Thursday, April 27, 2006

Opera Thursday

By Mitchell

What with how busy things have been over the last few weeks, I haven't had a chance to review the announcement last month of the Minnesota Opera's schedule for the 2006-2007 season. After budget deficits had forced cutting back to four productions for each of the last three seasons, the MO triumphantly announced a return to five productions in 2006-2007.

The choices themselves are something of a mixed bag: Rossini's La Donna del Lago, Offenbach's Les Contes D'Hoffman (or The Tales of Hoffman, as the MO puts it), the rarely performed Lakmé by Delibes (which one critic pointed out had become something of a camp classic in its most recent incarnations), Mozart's brilliant Le nozze di Figaro (which the MO, again inexplicably, choose to bill as The Marriage of Figaro, despite its being performed in Italian), and the world premiere of Gordon's The Grapes of Wrath.

So what do we make of this? Well, it's hard to go wrong with Mozart, even though Le nozze di Figaro is probably put on a little more often than I'd prefer. Offenbach's Hoffman hasn't been seen here in a while, and should be good fun. I'm a bit more apprehensive about Lakmé, given its campy reputation, plus the MO's irresistable desire to gimmick up productions (under the guise of "creativity," of course). La Donna del Lago is an excellent choice; over the years the MO has gained a well-deserved reputation for its excellence in the area of Bel Canto opera. This includes not only the better-known composers of the era - Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti - but also digging deep into the Bel Canto catalog for lesser-known, even obscure, works such as last month's Orazi e Curiazi. It's to the MO's credit that they've established this niche for themselves, and it is on this that their legacy will ultimately depend.

Unfortunately, The Grapes of Wrath illustrates the niche for which they seem most proud: their commission of new and avant-garde opera. Now, this requires a word of explanation by way of background. The Minnesota Opera began life in 1963 as the Center Opera, being the house company of the modernist Walker Art Center. Their mission was to present progressive, contemporary and alternative opera as a companion to the lavish productions then being given by the Metropolitan Opera during their annual stop in Minneapolis with their national touring company. Eventually the Met discontinued the national tours, and the Center Opera (now renamed the Minnesota Opera) merged with the more traditional St. Paul Opera with a combination of old and new, traditional and modern.

The pattern of opera selection has remained fairly consistent over the past few years; each season's repertory consists of a Bel Canto, two or three that span the general opera pallet, and one new or "cutting-edge" production. And it is this area we're going to look at specifically this week.

Now, 'tis true that there has always been new opera, and that invariably those new operas bring their own share of controversy. Just read sometime about the riots that inevitably accompanied the openings of new productions by such "mainstream" composers as Verdi. And it's also true that many of these new productions have dealt with political subjects - again, one need only look at the field day censors had with the political (and moral) themes of Italian opera in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

But there's something different about contemporary opera today. It seems incapable of getting beyond the controversial, the trendy, the oh-so-earnest desire to be "relevant." Just take a look at some of the most visible productions of the past few years (and to be fair, I'm not singling out the MO here). There's A Wedding, based on the Robert Altman movie, which played at the Lyric Opera in Chicago last year; Doctor Atomic, John Adams' opera based on the life of Robert Oppenheimer which was written for the San Francisco Opera; another Adams project, the controversial The Death of Klinghoffer (based on the terrorist murder of Leon Klinghoffer on a cruise ship, and brilliantly parodied by yours truly in Graveyard of the Elephants as The Retirement of Gretzky, the world's first opera staged entirely on ice); and Andre Previn's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, also done for the San Francisco Opera.

The MO's contribution to this group, besides next year's Grapes of Wrath, includes 2005's revival of yet another Adams project, the seldom-performed Nixon in China (which, to Adams' credit, is one of the few even-handed portrayls of Nixon you're likely to see from the arts-and-croissants crowd), and this season's Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, by Petitgirard, which in the hands of the MO becomes a treatise on the disabled. Think I'm exaggerating? Check out this blurb from the latest program, on an upcoming "conversation":

The Elephant Man: A conversation on policy, disability and opera


Continuing a multi-year partnership with the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, The Minnesota Opera is convening a panel comprising experts in policymaking, medicine and disability, as well as the opera's composer, moderated by opera commentator Robert Marx. Using the opera as a jumping-off point, this panel will create a forum in which the community can explore how policy, public perception, and people with disabling diseases interact. The event will also feature musical selections from the opera.

Boy, that's a loaded paragraph if I've ever seen one. But you notice who's driving this panel? The Minnesota Opera, that's right. About the only thing missing from this "conversation" is a discussion on the artistic merits of the music itself. But then, we wouldn't want to get in the way of discussing social justice now, would we? The whole premise is so far removed from reality, you'd think it was a panel at a USCCB meeting. If you ever wanted proof of how the MO just can't let the opera speak (or sing) for itself, you have it here.

Unless you look further back to one of the most famed productions in MO history, 2003's widely acclaimed, widely excoriated, totally execrable production of Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood - a production so offensive that it was referred to in Michael Linton's First Things article as The Bigot's Opera:

The Commander enters the living room carrying a big black Bible. He reads Genesis 30:1-3 to his middle-aged wife and to Offred, her handmaid. The scripture finished, the wife and handmaid get on the floor, Offred sliding between the wife’s spread legs. The handmaid hikes up her skirt and leans back against the wife while the Commander unzips his trousers. They copulate. As they thrust and grind the orchestra and chorus burst into “Amazing Grace.”

And you thought Maria Callas was provocative.

The opera, like the book, is a polemic against fundamental Christianity. "The Republic of Gilead—the invention of right-wing Christian fundamentalists—is a culture of robotic obedience, brute tyranny, sex slavery, torture, terrorism, sadism, and summary execution." As Linton says later on, "if it is a triumph, it is as the first work of art to displace Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine as the preeminent work of art calculated to offend Christian sensibilities." One writer "observed the resonance between the opera and the attempt of a 'religiously driven, if not quite fundamentalist U.S. government' to force a Pax Americana on Iraq." I could go on, but you get the point.

What's most increcible about all this is how clearly the Minnesota Opera attempted to peddle this filth, this political pornography, as "art," as Linton points out in his conclusion:

In a remarkable passage in the opera’s program, Dale Johnson, the Minnesota Opera’s artistic director, writes that he sees The Handmaid’s Tale as “a warning of the effects of intolerance in all its forms. Intolerance dehumanizes people, forcing their humanity underground. The best art holds up a mirror to its audience, and The Handmaid’s Tale does that brilliantly using the operatic genre.” His comments echo those of Atwood when describing her story as a work about “what happens when people condemn without understanding.” Precisely.

So anyway, you see what we opera lovers have to put up with here in Minnesota. (Although in fairness, I will say something good about the MO at some point in time. I promise.)

Notice what all these operas we've discussed have in common? Controversy, through either the political content of the story (Handmaid, Grapes, Klinghoffer and Atomic), the topic itself (nuclear war, terrorism, disability, the evils of fundmentalism) or the enticing reputation of the original authors (Robert Altman, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams) for addressing "adult" subject matter.

Now, you might ask yourself if audiences buy all this. Well, it's hard to say. What I can say, from personal experience, is that the MO has traditionally had to couple the year's contemporary production as part of its multi-opera ticket packaging. Meaning, you couldn't buy any kind of partical season package without having to endure the latest modernist travesty.

Dale Johnson, the aforementioned artistic director of the MO, himself admitted in the pre-performance talk prior to Orazi e Curiazi that audiences here don't seem to warm to new opera. They want the old standards, damn them, despite the assurances of the MO that "we know what's best for you." And so the MO keeps pouring it on, introducing a new production every year, treating the patrons as rubes who need to be force-fed what's good for them whether they like it or not, whether they understand it or not.

So we'll just have to see about The Grapes of Wrath, although I'm not optimistic. But what makes this so frustrating is that it's all so unnecessary. There's plenty of good opera out there that's hardly ever produced anymore. Any talented opera company willing to be creative, rather than merely provocative (which leaves the MO out), could come up with seasons that were excellent mixes of the old guard and the hidden gem, the warhorses and the forgotten masterpieces - and, if they wanted to from time to time, the new commission as well. We forget that Bach was once out of favor, until he was brought back by Mendelssohn. The same could be done for many composers by companies such as the Minnesota Opera, if they really wanted to.

Next week: How companies like the Minnesota Opera could be truly creative in their programming.

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