Category Archives: Rant

the best and worst of the operasphere in 2012

This year was one for the books, so to speak. My 2012 marked many new and challenging review opportunities–thirteen in all, ranging from Philadelphia to New York.

You can read all my reviews on Bachtrack at this link.

Melodic contemporary operas, classic operas done in outlandish contemporary style, never before seen operas, and even opera/musical theatre mash-ups. I saw some pretty good productions with some singularly splendid moments. I watched some not so good productions with several redeeming moments.

Rarely did a see a wonderful opera replete with splendid moments. But it happened at least twice this past year.

Herewith are my best and worst moments of the 2012 season, occurring both on and offstage.

The Best of 2012

For me, the best single production was a tie between Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Glimmerglass Festival’s Lost in the Stars.

Dark Sisters: The wives of The Prophet, left to right sung by Margaret Lattimore, Eve Gigliotti, Jennifer Zetlan, Caitlin Lynch, and Jennifer Check, appear on a news show to appeal for the return of their children. TV personality “King” is sung by Kevin Burdette.| c. of Opera Company of Philadelphia | Kelly and Massa Photography

I was enthralled by Dark Sisters, a contemporary opera about the plight of women trapped in plural marriage—one husband with multiple wives. You can read the full review here, but suffice it to say that it was a moving, beautifully sung, and technologically stunning production.

Met star Eric Owens (center) in “Lost in the Stars”

Likewise, the Glimmerglass Festival’s Lost in the Stars, an opera/musical mash-up written by Kurt Weill adapted from the novel Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton was a first-rate show.  It was a co-production with Cape Town Opera where it first played with performers who themselves experienced apartheid. Interestingly, Weill wrote this show  as a way to “deepen the American musical theater experience.” Lost in the Stars actually deepened and broadened my opera-going experience.  The full review is available here.

The Worst of 2012

I don’t really want to denigrate any single production or performer–that’s not what Operatoonity is about.  I prefer civility first.

However, I will say that having no #Operaplot Contest this year was a huge personal disappointment.

I can scarcely begin to describe how much I enjoyed participating and reading other entries. I’m sure it is a bear to organize and judge, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that mounting no annual contest was one (of  precious few ) Twitter campaigns sorely missed.

The other disappointment I grappled with was being emailed by a young performer after I didn’t include his name in a review. Yes, he was a lead performer, and he was understandably disappointed not to have been mentioned. However, since he was a young artist, I took the high road and excluded him rather than write an unfavorable review. I asked him if I could interview him on this blog about the challenges of preparing for a professional career singing opera, kind of as a makey-up, and he  declined to participate, another major disappointment.

To all stage performers out there, I need to remind you that reviewer is more than likely a working person who does opera reviewing in his or her spare time. She is overworked, tired, traveled a distance to get there, and endeavors to write an honest review. Therefore, if you don’t intend to bring everything you have to your performance, your overworked, overstimulated, and simultaneously exhausted reviewer (who has seen more than 35 full-length operas and recitals in venues from D.C. to the Met in the last 28 months) is likely to notice.

That’s it for Operatoonity’s birds-eye view of the best and worst of 2012.

Here’s to happy opera viewing and greener musical pastures in 2013.

 

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Filed under Best of Operatoonity, favorites, Festival Opera, Performers, Rant, Regional opera, Reviews

taking opera critics on for size

I’m hoppin’ mad, my friends, and not just because it’s Easter week. What’s got me riled up this time?

Opera critics who are sizeists and use their pulpits–online and otherwise–to bash performers.

I happen to be an opera critic myself, reviewing for Bachtrack.com and sometimes on this blog. In something as complex and multi-faceted as an opera, there are myriad elements to critique  that are within bounds of a decent and competent opera review:

  • directorial vision
  • individual performances and interpretations
  • acting
  • singing
  • chemistry between performers
  • conducting and orchestral performance
  • composition
  • libretto
  • sets, lights, costumes
  • the marriage of all these elements
  • the theater
  • the seats
  • the intermission
  • the choice of opera
  • the supertitles

However, the mention of a performer’s size in a review because he or she is  perceived to be too big or too plump or too fat, criticizing a performer because of their shape and size is not within bounds of any reviewer’s purview and shouldn’t even be considered let alone mentioned.

Yet, here is one critic bringing size into his review of The Vancouver Opera’s recent production of The Barber of Seville. It is the most egregious example of  a review being completely out of bounds that I have ever seen since I began reviewing opera in 2010:

The chorus members are so fat and flabby that nobody in their right mind should put on public display so ugly a sight.  As my opera companion remarked: “That’s the best ad for an anti-fat farm I have ever seen.  Do you have to be fat to sing in opera?”

Are you as offended as I am? What right does this person have to comment on such things within the context of a review of a classical performance? Absolutely no right whatsoever. If I could nominate someone to be tarred and feathered and run out of Vancouver, this reviewer would top the list.

No one goes to opera to see supermodels. One goes to hear voices. If a performer has a physical attribute such as chubby legs or thin legs or buck teeth or a bald head or three heads, if the quality related to their appearance has nothing to do with their ability to sing the role and doesn’t interfere in the slightest with their ability to do so, than their physical appearance is not within bounds of a review.

I’m sure there are other examples of classless critics who abuse their privilege and station. I’m hard-pressed to think of one more offensive than the example I’ve given you above. But I’m certain there have been others.

In this age, when anyone who can start a blog has his or her own bully pulpit to espouse their “pink slime,” I’m sure there will be more offensive reviews and irresponsible and boorish reviewers because it’s just too tempting for people of poor character to show restraint and decency when they have cyberspace and the temptation to bash right at their fingertips.

And now you know what’s got me hoppin’ mad. Because there’s little that can be done to spare performers and opera companies from out-of-bounds reviews like that one.

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stop picking on NYC Opera!

New York City Opera faces will try to meet their grave financial challenges head-on with a new business model.

You  manage an opera company. Your expenses exceed your income. That is the scenario you inherited when you stepped in as general manager and is expected to be the scenario moving forward.

If you don’t come up with a new business model that allows you to operate with the funds you can expect to have, you’ll have to close your doors.

(By the way, you don’t have a goose that lays golden eggs or a big fat money tree in your backyard last time you checked.)

What do you do? One option is to do what managers are paid to do. You manage. You manage so that you can continue programming in fulfillment of a company’s mission. Or you fold your cards, pick up your hat, and say, “Sayonara, suckers. Let all this big mess be someone else’s problem.”

George Steel, General Manager and Artistic Director of the New York City Opera, hasn’t folded his cards or hung his head. He’s managing an organization just as he’s been charged to do. What should have been or might have been didn’t pan out to be, so he’s trying to move forward with a new business model that allows New York City Opera to continue to do what it was established to do.

“But they won’t be paying union chorus and orchestra wages any longer?” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could? I’ve certainly enjoyed those aspects of seeing shows at presented by New York City Opera that add immeasurably to the production values of each show.

But who’s going to pay the professional musicians? New York City Opera can no longer afford their Lincoln Center home, but people are expecting them somehow to continue to shell out union wages for musicians? That’s like a homeless person keeping a building contractor on retainer because that’s what he used do when he had that good job and that beautiful house that everyone admired and loved to visit.

I live in Central Pennsylvania where many businesses are still trying to recover from the economic downturn that began in the last decade. Historically, even in the past 10-15 years, these family- and closely-held businesses might have been very successful, generating x-amount of revenue.  Because of the recession or market forces or changes in their industry, many business leaders are having to define a new normal. That means they’ve realized they no longer run a company that generates x-amount per year,  but 1/2  x-amount. In fact, they might never generate x-amount again–ever.

These business owners have come up with new business models to stay in business. Because they would be irresponsible–no, not just irresponsible–stupid business people if they failed to search for and then put in place ways to keep the business afloat that their father or grandfather founded decades ago, under different market conditions, which is now entrusted to them.

New York City Opera is trying to cope with a new normal. I’m sure they’d love to stay in their beautiful, newly refurbished Lincoln Center home and retain their accomplished union singers and highly skilled orchestra members, but they can’t afford to do so and also remain solvent.

And please don’t start with the argument that they did unpopular, esoteric shows and that’s why they are in trouble. Under Steel they produced Don Giovanni, for pity’s sake, an opera potboiler if ever there was one. Oh, and Elixir of Love, and the very entertaining new musical by Stephen Schwartz, Seance on a Wet Afternoon. And they paid tribute to Leonard Bernstein with the New York premiere of A Quiet Place. Imagine that! Honoring Leonard Bernstein at Lincoln Center.

New York City Opera has come up with a new business plan that allows them to continue doing what they were founded to do–produce opera for the citizens of New York. It’s just that they are producing opera all across New York City instead of making New York (and the rest of the world) come to them. It’s a brave, interesting model that might just work. I’m very much looking forward to traveling to different parts of New York to see their 2011-12 season and hope I get the chance to do so.

Unless you have any better ideas or can lay a golden egg for them, then it’s time to give Steel and his organization a chance to move forward with a new New York City Opera.

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no time for opera snobs

Athena, springing from the head of Zeus

O, would that we could all spring from the head of Zeus, fully formed in battle armor, like the goddess Athena.  (No wonder Zeus had the mother of all headaches.)    

Alas, real-life intervenes for the fully mortal. We have to learn to sit up before we can crawl, crawl before we can walk, walk before we can run.    

No matter what the art (or craft) pursued, most of us need training to realize our potential. The harder it is to realize mastery, the more time and training it takes.    

I can think of few art forms in which students need more layers of study and  development than in opera performance. Even for those who can naturally warble a few resonant notes, singing for three hours or more, several times a week often in foreign languages, considering also all the stamina, technique and vocal gymnastics that opera scores require of their singers, demands a level of vocal fitness that can take years to attain.    

That’s why my blood boils when I hear comments like, “I’m an opera snob,” as one person told my friend unapologetically. “That company is third-rate,” he continued, referring to a regional house, adding that he refused to patronize them any longer.    

My god. Even the sports world (and every other discipline) understands the value of the apprenticeship and how important local offerings are to the quality of life in smaller cities and towns–be they sporting events, cultural events, visual arts, lectures, whatever. Major league ball clubs use farm teams to develop talent. One of the greatest Philadelphia Phillies to play the game, Mike Schmidt, played for their farm team, the Reading Phillies before he hit the big leagues.    

In the same way, regional opera companies help develop tomorrow’s students. What? Accomplished opera singers don’t spring from the heads of opera gods, fully formed? No, they don’t. And only a dolt would fail to see the connection between offering live opera performance outside of  major US cultural centers and the profileration and growth of opera as an art form.    

” . . . I believe that regional opera houses play a central role in the development of opera in America.  They provide performing venues for the stars of tomorrow, and they provide a rich cultural experience for communities that they serve.”
–Dr. Todd Queen, from the blog Operagasm, on “The Importance of Regional Opera”    

Some of the most memorable productions I’ve ever seen weren’t necessarily shows on Broadway. There are several community theatre productions that loom large in my memory for their freshness, artistic vision, and execution. They featured selected performances by *gasp* non-professionals so well hewn, they’ll stay with me forever.    

There’s no guarantee that one will have a spectacular experience with regional theater or regional opera. At the same, neither should you assume you’re going to see perfection at the Met, La Scala, or any other world-class venue you can name.    

“It is sad how many people are in positions of importance in opera who don’t know whether or not the singing is beautiful until they see the singer’s name.”
–Luciano Pavarotti    

I have no tolerance for opera snobs and others who expect perfection from live performance. If you want perfection, go listen to an overproduced CD where they had to do twenty to thirty takes to get the high quality you think you deserve.    

If you truly love opera, you can find something beautiful and worthy in every production, wherever it’s being produced. If you don’t, then let me spell it out for you: You are a selfish opera snob with no genuine regard for the art form as a whole.

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Filed under Classic Opera, North American Opera, Rant, Regional opera

whole vs. parts? parts is parts . . .

Pelléas et Mélisande set/Metropolitan Opera

 

I like all things live more than I like their filmed counterparts–musicals, plays, sports, operas. I’d rather be there in person, in the thick of a basketball game, than reduced to watching it on TV. I’d much rather be gazing at a stage through the invisible fourth wall than be plopped in a comfy air chair watching some cinematic treatment I ordered through Netflix.   

As a faithful proponent for live vs. taped, I’m keenly attuned to production values. Yes, of course, I’m always wowed by the extraordinary. But more than that, I want balance. All parts of a production should support the whole. Someone, hopefully the director, but maybe the producer or the conductor, has to be gutsy enough to strive for that all important balance.   

Here’s a recent non-operatic example. A week after it was released, I was dragged along to see Eat, Pray, Love, the movie. I’ll grant you that the previews augured some magnificent scenery. But I had already read portions of the book, and frankly, it failed to impress me like it did friends of mine. Well, no surprise–I didn’t care for the movie either. Was the scenery magnificent? Absolutely. Did the magnificent  scenery overshadow the rest of the movie’s elements? Absolutely. Which made the whole experience utterly disappointing for me because I wanted a seamless experience.   

Last weekend, I saw Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met. And the production as a whole didn’t work for me. I’ll admit I had some very high expectations for the event: Simon Rattle conducting in his Met debut; Debussy’s luminous, haunting score; and of course, the fact that it was a Metropolitan Opera production featuring some very talented and accomplished singers.   

Why didn’t it work? The attention that the audience was expected to pay to the set (yes, the set) was out of balance. First of all, it was a huge mansion, stories high, an overpowering hulk that lumbered around the stage in slow motion during the musical interludes. For me, it didn’t support the story or the music. It stole too much focus–mental energy– away from the rest of the production.   

Undue attention had been paid to the set as opposed to balancing the set with the rest of the elements. Had more attention been given to the overall work, to advancing the whole as a whole, such a set might have been reenvisioned as something that would lift up all the other production elements.   

If a production takes pains to show me its parts more than its virtues, on the whole, I know I’ll be disappointed. After all, parts is, well, merely parts.   

What do you think? If a production is very strong in certain parts, is that good enough for you, as an opera- or theatre-goer?

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Filed under Classic Opera, North American Opera, Rant, Reviews