Reflections on Orpheus

WILLIAM R. BRAUN visits Glimmerglass Opera's new general and artistic director, Michael MacLeod, whose first season celebrates the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

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© Dario Acosta 2007
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Photographed by Dario Acosta on the Glimmerglass campus in Cooperstown, New York
© Dario Acosta 2007
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© Dario Acosta 2007
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© Dario Acosta 2007
Almost from its inception - with an English-language La Bohème in 1975 - until this past summer, Glimmerglass has been the province of one man. Paul Kellogg, who began with the company in a volunteer position in 1976, became general director in 1979 and saw the company through its current constitution as a four-opera summer season in a purpose-built theater. Kellogg retired at the end of last summer; Michael MacLeod came to Cooperstown as general director in 2005. Following stints as executive director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and executive and artistic director of the City of London Festival, he now serves as Glimmerglass's general and artistic director, and the 2007 season is the first to bear his imprint. The four operas - Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice in the Berlioz revision, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and Philip Glass's Orphée - are variations on a theme. They will be supplemented with screenings of two films, the Cocteau Orphée on which the Glass opera is based and Black Orpheus, as well as two concert performances of Haydn's L'Anima del Filosofo (subtitled "Orfeo ed Euridice"). MacLeod has committed the company to a second thematic season in 2008, with Handel's Giulio Cesare, Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Wagner's Das Liebesverbot and Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, all having connections to Shakespeare. Representing the company's first brush with Wagner, Liebesverbot will also be a North American stage premiere. MacLeod spoke about the festival from a frigid, snowbound and very un-summerlike Cooperstown last March.

OPERA NEWS: I'm wondering whether you ever had that early experience we all hope to have - for me it was Jon Vickers in Otello in 1979 - where everything comes together and it is suddenly clear what opera is supposed to be and why people care about it.

MICHAEL MACLEOD:
It came shortly after I graduated from Amherst College. I went back to Scotland, where I had been in school. At the Edinburgh Festival, Peter Diamand had put together a dream team for Figaro. It had the English Chamber Orchestra in the pit, Daniel Barenboim conducting. Fischer-Dieskau was the Count. It also had Heather Harper, Teresa Berganza, and I believe Geraint Evans was the Figaro. That solidified my view of how great Mozart was, and it was an extraordinarily moving experience.

ON:
Now you have your own company, to take in any direction you wish.

MM:
I firmly believe that the light at the end of the tunnel for most opera companies in America is an oncoming train. There are huge issues with ticket sales throughout this country and beyond. There are also issues with what people are doing with their money - not just their time, but also their money. I feel passionately about not "dumbing down," which is what a number of companies, I believe, are doing, because they are scared. And when they're scared, they dumb down. What I believe is happening is that many true opera aficionados are no longer going to the opera, wherever it may be, because they don't want to see Carmen or La Bohème. They want to have a new thrill, a new challenge, a new emotional experience. My most difficult job is striking the right balance between programming something that is challenging, that brings back the aficionado but does not alienate the local community.

ON:
Yet last summer, the announced production of Cavalli's Giasone, a Baroque rarity, was replaced with Pirates of Penzance. Wouldn't that be an example of dumbing down?

MM:
The Pirates was the best-selling of the four operas in 2006. So from that point of view it was a wise decision. Almost all of the people who wrote to me, even though I had nothing to do with the change, and complained to me about the fact that the Cavalli had been dropped, and how dare we do this - almost all of them, when we did an analysis of their past giving to Glimmerglass Opera, are the people who gave the least to the annual fund. Now, isn't that interesting?

Glimmerglass Theater
The Alice Busch Opera Theater opened in June 1987
© Dario Acosta 2007

ON: Until you came in, Glimmerglass had been run by only one person in its entire history. How do you balance what to keep from that person's ideas, versus wanting to do things a new way?

MM:
Paul Kellogg is a hard act to follow. That is why I decided to do, in essence, what he had been doing - which is to say, one opera that is early, a Classical one, a Romantic one, then one that is sort of edgy. What I've done differently is to package them so that there is a theme permeating the whole season, the myth of Orpheus, built around the 400th anniversary year of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. If I programmed four hard-core operas each summer that the majority of residents of Cooperstown had never heard of, I think I would be bankrupting the company potentially. But if I can program in a way that doesn't dumb down, which has an intellectual context, I think I can get away with it.

ON:
People are puzzled that the Gluck Orphée will be performed in an edition built around one of the great mezzo-sopranos of history, Pauline Viardot, but it has been cast with Michael Maniaci, who bills himself as a male soprano.

MM:
Well, I'm not going to try and bullshit my way out of this one. The fact of the matter is, Gluck himself changed that opera three different times. He had Orpheus sung at one pitch for the original Vienna performances. When it was performed in Italy a few years later, he changed the pitch, because he had a different singer. Then when he did his French version a few years later, he changed it again. Then Berlioz came along and was asked by an impresario to arrange it for this particular singer, and he did it because he was paid to do it. And so there's a history of people fiddling with this opera.

Michael Maniaci, and this is the truth of the matter, was booked for Giasone, and because that was replaced with the Pirates, in which he did not have a role, we try to treat everyone fairly and well. And it seemed that if we could provide him with a replacement opportunity in 2007, that would be good for him and good for us, because he's a great singer. And I thought, why not have our own version?

ON:
Isn't there a danger with setting up thematic seasons and then having to cast them? What if you select works that go together, but it turns out that suitable singers are not available?

MM:
It's not as simple as that. I don't necessarily choose the repertoire first and then choose the singers and the director and the conductor. It's sometimes choosing the repertoire when I know that I've got two singers available, which is what happened with Sarah Coburn and Sandra Piques Eddy for the Bellini in 2008. So it sometimes works the other way. What I think some people do is book a singer and build an entire opera around that singer, and then the singer falls ill or has a baby, or whatever, and can't fulfill the engagement.

ON:
It seems to me that there is no place for singers at a certain career level to go. It's relatively easy for people who have been through a young-artist program - perhaps yours - to get work, because they're young and therefore inexpensive. But there is a whole group of singers who are past that stage, and they are not big enough stars to be offered regular work at the largest companies. Are these singers at the second stage of a career being squeezed out?

MM:
I don't know the answer to that question, because my attitude toward casting is based on what I hear. I'm spending a lot of time traveling around this country and abroad, listening to singers and meeting singers and hiring on the basis of what I hear, rather than what they've done. I think this is one of the great things Glimmerglass can do, precisely because we don't need the big names. Because A, we can't afford them, and B, we want people to come knowing that they're going to get quality. I hire the singers on the basis of the voice, and that means that it doesn't matter if they're twenty years old - or thirty, or mid-career, or whatever. And unfortunately, it's a tough business, because there are many, many very good singers out there, and you can't hire them all. I would be doing a disservice to Glimmerglass if I hired people because I thought, well, they need a job.

Theater Interior
The interior of the 900-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater, designed by Hugh Hardy
of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, with acoustics by Peter George Associates

© Dario Acosta 2007

ON: Up until 1992, Glimmerglass performed all operas in English translation. It is now an original-language-only house?

MM:
It's surprising that the Philip Glass opera is in French, but we asked him if he would like us to do it in English, and he said no. The Offenbach - and again, I don't think this is dumbing down, I think this is actually being more accessible - we've decided to do in English. The reason why, I suspect, the operas were all done in English in the early days was because they did not have surtitle facilities. As soon as the surtitles came in, they did the opera in the original language, though there have been a few instances in the past where they have translated perhaps one per season into English. But even if we do operas here in English, we will still have surtitles.

ON:
You don't think that people find it distracting to have a performance sung in English with the English words flashing above the stage?

MM:
Even when singers sing an English opera in English, apparently studies show that only twenty percent of the words can be understood anyway. So supertitles are handy, whatever the language. I don't have a problem with that at all.

ON:
Given the size of the house and the other parameters you have, what is on your wish list for repertoire?

MM:
We are not a large-scale opera company, and therefore we will never be doing Parsifal. But that doesn't mean that we can't do opera that exudes strength and breadth. And I think Paul has done some of that in the past anyway, for example Fanciulla del West. And one of my challenges is, I'm a great fan of Benjamin Britten's operas, but there are two of them that have never been performed here, Billy Budd and Peter Grimes, and the question is 'can I think of a way of doing those?' Because one of the things I will do is to program great, great repertoire, and those two are amongst the greatest of them all, in my opinion.

WILLIAM BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4