Sunday, September 27, 2015

Otello at the Met

The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Met's new season by the numbers

As I was putting together my Met preview post, I thought to myself, “so much Donizetti!” So I fired up Excel and made some charts. The above pie chart shows numbers of productions by composers.

There is a lot of Donizetti. He and Puccini are tied for first by number of productions. I like Donizetti just fine and the Three Queens Not-a-Trilogy (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux) is a one-off special occasion. But I’m not sure if he merits more than twice the number of productions than Richard Strauss and Wagner put together.

Donizetti operas must sell, though I suspect this is not based on the composer's name recognition. These operas are either star singer vehicles (the Not-a-Trilogy) or frothy comedies (the other two, Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore). Also, they’re far cheaper to produce than Strauss and Wagner.

You know what else sells? Puccini. If you count performances rather than productions, you will find that Puccini is occupying the Met for many more performances than Donizetti.

Bohème, Turandot, Tosca, and Butterfly all get runs of over a dozen performances each, while the Donizettis average around seven each. (Verdi also gets some longer series.)

Both Puccini and Donizetti—along with Verdi, who is next in line after these two—represent a mainstream American idea of what opera is. Not the most interesting idea, in my opinion, and one that would benefit from including more music from other time periods and traditions.

Here is a chart showing things by language. I love Italian opera but this is ridiculous.

The Pearl Fishers is the only French opera onstage this season! And neither of the English-sung operas were written in English; they’re an Italian opera and an Austrian operetta given in translation (Barber, for families, and Fledermaus, for Jeremy Sams superfans).

Just to reiterate some absences I’ve already noted: there’s nothing composed after 1935 (all due respect to Friedrich Cerha, the completer of Lulu) and no Slavic repertoire.

If you look at dates of composition, you get this. Only Mozart, Turandot, and Lulu fall outside the “long nineteenth century”:
Notes for the pedantic: Simon Boccanegra is accounted as the second version, Tannhäuser is the Paris version, Cav/Pag dates are averaged to 1891, and Lulu is dated at 1935 because that’s when Berg stopped writing it and putting its date off until the three-act premiere in the 70's seemed excessive. Turandot, however, is given by its premiere date of 1926 like the rest. If you find this grossly unfair, make your own chart.

How can you build a diverse audience with such a skewed repertoire? The Met, probably more than any other major opera house, proclaims itself to represent opera in toto. But, even given their limitations of space and structure, opera is a far wider and more varied art form than what they're giving us.

"Productions by Composer" is corrected because my first version unintentionally excluded Rossini. Data from 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Met Opera, 2015-16

"So glad I got this newsprint instead of the Olivier Py Lulu."
Hello, Met-goers! The Met put its tickets on sale in June this year, several months before their recent custom, and I missed writing my usual preview because I have spent the intervening months trying to figure out how to use the Met’s new website otherwise occupied. But we still have a week before things start and it doesn’t look like much has sold out yet (though the Saturday matinees are, as always, the hottest tickets) so I believe this is still timely.

Programming note: As I mentioned earlier, I'm now based in western Massachusetts, where I'm a postdoc at Smith College. (Ask me about my spring semester opera history class!) I'm still only a bus ride away from New York but it's become a somewhat longer bus ride. I'm closer to Boston and should be there periodically as well.

This year has a few exceptionally interesting operas among the new productions while most of the revivals are on the routine side. But perhaps some fortuitous casting will revive a previously moribund production (as happened to multiple operas last season). The season skews nineteenth century, with no Baroque and Lulu (1935, third act completed 1979) the most recent composition (second place: Turandot, premiere 1926). Also, this is a year without any Slavic operas at all—no Janacek, no Tchaikovsky, no Musorgsky, no nothing. When will we get the production of The Excursions of Mr. Broucek that we’re clamoring for?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Written on Skin in NYC

Unusual for a new opera, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin arrived in New York with its reputation preceding it. It has been making the European rounds since 2012 and has been praised to the skies almost everywhere. Its three Lincoln Center Festival performances last week marked its untimely staged US debut.

And it’s hard to imagine that Written on Skin could have been developed and premiered by an American opera company. Certainly not, at least, by one of the behemoths. Martin Crimp’s libretto is a simple story which becomes complex in its telling; it doesn’t have a celebrity historical personality as its protagonist, isn’t based on a hit film or book, and makes no clear claim to cultural importance. The subject isn’t, like many American operas, aggressively checking off boxes like genres suggested by Netflix. (Cold Mountain? Hmmm, Literary Fiction Set in the Civil War With Strong Female Characters.)

Written on Skin
is instead purposefully elliptical. It’s filled with symbols, fragmented narrative frames, and characters speaking in the third person. Its score is, though at times lyrical, rather thornier than the film music style which has become most popular in American premieres. It has also eclipsed most if not all of those works in its acclaim and popularity.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bayreuth from Wieland to crocodiles

Audience members headed to the Bayreuth Festival weren’t happy. The train route from Nuremberg, the principal way to reach this small town in northern Bavaria, was suspended because of construction. They would have to take a bus instead. It would be slow. It would be uncomfortable.Yet much of the renown of the festival, which runs through Aug. 28, has been rooted in its inaccessibility, in its steadfast resistance to speed and comfort.

I wrote about the Bayreuth Festival for this Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section. For the record, I took the bus out of Bayreuth and its seats were more comfortable than those of the Festspielhaus.

I do plan on writing about the rest of the Ring here, but I have been busy with this and other deadlines, as well as moving into a new apartment in a new state (hi, everyone in Northampton, MA!). I am also going to Written on Skin this weekend. More later.

Friday, July 31, 2015

There Will Be Wälsungs (Castorf Ring, 2)

After an animated Das Rheingold, Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Die Walküre is a rather flat affair. There are rumblings of a larger plan, but as expected they’re more like suggestions of themes than anything systematic. For one thing, the narrative isn’t linear. We’ve gone from an indeterminate trashy American motel in Rheingold back to the 1880s. The 1880s in--you guessed it!--Baku, Azerbaijan. (Sorry if you did not, in fact, guess it. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that Castorf is from East Berlin.) There’s an oil drilling boom and once again people/gods/dwarfs/singers are destroying everything. The Wälsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde, however, don’t have any real place in this ecosystem, and this turns out to be a problem. Musically, though, this was a very strong installment, making the cleft between sound and stage ever wider.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Real Housewives of Valhalla (Castorf Ring, 1)

Many of Bayreuth’s audience members can tell you about Ring cycles going back decades. They know the Ring very well. Not only that, but when we--and now I mean all of us--go to Bayreuth we engage with Wagner in a certain way: immersed, initiated, as part of a thread of history.  We are here to contemplate, to chew over things. We see the Ring as a work whose meaning and presentation has changed through the decades, as works with life cycles and symbolic significance. And of course the works themselves construct their own, internal networks of meaning.

The challenge of Frank Castorf’s Ring, now in its third year, is that it cannot be read in those terms. It rejects those premises. The more you ask what it “means,” the less you will see what it is.

Here are a few thoughts on Rheingold.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Bregenz Festival: tips and tricks

The Seebühne
Thinking of going to the Bregenz Festival? Located in the province of Vorarlberg, at the far western tip of Austria and on the edge of Lake Constance (the Bodensee in German), it's somewhat off the beaten path. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this festival is not very popular among the English-speaking set, so I thought I would provide some information for those who may be interested.

Ratty Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Festival Lohengrin has become an improbably beloved production. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin is justifiably the most popular performance of the festival and the score sounds amazing in the space, even though it predated the Festspielhaus. But the production: famous for its chorus of rats, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be remembered for one weird image, put into a collective Strange Opera photo album along with Neuenfels’s Nabucco with bees and that Bieito Ballo that no one can get over. Instead it became an almost instant classic. In part it is memorable for the rats’ indexicality, yet the rats are not only an image but a compelling idea. And while the rats would seem to preclude the romantic knight in shining armor aspect of this opera, that’s not really what happens.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tales of Herheim at the Bregenz Festival

If you’re one of those people who fill comment sections with impassioned arguments about different editions of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, has Stefan Herheim ever got something for you. (If you aren’t, you’ll find plenty to like too.) This production, which premiered on Thursday night at the Bregenz Festival, is not an attempt to create a definitive, authentic edition of one of the most convoluted operas in the repertoire. It’s about what’s at stake in such a search for authenticity--about subject and object, what it means to control and/or love someone, and whether we ever can escape our own heads.

And rarely has the search for the true self looked so much like a twisted Busby Berkeley musical!