Thursday, May 25, 2006

Opera Thursday

By Mitchell

The state of mind of the Minnesota Opera, and for that matter the states of mind of so many opera companies today, can be summarized in this neat little quote from The Mumpsimus (HT: Terry Teachout):

Theatre audiences and critics have been conditioned to expect plays to deliver messages, and many good playwrights have mangled their art by bowing down to this condition. One of the problems with the messages delivered by most contemporary plays is that they're predictable and shallow—war is bad, love is good, people should be nice to other people who aren't exactly the same as they are, etc. One of the results of ticket prices being so phenomenally expensive is that audiences expect what they see to give them either a lot of spectacle or some sort of education, though if you've just paid $85 for a seat, what you probably most want is a reinforcing of your current ideas under the guise of education, so that way even if you aren't entertained, at least you feel smart and righteous. (Yes, I'm generalizing horribly.)

The Mumpsimus is talking about theatre, but he could well be referring to the state of modern opera today. (And, after all, what is opera if not theatre on a flamboyantly grand scale?) I don't want to accuse the Minnesota Opera of being one of the most notorious "message" opera companies around, primarily because I'm not that familiar with other opera companies. But it's clear that, from the beginning of the MO, the message was the medium through which the music passed. And, one might suggest, it's that message today that's keeping the MO from being the opera company that its directors fancy it already to be. For when any art organization becomes so obsessed with the new and the provocative, they risk overlooking what's already out there - some of which might surprise them, if they bothered to look.

True, the MO is a modest opera company - four or five productions a year, certainly nothing to compare with the Met, or even the nearest large company, the Lyric in Chicago. And maybe it's unrealisitc to expect the big stars to sign up with the MO, even for just four or five performances. Why should they come out here to a small opera company in the sticks?

Well, Renee Fleming and Dawn Upshaw have been in St. Paul, as a matter of fact - right in the same building where the MO performs, if you can believe it. But they weren't singing for the MO - they're some of the stars who've performed over the years at the famed Schubert Club, one of the best classical music organizations anywhere. Across the river, just a few blocks from where we live, the Minnesota Orchestra routinely features such stars as Deborah Voight, Jane Eaglen, James Morris and Sumi Jo.

So you can't make the argument that stars don't know where Minnesota is - they know quite well where we are. This is hardly hayseed territory when it comes to classical music. And yet they don't seem to be performing at the Minnesota Opera, do they? Gee, maybe the MO can't afford to attract bigger names because they're so busy spending their money commissioning new works. Ya think?

In the last few years early opera composers like Handel, Hayden and Monteverdi have made something of a comeback. If you heard the Met's broadcast of Rodelinda a few weeks ago, you couldn't help but get caught up in it. Even over the radio one could sense the excitement in the hall, the long and loud ovations that came after each aria. Of course, having Renee Fleming as the star helped.

Now, as it happens, the MO did do Handel once - back in 1994. Perhaps it's time for them to try early opera again. There can be no question that the MO has scored big-time with its bel canto productions. They've succeeded in attracting talented performers and solid productions, and they've carved out a niche for themselves in the opera community. Might not the same thing happen if they added early opera to their repertoire?

The problem here is that the MO always seems to be interested in something new, different, and especially controversial. Notice the operas they debut - political screeds like The Handmaid's Tale, or stories with social underpinnings like The Grapes of Wrath. They take a moving story like that of The Elephant Man and turn it into a dialogue on the disabled. Even when they do a straightforward opera, one such as Orazi e Curiazi, they can't resist the temptation to take the story, set in ancient Rome, and transplant it to the time of the American Civil War. In that case, all that was missing was a chorus in blackface singing, "Zip-a-dee-do-dah."

One might look at all this and ask why? Why bother.

Remember my clue from last week? Gian Carlo Menotti. At one time back in the 1950s, Menotti was one of the best-known opera composers around. He was the first to realize the potential of the new medium of television, and was the first to compose an opera expressly for TV (the beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors). It's true that Menotti has fallen out of favor over the years, but there are two operas of his that stand as prime candidates for production, if your opera company has a scintilla of creativity about it.

The Saint of Bleecker Street would fit in perfectly with the kind of production the MO likes to do. A gritty, urban drama, it deals with the tensions within a family. The daughter, Annina, may have the stigmata, has visions of the Crucixison, and wants to lead a religious life. Her brother, Michele (whom we would call "a troubled young man") fights to keep Annina out of the cloister. He disrupts a wedding, murders his girlfriend (who has just accused him of loving his sister more than he loves her), and vows to fight God to keep Annina. In the climatic ending, Annina, who has had visions of her impending death, dies just as Michele crashes the ceremony at which she is to receive the veil. If that's not opera, I don't know what is.

The Saint of Bleecker Street won the Pulitzer Prize for music, but remains an underperformed opera today. During the intermission discussions on the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, The Saint of Bleecker Street is often identified as an opera worthy of revival.

Or take Menotti's The Consul, the story of a woman trying to get a passport to escape a totalitarian country. This would seem right up the alley for a company that likes "message" operas. (And, in fact, the MO did do The Consul - back in 1979.) You might ask yourself why the MO doesn't revive it? Maybe they can't figure out a way to suggest to the audience that George W. Bush is the leader of Menotti's totalitarian state, I don't know. My point here is that to bring Menotti back (and several opera commentators have mentioned that the time is ripe for a revival of Menotti) would show something that the MO doesn't often exhibit - creativity. They like to think they do, what with their new, provocative productions - but new doesn't equal creative.

It doesn't have to be Menotti. It could be Dominick Argento, whose productions were a staple of the early years of the MO, dating back to when they were still the Center Opera (in fact, a couple of his operas had their premieres here). And Argento has strong Minnesota roots, having taught at the University of Minnesota for almost 40 years, and currently holding the title of Composer Laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra. According to this bio, "Since the early 1970s the composer's operas, which have always found success in the U.S., have been heard with increasing frequency abroad." Of course, he hasn't been heard at the MO since the 1990-91 season.

In fact, there's a whole lot of American opera out there - if you don't believe me, just check this website. Is all of it good? Probably not. But it requires some thought to put together seasons that include pieces like these. My contention is that thought is not the strong suit of companies like the MO. After all, why be original when you can be provocative instead.

One of the underwriters of classical music on our local public radio station reminds listeners that "all music was once new." That's undeniably true, but you notice they don't say that all music is good. The two words aren't interchangable - new does not equal good. And in their obsession to bring us new, provocative, commissioned works, companies like the MO seem content to ignore the vast collection of opera that's already been written but sits there gathering dust.

Sure, they might argue, the audiences don't recognize the old works. Well, I'll tell you, if they recognize The Grapes of Wrath, it's probably because they were forced to read it in high school, and they probably don't have very generous feelings about it, either.

As I mentioned in my piece a couple of weeks ago, opera has always been political. And if you can produce a political work that remains artistically satisfying, then good for you. Verdi did pretty well by it, as I recall. But current opera offers politics as polemics rather than poetry, anger instead of art, lecturing instead of lyrical. It's a fine way to validate the ideological opinions of your audience, to reinforce their own beliefs and make them feel good about themselves. But entertainment? Give me a break.

For that matter, I'd contend that the most stimulating opera selections in this area come from the Des Moines Opera. Over the last fewyears they've been able to mount several productions of rarely performed contemporary opera - The Saint of Bleecker Street and The Consul, Benjamin Britten's Gloriana, The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky, The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore - that aren't seen around here. Perhaps, one might argue, the overall quality isn't on par with that of the MO, but I'd suggest that these selections show more thought, more creativity, than the bulk of what the MO has done.

I realize that I risk contradicting myself here, suggesting that new opera is too "political" while urging the production of older operas, many of which might also be considered "political." Or castigating new and provocative productions while favorably citing examples from the Center Opera era when new and provocative was the rule. But that's partly the point - why continue to commission new works that aren't necessary? I suppose it's just easier to do that than to actually think about what might be out there. Then, of course, there's the glamor and approval from your peers from your "new, controversial, challenging" piece - something like The Handmaid's Tale - or your ability to "engage contemporary issues" as they attempt to do with this year's Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. And if audiences don't respond they way you'd like to see these pieces - well, they just aren't educated enough to know what's good for them. After all, we Midwesterners do have a bland pallet.

It's also true that there's more to programming a season than running down a menu of choices and choosing the ones that look good. Price, availability of singers, ability of the house to stage the production - those are all major considerations, and ones that I'm sure the MO considers when they start planning a season (often, years in advance).

My point in all of this is that you don't have to spend a ton of money on important commissions or go looking for politically relevant, provocative new operas. There's plenty of underperformed opera already out there. Just have an open mind and the willingness to expand your mission.

The architect Cesar Pelli, when asked whether or not there was a place for beauty in architecture, replied that it depeneded - if one was designing for critics and fellow architects, then it didn't matter. But if one designed for the public, then beauty was an absolute necessity.

The Minnesota Opera faces much the same question: what is their mission? If they're trying to win critical acclaim and approval, then by all means keep on producing works like The Handmaid's Tale. After all, indulging oneself can be fun sometimes. But if they're interested in entertaining the public, perhaps it's time to rethink their strategy.

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