Monday, July 30, 2007

The Abduction of Opera

No doubt as a response to Katharina Wagner's new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth, this article called "The Abduction of Opera" by author Heather MacDonald appeared on the Internet. Here it is in its entirety.

ozart’s lighthearted opera The Abduction from the Seraglio does not call for a prostitute’s nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Nor does it include masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. Europe’s new breed of opera directors, however, know better than Mozart what an opera should contain. So not only does the Abduction at Berlin’s Komische Oper feature the aforementioned activities; it also replaces Mozart’s graceful ending with a Quentin Tarantino–esque bloodbath and the promise of future perversion.

Welcome to Regietheater (German for “director’s theater”), the style of opera direction now prevalent in Europe. Regietheater embodies the belief that a director’s interpretation of an opera is as important as what the composer intended, if not more so. By an odd coincidence, many cutting-edge directors working in Europe today just happen to discover the identical lode of sex, violence, and opportunity for hackneyed political “critique” in operas ranging from the early Baroque era to that of late Romanticism.

Until now, New York’s Metropolitan Opera has stood resolutely against Regietheater decadence. In fact, its greatest gift to the world at the present moment is to mount productions—whether sleekly abstract or richly realistic—that allow the beauty of some of the most powerful music ever written to shine forth.

The question now is whether that musical gift will continue.

The Met’s new general manager, Peter Gelb, hit Lincoln Center last year like a comet, promising to attract new audiences by injecting more “theatrical excitement” into the house. Predicting what that would ultimately mean was difficult enough before another bombshell exploded this February: New York City Opera, the smaller company across the plaza from the Met, announced that it had hired Europe’s most prominent exponent of Regietheater as its next general manager. The shock waves at Lincoln Center still reverberate.

This time of critical transition is an opportune moment both to celebrate the Met’s role in preserving a central glory of Western culture, and to consider the great opera house’s future. To see how much is at stake, one need only glance across the Atlantic and, increasingly, at other opera companies here in the United States.

The reign of Regietheater in Europe is one of the most depressing artistic developments of our time; it suggests a culture that cannot tolerate its own legacy of beauty and nobility. Singers, orchestra members, and conductors know how shameful the most self-indulgent opera productions are, and yet they are powerless to stop them. Buoyed with government subsidies, and maintained by an informal alliance of government-appointed arts bureaucrats and critics, the phenomenon thrives, even when audiences stay away in disgust.

The injury that Regietheater does to Mozart, Handel, and other benefactors of humanity is heartbreaking enough. But it also hurts the public, by denying new audiences the unimpeded experience of an art form of unparalleled sublimity. The seventeenth-century Florentines who created the first operas sought to recover the power of Greek tragedy, which united drama and song. Since then, opera has expressed a limitless range of human emotions, set to music of sometimes unbearable exquisiteness. Initially devoted to the exploits of kings and gods, opera by the end of the nineteenth century had conferred on the passions of workers and shopkeepers an equal grandeur, worthy of the majestic resources of the symphony orchestra.

The trajectory of the Komische Oper’s Abduction from the Seraglio—from the object of an in-house revolt to a sold-out triumph—is a fitting introduction to the decadence of Europe’s present musical culture. The episode presents a depressing variant on Mel Brooks’s The Producers: whereas Max Bialystok knew that his Springtime for Hitler was garbage and expected failure, the director of this Abduction, Calixto Bieito, assumed that his travesty would be a success—and it was.

Bieito is the most offensive director working in Europe today. Accordingly, he is in high demand; he has mauled Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Richard Strauss in London, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Hanover, and numerous other venues. Like many Regietheater directors, the Catalan Bieito piously claims to take his cues from the music itself. “I think I am very loyal to Mozart,” he notes. “There is nothing more to say.”

Actually, there is a lot more to say. The Abduction from the Seraglio is a humorous tale of the capture of a group of Europeans by a Turkish pasha, who tries to win the love of one of them; Mozart lavishes joyful, driving rhythms—led by piccolo, triangle, and cymbals—on its Turkish themes, and adds a rich lode of elegant solos, particularly for tenor. Bieito transferred the Abduction to a contemporary Eastern European brothel and translated the dignified pasha of Mozart’s sadly irrelevant tale into the brothel’s sick pimp overseer. To give the production’s explicit sadomasochistic sex an even greater frisson of realism, Bieito hired real prostitutes off the streets of Berlin to perform onstage. Needless to say, neither the streetwalkers nor the whippings, masturbation, and transvestite bondage are anywhere suggested in Mozart’s opera. In one representative moment, the leading soprano, Constanze—who has already suffered digital violation during a poignant lament—is beaten and then held down and forced to watch as the pasha’s servant, Osmin, first forces a prostitute to perform fellatio on him and then gags the prostitute and slashes her to death. Osmin hands the prostitute’s trophy nipples to Constanze, who by then is retching.

The episode perfectly illustrates the opportunistic literalism typical of culturally ignorant—and musically deaf—contemporary directors. It takes place as Constanze is singing one of the most difficult arias in the soprano literature, “Martern aller Arten” (“Tortures of Every Kind”). “Martern” is an obstacle course of leaps and trills accompanied by melting winds and propulsive harmonies, all meant to convey Constanze’s nobility in refusing the pasha’s demands for her love. It belongs in the long literary tradition of tragic rhetoric; its mention of torture is not a stage direction. Mozart immediately follows the number with a buoyant aria by Constanze’s maid and a return to the lightest farce—making clear that nothing untoward has happened to Constanze or to anyone else in the opera. But Bieito seizes on the torture reference, stripped of its musical and dramatic context, to justify his pornographic mayhem.

Like all Regietheater directors, Bieito has little tolerance for happy endings—or for any set of values at odds with his own clichéd worldview. In the conclusion to Mozart’s opera, the four European captives sing a hymn of praise to the pasha for granting them liberty and for renouncing revenge for a cruelty done to the pasha by a captive’s father long ago. Such celebrations of enlightened rule, even by a Muslim, were standard in Baroque and Classical operas; there is no reason to think that Mozart didn’t fully embrace the sentiments behind the convention.

Bieito doesn’t, however. In the finale of his Abduction, after a gruesome massacre of the writhing prostitutes, Constanze shoots first the pasha and then herself. So the concluding chorus of “long live the pasha” is mystifyingly directed at a dead man. No matter. Better to make nonsense of Mozart’s libretto than to allow such outdated sentiments as forgiveness, gratitude, and nobility to show up on an opera stage.

The orgies and boorish behavior that Bieito demands of his characters do violence to the music above all, so it was fitting that the Komische Oper’s orchestra members were the first to rebel. The musicians nearly mutinied during rehearsals for the 2004 premiere, according to the online magazine Klassik in Berlin, and backed down from a threatened walkout only after angry negotiations with Bieito and the musical director. Opera staff observing a late rehearsal stormed out of the house, and a palpable depression settled over the chorus. “Such a thing does not deserve to be seen on our stage . . . on any stage,” one chorus member said. The opening-night audience shared the musicians’ dismay. “Mozart didn’t intend this!” shouted protesters. But audience sentiment has little purchase in Europe’s subsidized opera houses. At the cast party after the premiere, Berlin’s top corporate and political leaders rubbed shoulders with strippers and whores, resulting in one of the most scintillating events in years, reported Klassik in Berlin.

Then a DaimlerChrysler official said that he didn’t think that the company should support such work with its grant money, guaranteeing the production’s success by conferring on it the exalted status of victim of corporate censorship. (Private support for Berlin’s three opera houses is still marginal compared with government funding, though.) Defending the importance of Bieito’s production, Berlin’s culture senator—a bureaucrat who dispenses government arts subsidies—argued that its “description of blood, sex, and violence is a true reflection of social phenomena.” Perhaps the senator was unaware that there are no such “social phenomena” in Mozart’s Abduction. Or perhaps it no longer matters.

DaimlerChrysler, facing a public-relations fiasco, recanted penitently. The production sold out for the remainder of its run and has been twice revived. Any first-time listener who came away with the slightest intimation of the charm of Mozart’s Singspiel must have had an extraordinary ability to rise above squalor in pursuit of the sublime.

Other Regietheater directors may not yet have achieved the sheer volume of gratuitous perversion and bloodletting that Bieito managed to cram into his Abduction—but their aesthetic obeys the same impulse. Gérard Mortier, City Opera’s incoming general manager and the current head of the Paris Opera, staged a Fledermaus at the Salzburg Festival that dragooned Johann Strauss’s delightful confection into service as a cocaine-, violence-, and sex-drenched left-wing “critique” of contemporary Austrian politics. An American tenor working in Germany remembers another Fledermaus with a large pink vagina in the center of the stage into which the singers dived. The innocent sea captain’s daughter, Senta, in the Vienna State Opera’s Flying Dutchman has posters of Che and Martin Luther King in her bedroom instead of a picture of the mysterious Dutchman, and burns herself to death with gasoline rather than jumping into the sea to meet her phantom beloved. Don Giovanni is almost invariably an offensive slob who masturbates and stuffs himself with junk food and drugs, surrounded by equally repellent psychotics, perverts, and sluts. (Operagoers can thank American director Peter Sellars for this tired convention.) Handel’s Romans and nobles come accessorized with machine guns, sunglasses, and video cameras, while jerking like rappers to delicate Baroque melodies.

The world at large got a glimpse of Regietheater last year, thanks to the furor over the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Idomeneo; unfortunately, the controversy focused on the wrong issue. The real outrage was not that the company considered canceling the show for fear of a Muslim backlash but that the potential provocation of that backlash—Mohammed’s severed head perched jauntily on a straight-backed chair—had absolutely nothing to do with Mozart’s opera. Director Hans Neuenfels had injected Mohammed’s and other religious figures’ heads into the classical Greek story simply to register his personal dislike of religion. Neuenfels’s next project: a Magic Flute with a large penis for the flute.

The list of tone-deaf self-indulgences could be extended indefinitely. Their trashy sex and disjunctive settings are just the symptom, however, of a deeper malady. The most insidious problem with Regietheater is the directors’ hatred of Enlightenment values. Where a composer writes lightness and joy, they find a “subtext” of darkness. A recent modernized version of The Marriage of Figaro at the Salzburg Festival showed Figaro angrily slashing the page Cherubino’s arm and smearing him with blood during the jaunty aria “Non più andrai.” That aria, in which Figaro teases the young dandy about his upcoming banishment to the army, is gently mocking, not dark and violent. But in a transgressive director’s hands, humor, reconciliation, happiness, and above all else, grandeur must be exposed as mere fronts for despair, resentment, and the basest instincts. No positive sentiment can appear without a heavy overlay of irony.

Just because our age regards grand ideals with cynicism, however, does not license us to write them out of the great works of the past. Doing so only impoverishes us. “There is considerable intellectual laziness in the idea that the past must be problematized and that older works must be ‘rescued’ from their ideological presuppositions,” says New Yorker critic Alex Ross. “Looking at the extraordinary mess the world is in, you might suppose that it’s our ideological presuppositions that are inherently flawed, and that we can actually draw useful moral lessons from the past.”

Regietheater directors undoubtedly think of themselves as sophisticated when they unmask courtly decorum as just a cover for fornication. The demystifiers’ awareness of desire is so crude that they cannot hear that the barely perceptible darkening of a voice or the constricted suffusion of breath into a note can be a thousand times more erotic than a frenzy of pelvic thrustings. And they rage against aesthetic conventions whose complexity challenges their simplistic understanding of human experience. Peter Sellars created one of Regietheater’s most horrifying images in his production of The Marriage of Figaro, set in Trump Tower: Cherubino, clad in hockey uniform, humping a mattress like a crazed poodle during the breathless aria “Non so più cosa son.” In the aria, Cherubino sings of his confusion in the presence of women and his compulsion to speak about love—“waking, dreaming, to water, to shadows, to the mountains.” “I know, it’s all just about sex!” giggles Sellars, like some 12-year-old with his first Playboy. Well, no, actually, it’s not. This sexual dumb show is inimical to the delicacy and innocence of the aria, whose beauty consists in part of sublimating desire into the artifice of pastoral poetry. Sellars’s staging belongs with a Snoop Dogg rap rant, not with Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte.

Europe is cursed with critics just as musically insensate and aesthetically illiterate as the directors whom they promote. Lydia Steier of Klassik in Berlin applauded the Bieito Abduction for “cut[ting] through any sentimental membrane protecting the opera from the stomach-churning brutality of such modern phenomena as human trafficking and snuff films.” This statement may well be the stupidest ever offered in defense of Regietheater. There is no “sentimental membrane” protecting Mozart from snuff films; there is not even the remotest connection between the two. The Guardian’s opera reviewer, Charlotte Higgins, was mystified that Bieito’s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the English National Opera garnered “furious headlines.” By Higgins’s own account, it contained the usual “transvestites, masturbation, simulated sex, nudity and, in the opening scene, a row of men sitting on toilets.” So what’s the big deal? asked Higgins. “The fact that you can get all that and more on TV every night seemed not to deter the carpers, presumably because opera is supposed to be respectable,” she sneered. But serious operagoers aren’t protesting transvestites or masturbation per se, only the minor detail that they have nothing to do with the sound world of Verdi.

Singers generally detest transgressive productions, but have little clout. No one wants to acquire a reputation for being obstructionist. Even the great American baritone Sherrill Milnes felt that he had to compromise on an outrageous demand during a German production of Verdi’s Otello. During the third-act duet in which Otello accuses Desdemona of being a whore, a “well-known stage director,” as Milnes describes him, wanted Milnes’s Iago to crawl on his belly across the stage. And then, says Milnes, “he wanted me to jerk off and have an orgasm.”

Milnes was astounded. “I won’t do it, it’s wrong on every front,” he remembers responding. “At the very least, it’s rude to interrupt the focal point of the scene between Desdemona and Otello. It’s not about Iago’s reaction.” (In fact, Iago is not even supposed to be onstage.) “No way I’ll put my hand on my crotch; it’s embarrassing for Sherrill Milnes and it’s embarrassing for Sherrill Milnes as Iago.” But Milnes gave ground: “I came on the stage, but not as long as the director wanted, breathed a little hard and exited.”

A few singers have walked out on productions, but more often they grit their teeth and just try to get through them. Diana Damrau, a rapidly rising German soprano, draws herself up with icy haughtiness when asked about her participation in the infamous Bavarian State Opera Rigoletto, set on the Planet of the Apes. “I fulfilled my contract,” she says scornfully. “This was superficial rubbish. You try to prepare yourself for a production, you read secondary literature and mythology. Here, we had to watch Star Wars movies and different versions of The Planet of the Apes. . . . This was just . . . noise.”

Well into the twentieth century, conductors controlled opera staging, and in theory they could still beat back Regietheater today. But they, no less than singers, worry about jeopardizing their careers. “You need courage to oppose it,” says Pinchas Steinberg, former chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony and former principal guest conductor of the Vienna State Opera. “People start to say: ‘You can’t work with this guy, he creates problems.’?” Conductor Yuri Temirkanov did quit a production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Opéra de Lyon in 2003. “I wouldn’t be able to live with my conscience if I conducted that [garbage],” he told the general director. Such showdowns are rare, however.

That leaves the audience as the final bulwark against the trashing of opera. But even when audiences stay away in droves—and “sometimes in those productions you could shoot ducks in the auditorium and not hit anyone,” says Milnes—the managerial commitment to Regietheater usually remains firm.

None of the conventional explanations for the rise of Regietheater in opera is fully convincing. Certainly the prevalence of massive state subsidies allows European opera managers to shrug off paltry box-office numbers. And to justify those subsidies, opera houses currently feel compelled to prove that they are not “elitist” institutions, observes Alex Ross. “Alleged critiques of the bourgeois order, the conservative establishment, etc. fit the bill.”

But while subsidies may be a necessary condition for Regietheater, they are not a sufficient one. European opera has been subsidized to varying degrees throughout its centuries-long history without generating the musical abuse that is now so common. And Regietheater productions are creeping into the U.S., where opera relies overwhelmingly on private support. The Spoleto Festival USA, for example, has presented the usual masturbating Don Giovanni; a recent Rossini Cenerentola (Cinderella) in Philadelphia featured a motorcycle and large TV screens projecting the characters’ supposed thoughts; City Opera mounted a Traviata in the 1990s that ended in an AIDS ward. Manager Pamela Rosenberg tried to make the San Francisco Opera a premier venue for European-style directing in the early 2000s, but she is gone now, after losing thousands of subscribers. The market provided the necessary corrective in San Francisco, but other managers, seeking elite acclaim, will make similar attempts in the future.

Germany’s postwar reaction to Nazism also undoubtedly contributed to the emergence of transgressive stagings there in the 1970s, yet more as a pretext than as an actual cause. The most radical reaction to Nazism in the opera world to date had nothing to do with today’s trashing impulse. When the Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner’s shrine, reopened in 1951, Wagner’s grandson, Wieland Wagner, discarded Richard’s own naturalistic sets and replaced them with light alone. Jettisoning Richard Wagner’s picturesque realism, which had come to be associated with National Socialism, was revolutionary, but it did not arise from any assumption on Wieland’s part that he was licensed to “deconstruct” his grandfather’s works. Today’s bad boys of German opera may puff themselves up with the belief that they are contributing to denazification, but nothing in that project compels their aesthetic choices. Nor does anti-Nazism explain the attraction of Regietheater outside Germany.

The current transgressive style of opera production is better understood as a manifestation of the triumph of adolescent culture, which began with the violent student movement of the 1960s. Even as West Germany forged ahead economically, its intellectuals, students, and artists became infatuated with the prosperity-killing Marxism practiced in stumbling East Germany. West German opera houses began inviting East Berlin directors to bring their heavy-handed critiques of capitalism, staged on the backs of Wagner and other composers, to Western venues. The situation was the same across Europe. “Student dissatisfaction with materialism . . . echoed in the theaters, notably in repertory and styles of production that were critical of bourgeois values and the status quo,” writes Patrick Carnegy in Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. In Paris in the late 1960s, City Opera manager-in-waiting Gérard Mortier led a group of student provocateurs who loudly disrupted opera productions that they considered too traditional.

The defining characteristic of the sixties generation and its cultural progeny is solipsism. Convinced of their superior moral understanding, and commanding wealth never before available to average teenagers and young adults, the baby boomers decided that the world revolved around them. They forged an adolescent aesthetic—one that held that the wisdom of the past could not possibly live up to their own insights—and have never outgrown it. In an opera house, that outlook requires that works of the past be twisted to mirror our far more interesting selves back to ourselves. Michael Gielen, the most influential proponent of Regietheater and head of the Frankfurt Opera in the late seventies and eighties, declared that “what Handel wanted” in his operas was irrelevant; more important was “what interests us . . . what we want.”

Nicholas Payne, former general director of the English National Opera and champion of Calixto Bieito, echoes this devaluing of the past. “Director’s theater or whatever you want to call it is an attempt to grab the material and make it speak to the spirit of today’s times, isn’t it?” he says. “I’m not saying that the only way to do [Monteverdi’s] Poppea is to make Nero the son of the chief guy in North Korea. Nevertheless, if you’re bothering to reproduce Poppea, it has to have some way of speaking to people now.” It’s hard to know whom that statement insults more—contemporary audiences or Monteverdi. Payne assumes that Monteverdi’s works are so musically and dramatically limited that they cannot speak to us today on their own terms, and that audiences so lack imagination that they cannot find meaning in something not literally about them.

The dirty little secret of Regietheater is this: its practitioners know that no one will bother to show up for their drearily conventional political cant unless they ride parasitically on the backs of geniuses. Bieito has said that his purpose in staging The Abduction from the Seraglio was to highlight abuses in the contemporary sex trade. Let’s pretend for a moment that Bieito actually cares about the fate of “sex workers.” His path is clear: keep his grubby mitts off Mozart and write his own damn opera. But without Mozart or Verdi, the Regietheater director is nothing; he cannot even hope for third-rate avant-garde status. In a world where displaying bodily fluids in jars, performing sex acts in public, or trampling religious symbols will land you a gig at the Venice Biennale and a government grant, the only source of outrage still available to the would-be scourge of propriety is to desecrate great works of art.

Occasionally, Regietheater proponents admit to their aspirations to shock. More often, however, they package themselves as the saviors of art. Gérard Mortier says that in updating operas, he seeks to “transform a work dated in a certain era so it communicates something fresh today.” He has it exactly backward. There is nothing less “fresh” than the tired rock-video iconography, the consumer detritus of beer cans and burgers, or the anti-imperialist, anti-sexist messages that Regietheater directors graft on to operas to make them “relevant.” What is actually “fresh” about a Mozart opera, besides its terrible beauty, is that it comes from a world that no longer exists. And it is, above all, the music that bodies forth that difference. The Baroque and Classical styles in particular convey an entire mode of being, one that values grace and artifice over supposed authenticity and untrammeled self-expression.

Regietheater directors are infallibly deaf to the dramatic imperatives in the music that they stage. Bieito says that he hears in Don Giovanni, that work of unbearable grandeur, the “nihilism of the modern world”—a confession that should have disqualified him even from buying an opera CD. Nicholas Payne, who brought Bieito’s Don Giovanni to the English National Opera, says that he is particularly fond of the moment in the Bieito production when Don Giovanni sings his canzonetta to Donna Elvira’s maid, “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” into a phone, instead of serenading her underneath her window with his mandolin. “There’s something a little bit twee about getting out that lute, isn’t there?” Payne asks. Suggestion to directors: if the troubadour tradition embarrasses you, you should not be in the business of producing opera.

The real problem with Payne’s admiration for Bieito’s canzonetta setting, however, is that it completely misjudges the music. Bieito makes the scene yet another depressing episode in the “nihilism of the modern world”: Don Giovanni is sitting alone in an empty bar strewn with the refuse of heavy partying. After singing the serenade, weighed down with despair, he drops the phone—there is no indication that anyone is on the other end—and lays his head on the table in front of him. This tableau has nothing to do with the music or text. The sinuous “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” far from being a moment of morbid paralysis, is the very emblem of the Don’s irrepressible will. Though he has recently been caught out and denounced as a hell-bound libertine by his fellow nobles, he is happily back at his conquests, pouring seductive power into the crescendos of the canzonetta. Bieito’s listless Giovanni could not possibly sing the music that Mozart has given him.

Jonathan Miller seethes with contempt for American audiences in general and the Metropolitan Opera in particular, which he accuses of mounting “kitschy” and “vulgar” productions. Yet at New York City Opera this season, he set Donizetti’s pastoral comedy L’Elisir d’Amore in a 1950s American diner, complete with gum-chewing Elvis fans and Jimmy Dean iconography—as hackneyed a set of visuals as any in the Regietheater director’s puny bag of tricks. Asked if Donizetti’s poignant melodies really match the sock-hop antics on stage, Miller responds defensively: “The music works perfectly well with my setting; it’s a witty transformation, that’s all. It’s as good as those staid pieces of rusticity which satisfy Met audiences because they want sedentary tourism.” But doesn’t music provide a check on how a work can be staged? “Music doesn’t have any checks in it,” he insists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Moreover, when directors yank operas out of their historical contexts, they close a precious window into the past. Most operas’ assumptions about nobility, virtue, and the duties of rulers and subjects, as well as of parents and children, could not be more alien to our modern experience. If we refuse to take such values seriously, not only do we render the plots incomprehensible; we also cut ourselves off from a greater understanding of what human life has been and, by contrast, is now. Update Don Giovanni to a contemporary setting where a mandate of premarital chastity is unthinkable, for example, and make the peasant girl Zerlina and the noblewomen Donna Anna and Donna Elvira all aggressively promiscuous—as is the case in virtually every modernized version since Peter Sellars’s Spanish Harlem travesty—and Zerlina’s cries of desperation when Don Giovanni hustles her off for a conquest become absurd, as does the nobles’ response of “Soccorriamo l’innocente” (“Let us rescue the innocent girl!”). And the avenging triumvirate’s subsequent warnings to Don Giovanni that retribution awaits him are meaningless in the amoral universe in which Regietheater directors inevitably set the opera.

Regietheater promoters imply that following a composer’s intentions in staging a work is easy; genius lies in modernizing it. Mortier has even coyly suggested that his updating project gives him an affinity with Mozart. “You couldn’t name one great composer—not that I want to compare myself to them—who did not have to fight,” he says. “Think of Mozart selling his silverware to go to Frankfurt when the emperor could have given him a commission for his coronation.” In fact, finding a visual language to convey the meaning of the music and the world it represents is where directing makes its claim to greatness. Stephen Wadsworth, for example, is one of the most historically sensitive directors working today; his understated productions of Handel’s Rodelinda and Xerxes and of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera are among those houses’ treasures. The slightest gesture of a hand in a Wadsworth staging can convey the refinement and melancholy of the Baroque. Such details are part of what he calls the “vernacular” of the past.

Wadsworth unapologetically embraces one of the most toxic words in the operatic lexicon today: “curating.” The last thing a solipsistic director wants to be accused of is lovingly preserving and transmitting the works of the past. Wadsworth, however, accepts the charge. Those given responsibility for an opera production are akin to those given responsibility for great paintings, he believes. “It is not our job to repaint them. We should only be concerned with: Where to hang it? How to light it? In what context? How do we present it to the public in a way that the public can appreciate what it is, perhaps even contextualize it in terms of that painter’s body of work or some other trend or school or idea? The list of curatorial concerns and responsibilities is long. And I think that a lot of productions that we see simply fail to meet them.”

In a few decades, Regietheater opera has destroyed what took centuries to develop. Long before Wagner called for the Gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art), opera composers sought to enforce in the productions of their works a unity of music and dramatic action. Arrayed against this synthesis were singers, who treated opera as simply a platform for virtuoso recitals, and stage designers, who tried to cram as many awe-inspiring but irrelevant special effects onto the stage as their arsenal of fireworks and machinery would allow.

By the twentieth century, however, a revolution in attitudes toward the music of the past was under way—fueled, no doubt, by the recognition that no more pieces like those wonders were coming along. Gone was the carefree mutilation of scores by publishers, conductors, and performers that had been standard throughout Western musical history. In its place, an unprecedented reverence for the composer’s work rose up. Singers reined in self-indulgences, and directors worked to unleash the music’s dramatic potential. A profile of the German director Carl Ebert in a 1950 issue of Opera magazine underscored the new standard: “For Ebert, the music dictates how the actor should move, should look, how the scenery should be planned in shape as well as in color. Ebert achieves with his singers something like visible music for the listener.”

Regietheater has reversed that revolution, producing a disjuncture between the music and the visual and dramatic aspects of a production that is unprecedented in operatic history. Even as every other aspect of the music business continues on the path of greater professionalization and devotion to authenticity, opera directors have received the license to ignore the basic mandates of a score and libretto. This bifurcation results in such weird pairings as a period-instrument ensemble in the orchestra pit, sawing away at Baroque instruments in the hope of sounding just like Prince Esterhazy’s court orchestra, while onstage, singers in baggy sweat pants, torn T-shirts, and baseball caps slouch through twenty-first-century cultural blight.

Standing against such disintegration is the Metropolitan Opera, regarded by the transcontinental opera establishment either with condescension or admiration as the last bastion of faithful production. The Met has always presented great singers and, more sporadically, renowned maestri, but for much of its existence the caliber of its stagings lagged behind that of its musical talent. This deficiency was due in large part to the woefully ill-designed backstage area of the opulent old opera house on West 39th Street, which housed the Met from its birth in 1883 until its move to Lincoln Center in 1966. When a taxi driver told Sir Thomas Beecham during World War II that he couldn’t take him to the Met because gas restrictions banned rides to places of entertainment, the conductor replied: “The Metropolitan Opera is not a place of entertainment, but a place of penance.” Stage discipline was often weak; some of the Met’s most famous singers simply refused to rehearse.

But despite the limitations of the old house, the Met’s greatest leaders progressively made the “sights . . . more harmonious with the sounds,” as Rudolf Bing, the aristocratic general manager from 1950 to 1972, promised upon taking over. Indeed, Peter Gelb often sounds as though he is channeling Sir Rudolf, who brought the best stage and film directors of his time to work at the Met. Bing’s theatrical ambitions were aided by a growing circle of donors, who paid for new productions, sometimes single-handedly, when the board was unwilling to front the money. Charismatic philanthropists like Mrs. August Belmont created novel mechanisms for harvesting private support, including the first women’s opera auxiliary guild. Even during the troubled 1960s and 1970s, when the Met struggled with union protests and severe budget problems, it forged ahead artistically, aided by the superb technical capacities of the new Lincoln Center facility.

The Met’s role as the guardian of opera integrity emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. As the abuse of composers’ intentions became more flagrant in Germany and then the rest of Europe, general manager Joseph Volpe deliberately separated the Met from the trend. “There was a conscious effort to avoid” Regietheater, says Joe Clark, the Met’s peerless technical manager. “The idea was to get the best possible director with the best musical sense. We weren’t always looking for traditional and realistic settings, but rather a realization that was musical and would show something appropriate to the opera.” Robert Wilson’s minimalist Lohengrin met that criterion as much as Zeffirelli’s opulent Turandot. Conductor James Levine, the most important music director in the Met’s history, is equally committed to fidelity to the music. “It is inspiring to work with a man who wants to put [an opera] on stage as the composer meant it,” Levine said recently, praising director Jack O’Brien’s staging of Puccini’s Il Trittico.

Regietheater advocates caricature the Met as addicted to lavish, overblown scenery, associated—again, in caricature—with such masters of realism as Franco Zeffirelli and Otto Schenk. In fact, no competing house can boast such a variety of production styles, says critic Charles Michener. But what really makes the Met stand out today is language like the following, from theater director Bart Sher, who mounted an energetic Barber of Seville this season. The Met is unique “among our many great institutions of public art and life,” Sher says, in its “capacity for creating beauty beyond the heart to hold. You sit there and go: ‘Western culture’s an incredible thing.’ ” It is unimaginable that the directors who create the most buzz in Europe today would use such language. Asked about a director’s responsibility to the beauty of a piece, Jonathan Miller responds: “To hell with beauty, it’s a kitsch notion; I don’t feel this business of being overwhelmed by it.” And Miller, unlike the most violative directors working today, actually has created productions of great delicacy, such as his 1990 Marriage of Figaro at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.

Equally unthinkable from a Regietheater wunderkind is the unabashed enthusiasm of Broadway director O’Brien for the composer’s intentions. “The author and composer are my household gods,” says O’Brien, whose comic ensemble work in Il Trittico was infused with energy so taut as to make breathing difficult. “I don’t think that my opinion is more important than theirs; I don’t want to take my Magic Marker and scrawl over their works. Puccini’s knowledge, control, and insight into dramatic literature is staggering; there’s not a bar of music that is not dramatizable if you are sensitive to what the composer is asking you to do. I am never interested in a ‘point of view,’ only in making love to these pieces.”

Peter Gelb could do worse than make these sentiments a litmus test for every director he brings into the house: Can the prospect unashamedly use the words “beauty” and “love” to describe music? It is a positive sign that Bart Sher is one of Gelb’s additions to the Met’s directing roster (O’Brien, also new to the house this year, was hired by Volpe).

Gelb has said that the Met has become “artistically somewhat isolated from the rest of the world” and reliant on “somewhat conservative patterns of thinking,” and he has pledged to keep it “more broadly connected to contemporary society” through “exciting theatrical visions.” One hopes that he is speaking as the master promoter that he is, creating a sense of newness to attract new audiences—and not in anticipation of a move toward the less conservative “patterns of thinking” and “theatrical visions” prevalent in Europe.

Still, a dedicated opera fan can be forgiven for being a little worried about what exactly Gelb means, since Regietheater is nipping everywhere at the Met’s heels. Joseph Volpe says that as general manager, he constantly had to fend off demands for more “progressive” productions. “I was always criticized for not bringing in Peter Sellars,” he says, “but I was brought up with Zeffirelli and other great directors, for whom the intentions of the composer were of the utmost importance.” Sellars is in fact closing in, having turned Mozart’s Zaïde into a pretentious critique of sweatshops for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival last year, and having staged his video extravaganza, The Tristan Project, in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall this year. And with Mortier bringing his relentless updating agenda to the New York City Opera in 2009, Gelb will face the most glamorous exponent of Regietheater right next door.

Ideally, Gelb will choose a strategy of product differentiation, branding the Met as the place where you can still see opera as its composers intended it. But if the press falls for Mortier—and some of New York’s critics already disparage any production that they find too traditional—Gelb may face pressure to go Euro.

If Gelb’s offerings to date exemplify his ideal of cutting-edge theatrics, the house will be well served. Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly was a lacquered blaze of jewel-colored light; its stylized, Asian-influenced use of puppetry and props was beautiful and consistent with Puccini’s vision. Bart Sher’s Barber of Seville was even more reassuring. Despite Gelb’s efforts to package the production as a startling new twist on the story, primarily through an alleged emphasis on Figaro’s virility, neither that aspect of Figaro’s character nor the production itself represented a break from valid performance traditions. Sher simply directed an elegant, fast-paced Barber that pulsed with Rossini’s comic genius (despite two lapses from good taste: the gratuitous lesbian lovemaking in Figaro’s mobile barbershop and a wholly unmotivated visual pun on the name of a rock band that concluded the first act). The final production with a Gelb-chosen director this season—Richard Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena, mounted by David Fielding—took the greatest liberties with the setting, but Fielding’s storybook, surrealistic design matched the weirdly magical Hofmannsthal libretto without interpolating any self-indulgent political gloss.

The future, however, is more clouded, since some of Gelb’s hires for upcoming seasons have revisionist productions on their resumés. Luc Bondy, engaged for The Tales of Hoffmann in 2009, staged a bloody Idomeneo at La Scala this year that simply shaved off Mozart’s score when it conflicted with Bondy’s dark rewriting of the story; his Don Giovanni at the Vienna State Opera in 1990 was a bizarre farrago of historical and futuristic settings and costumes. Patrice Chéreau, scheduled to mount Janáček’s From the House of the Dead at the Met in 2009, directed a Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1976 that became a landmark in Regietheater—and led to the formation of the Wagner Protection Society, so scandalized were patrons by Chéreau’s injection of anticapitalist, environmental politics into the story. His Janáček, however, reportedly avoids heavy revisionism. Matthew Bourne will be staging Carmen at the Met; he has already shown a predilection for homoerotic themes in that opera, as well as in two ballet productions, The Nutcracker and an all-male Swan Lake. Richard Jones is one of Britain’s bad boys of opera—but since his Hansel and Gretel at the Met next year is part of Gelb’s new holiday family programming, he will probably tone down his usual intrusions.

Having done transgressive work in the past need not disqualify directors from working at the Met, as long as Gelb makes clear at the outset that he is not interested in their opinions on contemporary class or sexual relations. Directors should be able to work with that stipulation. When Giancarlo del Monaco, who set Verdi’s Old Testament story Nabucco in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for a German production, arrived at the Met in the early 1990s, he said: “I have a Eurotrash face for Europe and a classy face for the Americans.”

Gelb has made one unequivocal aesthetic stumble, however. In a bid to link the Met with the trendy downtown art scene, he commissioned an opera-inspired work from Richard Prince, among other art frauds, to display in a small new “art gallery” in the Met’s lobby. Prince’s contribution, “Madame Butterfly Is a Lesbian,” is a wall-size array of hundreds of cheap wallet-size porn shots of naked women engaged in lesbian sex. Scrawled over the photos is Prince’s idea of clever commentary: “I went to the opera. It was Madame Butterfly. I fell asleep. When I woke up the music was by Klaus Nomi and Cio-Cio-San had turned into a lesbian and refused to commit suicide. It was a German ending.” Apparently, neither Gelb nor anyone else in the Met’s press or fund-raising office was willing to say that such a work was inappropriate for a family institution seeking to spread the culture of opera, much less that it stank as art. Met patrons had better hope that the Prince display is just an aberration, of no deep meaning for the future.

The Met’s board and audience may restrain any inclination that Gelb might have to dabble in Regietheater, but the final check should be Gelb’s sense of the Met’s history. Generations of hard work and artistic passion have gone into the house’s current level of professional excellence. Gelb has sound business reasons for trumpeting a new beginning and an infusion of cutting-edge theatrical values. But it is important to remember how extraordinary the current state of the institution is. Though a certain type of opera lover perpetually mourns a lost golden age, arguably the golden age is now.

Gelb will earn a place in opera history if he maintains the Met’s artistic character while continuing the inspired promotional blitz that he has already begun. Nothing he touches in the area of marketing escapes a massive infusion of glamour; the brochure for the 2007–08 season is as luxurious as a Bergdorf Goodman Christmas catalog. “He’s a genius at selling,” says Herman Krawitz, who ran the Met’s complex backstage operations for years. “Gelb was a better press agent at age 18,” when he worked as an usher at the Met, “than anyone there.” His ideas for expanding the venues for opera—into movie theaters, schools, public spaces—are groundbreaking. “When he broadcast Madam Butterfly in Times Square, people here were amazed at the concept of this,” says Vienna-based critic Larry Lash. Gelb’s efforts are having a spillover effect: not only are other houses imitating his ideas—the Vienna State Opera will beam every performance into the plaza outside its house next season—but interest in local opera companies is rising in cities whose movie theaters have shown the Met’s productions.

As its season wound down this year, the Met had sold out every remaining seat—this, without having made a single step in the direction of trendy transgressive productions. Contrary to the usual hand-wringing about an aging audience, young and middle-aged adults already appear to make up a surprisingly high percentage of patrons. They are coming to see not a twisted rewriting of the great works, but the thing itself, drawn to what opera promises: sublime musical beauty and human drama. For all the deservedly hyped new productions this year, the greatest experience to be had at the Met came in a production of Verdi’s Don Carlo first mounted in 1979. German bass René Pape turned the extraordinary opening scenes of Act 4, in which the authoritarian King Philip II of Spain confronts first his own emotional isolation and then the ruthless Grand Inquisitor, into an unbearable portrait of anguish. There were no cutting-edge theatrical techniques in those two scenes, just singing and acting that left one’s hair standing on end and one’s head pulsing with Verdi’s obsessive contrapuntal harmonies and dark grinding dissonances.

By all means, Gelb should commission as many new productions as his budget will allow, and then sell the pants off them, with all the creativity that he has already demonstrated. And certainly contemporary political commentary has a place at the Met—so long as it is integral to a new work, rather than strapped like a suicide bomb onto the back of an old one. But Gelb should remember that he is the guardian of a tradition that generations have built. That tradition approaches the magnificent works of the past with love and humility, recognizing our debt to them. The Met will remain a vital New York and world institution for another century if it allows those works to speak for themselves.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A New Meistersinger at Bayreuth

With expectations high as Katharina Wagner, the composer's great grand-daughter, directs her first opera in the house that Richard Wagner built, the 2007 Bayreuth Festival opened last night with an impassioned, experimental production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner's only comedy, arguably his most beloved opera, and the most German and nationalistic of all his works.

The 1956 audience booed Wieland Wagner's staging of this work because it dared to deviate from the norm which Wagner had set down, which Cosima Wagner had preserved like a holy relic, and which Adolf Hitler so admired. Last night the boos and the cheers mixed evenly as Katharina Wagner presented her political vision of Meistersinger as the historical search of Germany to achieve status-quo.

In the original story, Walther learns to become a great singer thanks to Hans Sachs's mentoring. His inherent talent not only allowing him to win the girl, but also a place in the Meistersinger guild. Additionally, he advances the art of the guild through the wonderful song that creates.

In this version, Walther is a paint-splattered "Aktionkunstler" a la Christoph Schlingensief who strolls into a guild (in this production they are not singers, but a group of different artists) with his crazy ideas. As a matter of fact, Hans Sachs is not a shoemaker, but a writer, and he marks Beckmesser's song in the second act with his typewriter, which by the third act has transformed into a computer. By the end of the opera Walther has traded in his crazy bohemian ideas for status-quo conformity, while Beckmesser's song is jeered and laughed at, not because it is nonsensical babble whose words he could not remember, but because he attempts Dadaist poetic experimentation.

The performance was very good overall. Conductor Sebastian Weigle led a strong reading of the score, while the chorus proved once again that it is one of the treasures of the operatic world. what a magnificent sound they have had year after year! The performances by the principals was very erratic. Franz Hawlata, who sang Hans Sachs was booed for his unevenness, which in part might be because of vocal strain due to his hectic schedule. Further he sings the role of Wozzeck around the globe, and that's never very good for the voice. Walther was sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, who got through the difficult part (especially the treacherous Act III) with no mishaps. His is a voice more suited to the role of David, though, and there seemed to be some straining here and there. I was not too thrilled by Eva (Amanda Mace) and Magdalene (Carola Guber) both of whom were a tad shrilly. Also, Friedemann Röhlig as the Nightwatchman sounded too light for his job. The best singing of the evening came from Artur Korn, whose Pogner revealed true Wagnerian singing and whose interpretation added credence to the evening.

Overall, a very mixed Meistersinger: daring in interpretation but weak musically.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Kirov Ring: Götterdämmerung

I missed The Kirov Opera's Siegfried, but you bet that I was there for Götterdämmerung, the final music drama of Richard Wagner's monumental Ring of the Nibelung. I am not sure what I missed visually in Siegfried, although I'd be willing to bet that the familiar gigantic monolithic figures were back hovering above the forging of Nothung, the killing of Fafner and the awakening of Brünnhilde. Also, I have no doubt that dramatic changes in stage lighting were happening all over the place. Vocally, I hope that the singers were up to par with the difficulties of Siegfried: an incredibly difficult Forging Song for the tenor, and a ravishing but treacherous duet in the final act. Something tells me that the orchestra was excellent, and that Valery Gergiev, who must have been exhausted after leading two Ring cycles in two weeks, was as brilliant as ever.

Götterdämmerung was as exasperating visually and as musically brilliant as the rest of this Russian Ring. Once again monolithic giants and puny Nibelungs dominated the scene. This time the head of one of the giants rested on his lap. The Norns, who were dressed in really ugly costumes, had help weaving their rope from a small corps de ballet. When we got to Brünnhilde and Siegfried's first scene I noticed that the rock was different from the rock where Wotan had put his daughter to sleep back on Die Walküre. I did not mind that too much, because at least this rock seemed to be a little more solid and secure. I enjoyed the open spaces of the first act, and was hoping that this scenic design would carry on to the second. Wouldn't you know it that for the one act where you need open spaces (the only opera in the entire Ring which features a chorus) the set was cluttered with columns. This led to a rather clumsy scene when Hagen calls forth his vassals. On top of that, the vassals moved into place in single file reminiscent of the seven dwarfs going to work, and the same fire from the end of Walküre showed up once more.

Act three was also not spared from strangeness. The Rhinemaidens bring on a a lighted spear in the first scene (see picture above) which they eventually allowed Siegfried to also handle. Is this what's left over of the gold? Why do they hand it so easily to a total stranger like Siegfried? Over and over again, one is forced to ask these questions of a production that offers no answers.

Through it all, Valery Gergiev led a sumptuous reading of this score, and the orchestra, despite the fact that the players must have been very tired, responded so much better than they had in previous nights.

Among the cast Evgeny Nikitin was a superb Gunther: the best singer on that stage that evening, with a voice that was focused, secured, and able to project to a house the size of the MET. Olga Sergeeva sounded tired at the beginning of the evening, but she improved immensely as the evening wore on. Her Siegfried, Victor Lutsuk, was very good, but at times was overwhelmed by the role. Mikhail Petrenko, who sang Fafner in Das Rheingold, sang the role of Hagen. Physically, he looked threatening, but a darker voice than his is needed for this role.

What a wonderful experience it was to see and hear this Ring. Although this concept leaves a lot to be desired, it was a magnificent and unique opportunity for New Yorkers to experience this work in a new production. In some ways, it has made me appreciate the current MET production a lot more, and it has made me somewhat nervous as to what might replace it in the near Peter Gelb future.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Jerry Hadley Dies

After the death of Beverly Sills and Regine Crespin this month, tenor Jerry Hadley now dies after a self-inflicted head wound. Here is a short obituary in the New York Times

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) -- Jerry Hadley, a world-class tenor known for his agile and lyric voice, died Wednesday, a week after he shot himself in an apparent suicide attempt. He was 55.

The singer died two days after doctors at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie took him off life support, said family friend and spokeswoman Celia Novo.

Hadley, who had been battling personal problems, shot himself with an air rifle July 10 at his home in Clinton Corners, 80 miles north of New York City. State police said he was found unconscious on his bedroom floor.

The Illinois-born Hadley sang everything from Mozart to show tunes, including appearing on a recording of Show Boat that was a best-seller.

He built his reputation tackling demanding work, including the title role in composer John Harbison's 1999 The Great Gatsby at The Metropolitan Opera. Leonard Bernstein chose Hadley to sing the title role in a 1989 production of his musical Candide, and he sang the lead in Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio in 1991.

Hadley was featured in Leos Janacek's opera Jenufa, which won a Grammy in 2004.

Hadley started his career in regional companies. He was noticed in the late 1970s by Beverly Sills then general director of The New York City Opera which hired him. She died earlier this month.

Hadley in recent years had been dealing with financial problems and was being treated for depression, police said after the shooting. He had been arrested in Manhattan last year in a parked car on a charge of driving while intoxicated. His lawyer said the singer never intended to drive because he realized he was tipsy, and the case was eventually dropped.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Getting Ready for Harry Potter 7

As of today, the latest and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows has been leaked, in real and fake versions, in numerous places on the Internet. As conflicting rumors and subpoenas from Scholastic, the novel's American publisher, fly through the air with the speed of a Hogwarts broom, author J.K. Rowling is pleading that people do not reveal plot points, and that they allow readers, especially children, to discover the novel on their own without spoilers.

A few days ago, what appeared to be the pages of Book Seven was photographed and uploaded to several places online. The 73 megabyte file, which consists of dozens of digital photos, was immediately removed, although as of today it is still popping up in various places on the net. Further, since the pages themselves are difficult to read, some enterprising soul has typed the text of the first ten chapters of the novel, turned it into a .pdf file, and has uploaded it to various Harry Potter-oriented newsgroups.

Although some speculate that this might be a hoax, and that the real novel remains protected in sealed boxes in thousands of bookstores around the country, the majority of Harry Potter fans believe that what appeared online is the real thing, and that despite the millions of dollars spent by Scholastic in securing its Saturday release, this last Harry Potter adventure has been thrust on the public a few days earlier.

The New York Times has already reviewed the work in the newspaper's online edition, drawing a stinging response from Bloomsbury, the novel's British publisher. In her comments, reviewer Michiko Kukutani revealed that the book was bought on Wednesday in a New York City bookstore.

The following is an excerpt from an article from Reuters UK concerning the New York Times review and the recent leaks that have occurred in the United States:

"Bloomsbury called the review "very sad", adding that there was only one more day to wait until the official release in book stores around the world. Twelve million copies of the book have been printed for the U.S. market alone.

We will be relying on the support of the media to allow the fans to read the book for themselves rather than having to see reviews that may have been based on fake postings on the Internet," said a spokeswoman.

She likened recent events in the United States to the Boston Tea Party, a protest by American colonists against Britain in 1773.

"But over here it is blockades as usual, with the embargo being enforced unflinchingly and without exception by all our customers," she said.

"We would like fans all over the world to be able to come to this book on July 21 to find out for themselves what's going to happen. It's only a few more hours to go."

In a generally positive review, writer Kakutani gives away some plot details, including how many characters die and what "deathly hallows" means, but refrains from answering the biggest questions of all.

"Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor," the review said.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Kirov Ring: Die Walküre

Saturday evening brought the second night of The Kirov Opera Ring to The Metropolitan Opera with a performance of Die Walküre. Several good things happened from one night to the next. For one, the playing of the orchestra improved immensely. Valery Gergiev seemed much more in charge of his ensemble, and the orchestra played a well-balanced, dynamic reading of Richard Wagner's most popular Ring score. Also, it is worth reporting that both Alexei Tanovitsky as Wotan, and Larissa Diadkova as Fricka improved tremendously from the previous night. Ms. Diadkova was especially good Saturday night, as she dominated the stage for her second act scene. She received the biggest hand of the evening.

Joining the ensemble in the first act were tenor Oleg Balashov as Siegmund, Gennady Bezzubenkov as Hunding, and Mlada Khudoley as Sieglinde. They all sang their roles ably, although Mr. Balashov began running out of steam by the end of the act. Mr. Bezzubenkov sounded growly and mean as he should, but his costume, which included some kind of animal fur headgear, made him look silly and not at all the threatening, hulking figure that his voice suggested.

The evening's Brünnhilde was soprano Olga Sergeeva. Her reading of this character is familiar to MET audiences ever since she sang the role in 2005. Her performance was recorded for posterity that year as one of the MET broadcasts. She is an intelligent singer who knows well that artists need to warm up in a role, and that audiences at the MET are very forgiving. Of course, she also has to sing some of the most demanding music ever written for a dramatic soprano right as she steps on stage. Her B naturals and high C's in the "hojotoho" cries were nowhere near the pitch, sounding more like "hojotoho-wah! with the last note being some kind of vocal approximation of what Wagner wrote. It was the kind of sound that can turn you off to the rest of her performance. Luckily she did improve as the long evening continued and did manage to sing a very convincing scene with Siegmund in Act II. As I said: MET audiences are very forgiving.

As far as the sets go, the less said about them the better. George Tsypin's colossal figures dominate the stage once more for no good reason. They don't serve much of a purpose. In Act I three headless and handless figures serve to hold a gigantic rock which acts as the roof to Hunding's hut. In Act II, the figures are now hovering above the action in Valhalla, suggesting perhaps that there are gods above the gods, but this concept goes nowhere. By Act II they have grown heads and, at one point, the inside cavities of their torsos glow as if their hearts were suddenly beating. What this has to do with the opera is anybody's guess. In Act III, the figures have traded their heads for horse skulls while one of the horizontal figures from Das Rheingold rotates aimlessly above the action (see picture above). This figure will later on serve to be the rock where Wotan puts his daughter to sleep. Unfortunately, the sight of poor Wotan precariously balancing himself on this piece of rock reminded me of the church scene in the MET's latest production of Il Trovatore a few years ago when Neil Shicoff was asked to balance himself on a very narrow beam of a cross.

This production, for all its pretty colors and innovative colossal figures makes very little sense. It rather just makes us wish that they would perform the thing in concert without any of these sets. These colossal monstrosities adorn but do not carry any further meaning that is not already present in the music. In other words, they just fill space. I had high hopes for this production concept when I saw Das Rheingold, but now that the Ring is halfway over, I am coming to the realization that this production is half baked and our giant friends hovering above the action are not helping any. George Tsypin is a wondrous sculptor and a unique visionary in the world of art, but somehow through this production he has put himself in competition with Wagner, and that's one helluva guy to be competing against.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Kirov Ring: Das Rheingold

On the same weekend that Russian president Vladimir Putin suspended his country's involvement in the "Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty" thus aggravating, even more, the United States's relationship with Moscow, The Kirov Opera has come to Lincoln Center to present its unusual but captivating production of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung at The Metropolitan Opera. The kind of visit that in these troubled times proves once again that eternal art can overcome the labyrinths and machinations of politics.

Once upon a time it felt as if New York was at the vanguard of Wagnerian operatic staging. At the time when every opera house had to present the Ring in a Wieland Wagner inspired "dark" production, the Met mounted in 1960's the Herbert von Karajan staging which was based on his own production at the Salzburg Festival. The trouble for New York started when European opera houses began to experiment further, inspired by Patrice Chéreau's landmark 1976 centennial Bayreuth production. Instead of following suit, the MET instead decided to scrap von Karajan's Wieland Wagner-inspired sets (which by the late 1970's had started to look "old-fashioned") and replace them with the MET's current production: a traditional, semi-realistic staging by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. Therefore, since the 1960's, The Metropolitan Opera House has not seen a Ring that has has explored the visual possibilities that an intrepid imagination can muster.

Now, to atone for our sins, the Kirov Opera Ring has come to New York.

The production is a concept of conductor Valery Gergiev and designer George Tsypin. Mr. Tsypin's work is familiar to New York audience primarily from his collaboration with Julie Taymor on the MET's The Magic Flute. For the Ring, Tsypin and maestro Gergiev have imagined a world observed by gigantic, monolithic totem poles that hover above the action. Sometimes, as in Das Rheingold, which I saw last night, the figures are suspended horizontally by very visible wiring, and are moved about to denote a change of scenery. The Kirov Ring seems to be inspired more by Slavic mythology than by the German-Scandinavian sources that supplied Richard Wagner for the inspiration to write the work in the first place. This is fine and dandy, but if that's the case, why do the gods don Egyptian deity headgear as they get ready to cross over to Valhalla at the end of the opera? Lucky for us, the gods did not don horned helmets (as some in the audience decided to wear to last night's premiere).

One aspect of the staging that was very impressive was the use of dancers. Long-haired girls in body suits for the Rhinemaidens, lithe fast moving minions for the giants, shifty creatures with red flames on their heads for Loge, and women carrying empty baskets as a retinue for the appearance of Erda, who in a five foot horizontal headdress wins the award for the most outrages, yet effective costume in the entire opera. The dancers, though used sparingly, added a sense of movement and life to what otherwise would be a very static staging of this work.

Not all is rosy at Lincoln Center, however, but luckily the good outweighs the bad. Fasolt and Fafner, for instance, have to be the ugliest giants ever presented for any Ring: they look like a pair of singing underdone potatoes rolling about on the stage.

The performance was incredibly strong last night, and here's hoping that it is a harbinger of greater things to come in the next few evenings. There was true ensemble singing and acting from all the principals. All the men seemed to have been instructed that the MET is a huge house and that one has to sing louder than at he Mariinsky Theatre. The cast seems to have heard the warning, since volume was not a problem last night. Nikolai Putilin was a memorable Alberich, his booming voice commanding the stage. He received the last curtain call last night, the biggest hand of the evening, and it was well-deserved. Alexei Tanovitsky was a very good Wotan who took a while to warm up to the role and the size of the house. The Loge of Vasily Gorshkov was razor sharp, holding command of the stage during his monologues. Among the women, Freia was beautifully sung by Tatiana Borodina, and Fricka was sung in matronly style by Larissa Diadkova.

Conductor Valery Gergiev was the star of the evening, however, as he led the forces of the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in a riveting reading of Wagner's score. From the first E flat chord to the triumphal entry of the gods into Valhalla, the energy never waned. Gergiev explored both sides of the musical spectrum: he whipped the ensemble into incredible tuttis, the likes of which I have never heard at the house, and extracted from the players exquisite transparent sounds, downplaying wherever possible the Teutonic soundscape that can often become the cliché of Wagnerian interpretation.

With such excellent musicians at the helm, it is easier for The Kirov Opera Ring to be successful at presenting their eye candy production of Wagner's cycle, as they build beautiful images through monumental sets and inventive lighting. What I would like to ultimately find out is if at the end of the cycle this wonderful Slavic sweet will penetrate and touch the heart. The Ring can sweep any opera goer along with its wondrous epic scale and impassioned music, but the true litmus test of any staging of this massive work is if it ignites a sentimental, personal passion. If the Kirov Opera can do this in New York, in the next few evenings, then it will be a Ring for the ages.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tenor Jerry Hadley near Death

This is from today's New York Times.

Jerry Hadley, a major American operatic tenor whose career had waned in recent years, apparently shot himself in the head with an air rifle at his home in upstate New York early Tuesday morning and was seriously injured, the police have said.

Mr. Hadley, 55, suffered brain damage and is on life support, State Police Sgt. Gerry Salmon said today. Mr. Hadley was wounded inside his house in Clinton Corners, near Poughkeepsie, Sergeant Salmon said, adding that the case was being investigated as an attempted suicide.

Mr. Hadley was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, Sergeant Salmon said. “The CAT scan and other X-rays they took at the time show some pretty severe brain injury,” the sergeant added. “They do not expect him to recover.”

Mr. Hadley appeared to be having difficulties in the last few years. In May 2006, he was arrested on drunken-driving charges while sitting in a parked car on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, but prosecutors later dropped the case.

In recent months, he had been talking about reviving his career with a move into character roles, according to Neil Funkhouser, an artists’ manager.

“He always seemed to me to be one of the most upbeat, positive people that I knew,” Mr. Funkhouser said. “This comes as a total shock to me. There was nothing that would indicate to me that something like this would happen.”

Others, however, said Mr. Hadley seemed to be in distress, including financial problems, according to the police.

“I know he’s been in really bad trouble,” said the composer John Harbison. “He’s been very depressed.”

Mr. Hadley created the title role in Mr. Harbison’s The Great Gatsby at The Metropolitan Opera in 1999, and performances in the role in May 2002 were his last at the Met, where he made his debut in 1987.

“He came across, obviously, as a very upbeat character,” Mr. Harbison said, “but you could always tell, in his singing, that there was a lot of complexity to his personality.”

Mr. Hadley, who grew up in Manlius, Ill., began his career in 1976 at the Lake George Opera Festival and made his European debut in 1982 at the Vienna State Opera. His career soared in the 1980s and 1990s, when he became known for a lyric, Italianate style combined with an American clarity and directness.

At the Met, he sang the leading tenor roles in The Rake’s Progress, Così Fan Tutte, L’Elisir d’Amore, La Traviata and Die Zauberflöte, among others. Mr. Hadley sang at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Salzburg Festival and elsewhere.

Mr. Hadley was also at home singing musical theater and popular songs, and won three Grammy Awards.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A new Walküre at Aix-en-Provence

A new production of Die Walküre is now playing at the new Grand Théâtre de Provence, a 1,350 seat new opera house that will house the yearly summer festival at this bucolic Provençal town. Here is an excerpt from Alan Riding's New York Times review of the opera.

In what is both conductor Simon Rattle’s and Aix’s first Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the opening episode in Wagner’s monumental four-opera work, was presented last year at the former Archbishop’s Palace to mixed reviews. But this year Die Walküre, the Ring’s second chapter, was magically transformed by the enclosed space and lively acoustics of the Grand Théâtre de Provence.

From the first bars of the overture, the orchestra’s rich string and booming brass instruments filled the hall, creating the tension and stirring the excitement so often associated with Die Walküre. And if some of the soloists later struggled a tad to compete with the orchestra, this could reasonably be put down to the teething problems of any new opera house.

The décor of this production, like Das Rheingold directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, remains spare, a Modernist abstraction that suggests little of the mythical world of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The costumes too are modern, although the warrior maidens, Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries, are at least wearing helmets.

But where the new theater makes another significant difference is in Mr. Braunschweig’s staging of the opera. Far more than in last year’s Rheingold, even the gods, notably Wotan and his twin children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, can now be felt to experience deeply human emotions. And the result is less dark fairy tale than intense lyrical voyage.

As Wotan, the bass-baritone Willard White presides over the narrative like a worried patriarch, who nonetheless bends to the demands of his domineering wife, Fricka (Lilli Paasikivi). Robert Gambill’s Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde seem no less vulnerably human as they dominate the first two acts with the passion and fatality of their incestuous love.

The final curtain brought a standing ovation for both orchestra and singers, with Ms. Westbroek singled out for her “extraordinary power and lyricism,” as Jean-Louis Validire, Le Figaro’s music critic, put it. And he added: “She demonstrates once again exceptional qualities in the ‘Der Männer Sippe’ monologue, maintaining perfect musicality as it mounts in strength toward exaltation.”

The Ring Cycle continues here with Siegfried in 2008 and Götterdammerüng in 2009 and, as with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, they will be presented afresh at the Salzburg Easter Festival the following year.

For Aix, though, the mere presence of Mr. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic is a major coup, one of the legacies of Stéphane Lissner, who ran the festival until last year and is now the superintendent and artistic director of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Bored Nazis at Bayreuth

The myth goes that the Nazis were great lovers of the music of Richard Wagner. When you see the Bayreuth Festspielhaus filled with members of the party one begins to believe the myth. It was just part of the carefully crafted propaganda machine for which the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (The Nazis) were well known. The reality was that most Party members hated Wagner's music, and that Adolf Hitler forced his men to attend performances at the Green Hill. All this according to Charlotte Higgins's article in The Guardian which follows below.

How the Nazis took flight from Valkyries and Rhinemaidens
Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Tuesday July 3, 2007

According to popular mythology, night after night during the Nazi era Germans flooded into opera houses to watch enthralled as Rhinemaidens and Valkyries dominated the stage.

But Wagner, far from being the Third Reich's "house composer", actually became much less popular during Hitler's rule, according to new research.

The Germans were much more keen on Carmen, Bizet's tale of a soldier's scandalous obsession with a Gypsy; and on Madama Butterfly, Puccini's opera about an officer's doomed liaison with a Japanese courtesan - neither particularly appropriate tales by the standards of Nazi ideology.

According to Jonathan Carr, author of the forthcoming book The Wagner Clan, Hitler himself was obsessed by "the Master". But the party faithful were not, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to performances at Hitler's insistence.

"We are all told that the Germans poured into opera houses to listen to Wagner as soon as Hitler came to power. The opposite is true," said Carr.

The party faithful's devotion to Wagner has also been exaggerated, according to Carr. We may think of Wagner as the soundtrack to Nazism, with newsreels of Hitler at Bayreuth and the famous Wagner performances at the Nuremburg rallies. However, according to the memoirs of Albert Speer and Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, most Nazis were bored silly at the prospect of watching five-hour-long epics in which, frequently, little happens.

At the 1933 gala performance of Die Meistersinger, for instance, so few turned up that a furious Hitler sent patrols to drag party members out of beer gardens and brothels, according to Speer. And during one performance of Tristan and Isolde, Junge recalled a member of Hitler's group dropping off and having to be rescued before collapsing over the railings of the box they were in. His rescuer had himself been asleep for most of the performance.

The author has analysed the operas performed in Germany in the 1930s. Wagner's works did not come to dominate the output. Instead they had already begun a slow decline during the Weimar period and their fortunes continued to wane.

In the 1932-33 season Carmen was the most performed opera in Germany, with Weber's Der Freischütz in second place. Four Wagner operas were placed next.

But by 1938-39 the highest ranked Wagner opera - Lohengrin - achieved only 12th place. Leoncavallo's Pagliacci was the most popular, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana second, and Puccini's Madama Butterfly third. And, by the war years, it was Verdi, not Wagner, who was Germany's most performed opera composer. The Master's market share dropped to under 10%. "Wagner was already considered by the younger generation to be rather old-hat," said Carr.

It is true, said Carr, that Wagner's music was used at key moments in the Nazi regime. On the so-called Day of Potsdam, the propaganda show staged on March 21 1933 by Goebbels, officially to inaugurate the new Reichstag, the day ended with a performance of Die Meistersinger (at Hitler's insistence; originally a performance of Strauss's Elektra had been planned). The Ride of the Valkyries was broadcast to accompany reports on German air attacks.

Siegfrieds Tod from Götterdammerung would be heard on German wirelesses to announce important deaths - including Hitler's own. And the overture from Rienzi was often heard on ceremonial occasions. But the penetration of Wagner has been exaggerated. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nuremburg rally, is often thought of as having a Wagner soundtrack. In fact, most of the music is Wagner pastiche.

Hitler's personal obsession with the composer was, perhaps, partly to do with his identification with Wagner the man: he saw him as a lonely figure who had battled against the odds to achieve greatness. And as a man who clearly understood the power of spectacle he was, according to Carr, fascinated by the "nuts and bolts of the staging" of the operas.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beverly Sills dies at 78

Soprano Beverly Sills died of cancer in New York on Monday. She was "the" opera diva when I started going to performances, and was very fortunate to see her in The Barber of Seville at the New York City Opera, a performance which also starred the young Samuel Ramey, and which was conducted by Sarah Caldwell. Later on, at the Metropolitan Opera, I saw her Thais, with baritone Sherrill Milnes, as well as her performance in Don Pasquale, alongside the great Alfredo Krauss.

For many, Ms. Sills was opera, and her incredibly bubbly personality led this art form on both sides of the stage for many years. She will be greatly missed.

Following are excerpts from the obituary from the Associated Press.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Beverly Sills, the Brooklyn-born opera diva who was a global icon of can-do American culture with her dazzling voice, bubbly personality and management moxie in the arts world, died Monday of cancer, her manager said. She was 78.

It had been revealed just last month that Sills was gravely ill with inoperable lung cancer. Sills, who never smoked, died about 9 p.m. Monday at her Manhattan home with her family and doctor at her side, said her manager, Edgar Vincent.

Born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, she quickly became Bubbles, an endearment coined by the doctor who delivered her, noting that she was born blowing a bubble of spit from her little mouth. Fast-forward to 1947, when the same mouth produced vocal glory for her operatic stage debut in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a bit role in Bizet's "Carmen." Sills became a star with the New York City Opera, where she first performed in 1955 in Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus." She was acclaimed for performances in such operas as Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe," Massenet's "Manon" and Handel's "Giulio Cesare," and the roles of three Tudor queens in works by Gaetano Donizetti.

It was not until late in her career that she achieved the pinnacle, appearing at the Met, the nation's premier opera house.

Her debut on that stage didn't come until 1975, years after she became famous. In her memoir, she said longtime Met general manager Rudolf Bing "had a thing about American singers, especially those who had not been trained abroad: He did not think very much of them."

Sills' Met debut, arranged after Bing retired, was in "The Siege of Corinth," and she recalled that "I was welcomed at the Met like a long-lost child." (She also recalled having a couple of friendly encounters with Bing and found he "could not have been more charming.")

Sills retired from the stage in 1980 at age 51 after a three-decade singing career and began a new life as an executive and leader of New York's performing arts community. First, she became general director of the New York City Opera.

Under her stewardship, the City Opera, known as the "people's opera company," became the first in the nation to use English supertitles, translating operas for the audience by projecting lyrics onto a screen above the stage. The Met followed, later adopting its titles on the back of audience seats.

In 1994, Sills became chairwoman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She was the first woman and first former artist in that position.

After leading the nation's largest arts complex through eight boom years and launching a redevelopment project, she retired in 2002, saying she wanted "to smell the flowers a little bit."

After six months, she was back.

"So I smelled the roses and developed an allergy," she joked as she accepted a position as chairwoman of the Met. "I need new mountains to climb, which is why roses don't appeal to me."

Sills was a master fundraiser, tapping her vast network of friends and colleagues for money that bolstered not only Lincoln Center but also non-artistic causes such as the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the March of Dimes, a job she called "one of the most rewarding in my life."

She also lent her name and voice to the Multiple Sclerosis Society; her daughter, Muffy, has MS and was born deaf.

At a 2005 Manhattan benefit for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Sills told an audience that included her daughter: "One of the things that separates the two-legged creatures from the four-legged ones is compassion."

Added the host for that evening, Barbara Walters: "She can go from doing a duet with Placido Domingo to doing a duet with a Muppet."

Sills' compassion extended to her autistic son and to her husband, who lived with her at their home as his Alzheimer's disease progressed.

Still, through harrowing personal times, she never lost her own sense of humor, accompanied by a billowing ripple of laughter that was all the more warming because it was born not of frivolity but of a survivor's grit.

Stage fright was foreign to her. Before curtain time, she would make phone calls or munch on an apple, then sweep on to deliver her roles with exuberance.

A coloratura soprano, Sills was for years the prima donna of the New York City Opera, achieving stardom with critically acclaimed performances in Verdi's "La Traviata" and Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," among dozens of roles.

She is credited with reviving musical styles that had gathered dust, such as the Three Queens -- the trio of heroines of Gaetano Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," "Maria Stuarda" and "Roberto Devereaux" -- in which she starred as Elizabeth, a role she called her greatest artistic achievement.

"Opera is music AND drama," she wrote in her 1976 memoir, "Bubbles: A Self-Portrait." "I'm prepared to sacrifice the beautiful note for the meaningful sound any time. ... I can make a pretty tone as well as anyone, but there are times when the drama of a scene demands the opposite of a pretty sound."

As chairwoman of the Met, she was instrumental in proposing Peter Gelb, now general manager, for that position, a move that brought a new leader who injected a dose of new moves that pushed up attendance and ticket sales.

Citing personal reasons, Sills bowed out as Metropolitan Opera chairwoman in January 2005, saying, "I know that I have achieved what I set out to do." At the time, she had recently suffered a fall and was using a wheelchair.

Sills grew up in a "typical middle-class American Jewish family," as she put it. She was first exposed to opera by listening to her mother's record collection. She began taking weekly voice, dance and elocution lessons as a young child and at age 4 appeared on a local radio show called "Uncle Bob's Rainbow Hour." When she was 7, her name was changed to Beverly Sills -- a friend of her mother's thought it was a more suitable stage name -- and she began 34 years of study with vocal coach Estelle Liebling.

Her opera debut came in 1947, in the role of Frasquita in "Carmen" with the Philadelphia Civic Opera. For several years, Sills sang opera when she could, touring twice with the Wagner Company, while performing in the Catskills and at a Manhattan after-hours club.

In 1956, Sills married Peter Greenough, a journalist who later quit the news business to manage the family's affairs as his wife's career flourished. He died in 2006.

After a whirlwind of performances in the early 1960s, Sills hit her stride as Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar" in 1966, when the New York City Opera officially opened its new home at Lincoln Center. "When the performance was over, I knew that something extraordinary had taken place," Sills wrote. "I knew that I had sung as I had never sung before, and I needed no newspapers the next day to reassure me."

Abroad, Sills sang at such famed opera houses as La Scala and Teatro San Carlo in Italy, London's Royal Opera at Covent Garden and the Berlin Opera.

Besides Greenough's three children from a previous marriage, the couple had two children of their own, Peter Jr., known as "Bucky", and Meredith, known as "Muffy."