Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thomas Stewart Dies

The great American bass-baritone Thomas Stewart died this week. He passed away after making par on a golf course. He had turned 78 last month.

Here is the obituary, written by Tim Page, from The Washington Post.

Thomas Stewart died just the way many of us would choose to go -- instantly, in the company of the woman he loved, and on the golf course, immediately after making par.

The great American bass-baritone, who had turned 78 last month, was on the links near his home in Rockville late Sunday afternoon. "He had had heart surgery earlier this year and had not been feeling well for some time, but he was getting along, still active, cheerful and doing things," soprano Evelyn Lear, Stewart's wife of more than half a century, said yesterday. "We went out to the course, played for a while, he made par, and then suddenly turned around and fell backwards. I tried to resuscitate him, but he didn't respond."

Stewart was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead from a massive heart attack.

Onstage, Stewart was a booming, magisterial and frankly awe-inspiring presence (he was, for example, the first American in history to sing the Norse god Wotan in Wagner's complete "Ring" cycle at Bayreuth). Offstage, he was friendly, kind, self-effacing and absolutely unpretentious.

Will Rogers used to say that he never met a man he didn't like; in a similar spirit, I can affirm that I never knew anybody who didn't like Tom Stewart. Yesterday was a day of mourning in the music community -- hours on the telephone, shocked and saddened e-mails floating through cyberspace.

Matthew Epstein, the director of the worldwide vocal divisions at Columbia Artists Management, who knew Stewart for 40 years, called him "just about the most marvelous person in the world, and you'd get agreement with me from everybody from the legendary singers he worked with early in his career, such as Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, to the young people he nurtured as part of the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program."

This last endeavor was especially dear to both Lear and Stewart. In company with the Wagner Society of Washington, the two provided musical guidance for more than 70 aspiring Wagner singers since 2000, presenting two concerts each year.

"Why were the works of Wagner so important to me as an artist?" Stewart asked in an essay he wrote to accompany a recording. "It's because of the marriage of word and music, something every composer seeks to achieve but few accomplish with such perfection. Being a singer who becomes completely absorbed in the text he is singing, I naturally felt an affinity for this aspect of Wagner's art."

Epstein called Stewart a perfect example of what an American singer should be -- "deeply musical, able to sing in many different styles and languages, a wonderful actor with a fabulous vocal technique. He could sing Wotan, and then he could turn right around and sing a comic Italian part such as Verdi's Falstaff. Every director he ever worked with thought he was a great actor. And every musician he ever worked with knew he was a great singer."

Stewart was born Aug. 29, 1928 in San Saba, Tex. After some early studies in electrical engineering in Waco, he moved to New York, where he studied with Mack Harrell at the Juilliard School. After graduation, he sang with the New York City Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he took on the bass role of Raimondo in Maria Callas's American debut in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

He married Evelyn in 1955. The two moved to Berlin, where they sang at the State Opera and then throughout Europe, before returning home to the United States for long and distinguished careers with the Metropolitan Opera. For more than a decade, Lear and Stewart have divided their time between Rockville and Florida.

They made many recordings together, a number of which are available on the VAI label; a five-CD retrospective was recently issued on Deutsche Grammophon. Stewart's own favorite disc was one that he made of Wagner's complete "Die Meistersinger von Nuernburg" with the conductor Rafael Kubelik and the soprano Gundula Janowitz that was taped in the late 1960s but, for contractual reasons, never issued until the 1990s.

Tom and Evelyn came over for dinner at my home in Baltimore in early August. He was clearly tired but was grand company throughout the evening, touching on several favorite subjects -- his interest in alternative medicine, his amused skepticism toward any form of religion, news of mutual friends in New York and Washington. After considerable prodding, he favored us with an impromptu, heartfelt and achingly beautiful a cappella rendition of the old folk song "Shenandoah," which rings through my ears as I write this.

It was a performance of depth, strength, courage, love -- all qualities exemplified by Thomas Stewart. The gratitude felt by his friends and admirers is immense.

Madama Butterfly opens new MET season

The Metropolitan Opera's new season opened with a production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. This is the first new production of the first year under the new regime headed by Peter Gelb, who promises to bring back to the MET that long lost spark of theatrical excitement and critical praise that has been absent for many a season in America's most important opera house. I will be attending this production on October 21st and will be writing my own review of this production, directed by Anthony Minguella, at that time. For now, here are excerpts from Anthony Tommasini's review in the New York Times.

In the aisles and lobbies during the second intermission of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which opened the season on Monday night before a star-studded audience, patrons could be overheard heatedly debating the puppet used to portray Butterfly’s little boy.

This nonspeaking minor character is typically played by a cute child in a sailor suit. In this production the director Anthony Minguella has introduced a small puppet boy manipulated by three puppeteers cloaked in black who stand behind him. The child moves with eerily human gestures, and his baldish head has a wizened, hopeful yet anxious look.

Some people thought it was “more real than any real child they could have had,” as one patron put it. Others thought it was intriguing but very strange. Somewhere in the house, Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Met, must have been beaming.

This is exactly what he had hoped for in bringing to the Met the “Butterfly” production that Mr. Minghella, the Oscar-winning film director, originated at the English National Opera in London. It was a major statement for Mr. Gelb to inaugurate his tenure with this production at a time of diminishing audiences at the house and great challenges to the art form. The Met, of all companies, should present innovative, risk-taking work that challenges audiences, generates interest, gets people talking and, most important, keeps people coming.

ou cannot call Mr. Minghella’s concept a modernized staging because the elaborate costumes by Han Feng, filled with stylized flourishes, are meant to evoke the opera’s setting, Nagasaki at the beginning of the 20th century. The sets by Michael Levine have an abstract look, with dull black side walls and glossy black steps, rectangular shapes of radiant reds and greens, sliding panels deftly used to make characters disappear, and a slanted overhead mirror that hauntingly reflects the action onstage.

The captivating imagery of the production is sure to be its least controversial element. At the end of Act I, for example, during the wedding-night love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton, black-clad dancers form trellises of white lanterns to shield the couple as flower petals fall from on high, and curtains made from strings of petals descend. The use of puppets may be the production’s most debated element. But the image of this puppet child, with his fixed stare and need to know, will stay with me.

Mr. Minghella’s courageous Butterfly was the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Dom√Ęs. A slight-framed and intense woman, she had a riveting presence. She does not have a conventionally lovely voice; her sound is earthy and sometimes a touch strident. To shape supple phrases, she thins her sound and sings with impressive delicacy, though with some loss of richness. And she has a wobbly vibrato in full-voiced top notes. Yet she gave a vulnerable, utterly honest and, in its way, elegant performance.

Pinkerton was played by the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, who looked a little beefy to play the dashing American Naval officer. Still, he sang with full-bodied Italianate passion; warm, rich tone; and clarion top notes. And I have never seen him act with more involvement and subtlety. As Sharpless, the robust baritone Dwayne Croft was powerless to stop Pinkerton from his callous courtship of the trusting geisha Butterfly. The fine mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak was an unusually impassioned Suzuki, Butterfly’s devoted servant.

James Levine, in his first performance at the Met since having lost four months of work to a shoulder injury, received a tumultuous ovation when he arrived in the pit. If Mr. Gelb is going to take creative chances and lure directors from the film and theater to the Met, he will need more than ever the solid musical grounding Mr. Levine has long brought to the house.

Conducting his first complete “Butterfly” there, Mr. Levine had this familiar score sounding vigorous, lean and intricate. He was attuned to the modernistic touches of Puccini’s harmonies and to the arching lyricism of Puccini’s lines.

Whatever your take on this production, it is sure to be a hot ticket. Everyone will be talking about the Met. When was the last time you could say that?

Muslim Anger Halts Opera

The following appeared on the CNN website today.

BERLIN, Germany
(AP) -- A leading opera house called off a production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" that features the severed head of the Prophet Mohammed, setting off a furious debate Tuesday over Islam, freedom of speech and the role of art.

The furor is the latest in Europe over religious sensitivities -- following cartoons of the prophet first published in a Danish newspaper and recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI decrying holy war.

Kirsten Harms, director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper, (pictured here) announced "with great regret" that she had decided to cancel the three year old production after state security officials warned it could provoke dangerous reactions in the current politically charged climate.

After its premiere in 2003, the production by Hans Neuenfels drew widespread criticism over a scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha.

The severed heads are an addition by director Neuenfels to the 225-year-old opera, which was last performed by the company in March 2004.

Harms defended her decision, which she described as "weighing artistic freedom and freedom of a theater ... against the question of security for people's lives."

But the move immediately provoked strong reactions across Germany.

Outraged politicians called the decision to pull the production "crazy" and "a fatal signal" of caving into extremism. Response from Germany's Islamic community was mixed, with some praising the decision and others calling on Muslims to accept the role of provocation in art.

The leader of Germany's Islamic Council welcomed the move, saying a depiction of Mohammed with a severed head "could certainly offend Muslims."

But in an interview with German radio, Ali Kizilkaya added: "I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid ... That is not the right way to open dialogue."

The leader of Germany's Turkish community said it was time Muslims accepted freedom of expression in art.

"This is about art, not about politics," Kenan Kolat told Bavarian Radio. "We should not make art dependent on religion -- then we are back in the Middle Ages."

Neuenfels has insisted his staging not be altered, saying the scene where the king presents the severed heads represents his protest against "any form of organized religion or its founders."

"I stand behind my production and will not change it," Neuenfels told the Berliner Morgenpost in its Tuesday edition.

The opera house's decision comes after the German-born pope infuriated Muslims by quoting the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

Earlier this year, violent protests erupted across the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. The caricatures were reprinted by dozens of newspapers and Web sites in Europe and elsewhere, often in the name of freedom of expression.

Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Mohammed for fear it could lead to idolatry.

"We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Mohammed) caricatures," Deutsche Oper said in a statement. "We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support."

Berlin security officials had warned Harms that staging the opera could "in its originally produced form .... pose an incalculable security risk to the public and employees."

But Germany's interior minister condemned the cancellation.

"That is crazy," said Wolfgang Schaeuble, the country's top security official, speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C. "This is unacceptable."

It is not only Muslims who have been offended by depictions of religion in art.

Last month Madonna sparked criticism from some Roman Catholics in Germany for a show that staged a mock crucifixion. Mel Gibson's 2004 movie, "The Passion of Christ" met with disapproval from some Catholics and some Jews. In 2004, a Birmingham, England, theater canceled its run of "Behzti" after a violent protest by members of the Sikh community.

Still, many in normally open and tolerant Berlin, which has become a home for cutting edge and often contentious artistic productions, cautioned against compromising on issues of freedom of speech and art.

"Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them," said Mayor Klaus Wowereit.

Bernd Neumann, the federal government's top cultural official, said that "problems cannot be solved by keeping silent."

"When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered."