Editor's Desk

Front-Page Opera?

(News, Observations, Elizabeth Diggans) Permanent link

In 1993, OPERA NEWS published an article called "Front-Page Opera," in which we asked fifteen writers, reporters and other notables what twentieth-century news events they would like to see as opera topics. With the success of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, the 1986 New York City Opera staging of the premiere of X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X), plus a couple of works in the pipeline dealing with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and at least one on the Manson family, we thought at the time we might be on to something. Was the availability of twenty-four-hour news so exciting that opera librettists would be turning exclusively to CNN for ideas? Well, it would seem not.

The undeniably operatic life of Nelson Mandela (with the bonus character of his now ex-wife Winnie) was a suggestion that did end up onstage, if not yet in major international houses. The fall of the Romanovs, another proposed storyline, received royal opera treatment with the debut of Deborah Drattell's Nicholas and Alexandra at Los Angeles Opera in 2003, with Plácido Domingo (well, really, who else?) in the pivotal role of Rasputin. One of our contributors felt strongly that the lives and deaths of the Ceausescus, the evil husband-and-wife dictators of Romania, would be ideal grist for the opera mill. This one never happened — probably because nobody could think of a Romanian soprano to play the missus.

Not one of the group we asked in 1993 mentioned J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the atomic bomb as a promising opera topic. Oops. In fact, none of the suggestions we received has inspired an opera with broad, mainstream appeal, let alone multiple productions.

Nobody considered TV talk-show hosts potential title characters, so Jerry Springer: The Opera, London's long-running, Olivier-Award winning musical wasn't on anybody's radar. Apparently we didn't realize that tabloid topics and "real" news would become almost indistinguishable within a few years. After all, could any of us have predicted that an opera about the life of Anna Nicole Smith would find its way to — of all places — the stage of the Royal Opera House in 2011?

Maybe we should forget the news (and what passes for news today). It does seem that now, perhaps more than ever, novels — from The Little Prince to Moby-Dick — lure librettists. This is by no means a new trend, but a surprising number of the resulting operas display considerable (for these times) staying power. So former Book-of-the-Month Club selections make for good operas, right? Not everybody would agree on that (check out the OPERA NEWS Archives and read Joel Honig's "A Novel Idea," OPERA NEWS's Aug. 2001). spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans

Take a Bow

(Observations, Performances, Elizabeth Diggans) Permanent link

As the opera season draws to a close and American Ballet Theatre takes up residence at the Metropolitan Opera house, a change comes over the audience. When the final curtain falls on even a first-rate opera performance, audience members rush toward the exits with the panicked urgency of passengers just informed, "By the way, that iceberg was a tad larger than we thought, and it turns out we're a bit short on lifeboats." Maybe I'm being unfair. I suppose there might be one or two brain surgeons in the audience who've turned their cell phones back on to find their presence is needed in the operating room STAT. But can all those frantic people clambering over me without apology really be brain surgeons? Is it asking too much to give the singers the courtesy of a few minutes of appreciation? On some nights, people don't seem to mind waiting around to boo; why not wait around to applaud on other nights? What's the hurry?

On the other hand, at the end of an even average ballet performance, a whole new show begins in front of the curtain. Any prima ballerina worth her salt recognizes that she now owns that little piece of the stage, and she's not about to let anybody take it from her. This is her moment, and you'll get none of that surprised "Oooh, all of you nice people standing there applauding for little ol' me?" attitude from her. And her male costar (no matter how spectacularly he himself has danced) gallantly assumes the role of her enslaved go-fer, trotting around obediently picking up bouquets and presenting them to her on bended knee with an expression of adoration (probably concealing the fact that he can't stand the very sight of her). She may deign to remove a flower from a bouquet and return it to him with a gracious nod or affectionate kiss (never letting on that she's not quite certain what his name is). This can go on for quite a while, and the audience loves it — and stays to watch, as if the ballet hadn't really ended when the prince pledged his undying love to the wrong swan and had to go back to that damn lake to find the swan he truly loved.

So, should opera singers take a lesson from this? Would a master class on the art of the curtain call taught by one or two (preferably Russian — they do it best) ballerinas help? The problem, of course, will be how to train the tenors to pick up the bouquets — and actually hand them over to the sopranos. Maybe that's where the baritones come in. spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans

 

 

Critical Conditions

(Observations, Elizabeth Diggans, Criticism) Permanent link

In the July issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott's column discusses the evaporation of the traditional print movie review. A skirmish between Salon.com contributor Andrew O'Hehir and a growing number of print reviewers who've recently lost their jobs has been waged in the blogosphere. O'Hehir wrote that whining about their plight made the canned critics look like a "bunch of ginormous great babies." Ouch. Apparently, the role of the print movie critic has become, if not quite obsolete, at least inconsequential. After all, deep down, don't we all consider ourselves competent movie critics? We go to the movies we want to see for whatever reason makes sense to us (and sometimes the reason can be pretty ridiculous and possibly embarrassing). Do we go just because a critic tells us we should? Probably not.

So should live-performance criticism suffer the same fate as film criticism appears to face? In a word, no.

A well-written, carefully-considered live-performance review not only tells its reader something about a once-in-a-lifetime experience (that exact performance is never going to happen, even with the same artists at the same theater in the same production, more than once) but ideally offers something more: background information on the piece and possibly its composer or creator, its production history and why the specific performance in question is special (or not).

I like to think I've learned something after reading a review, and I also like to think the reviewer has been to a lot more performances of the work (or at least studied it more closely and knows far more about it) than I. Theatrical experiences should be described, dissected and criticized (or praised) by the best writers we can find. How else will future generations know what they missed when we're no longer around to tell them how much better theater was in our day? Sure, YouTube is a gold mine, but isn't it really best for samba-dancing babies (ginormous or not) and well-informed beauty-pageant contestants educating us about international problems? spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans


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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2