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The Book of Matthew

For more than thirty years, Matthew Epstein has been a dominant force in the world of opera. TIM PAGE speaks to the self-proclaimed guru about the state of the art today and where it may be going tomorrow.

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© Johannes Ifkovits 2006
When something bothers me, I speak up. Not always loudly but certainly clearly, intensely - and some people don't want to hear it. I'm not afraid to say no, you can't do that opera with so little time to prepare - no, you can't throw that on a stage in your old, tatty production - no, that's not a good enough vocal performance to let pass. Maybe I'm too assertive, and maybe that's a fault of mine - but if we lose our standards, what do we have left?"

Matthew Epstein is serving a late lunch in the bright, rangy apartment in Manhattan's Hotel Ansonia where he has lived for more than three decades. It is a place that has probably seen more music history than any similar digs since the ninth-floor Chelsea Hotel suite occupied by Virgil Thomson for almost half a century. Wherever Epstein has worked - as an artistic advisor and artist manager throughout the U.S. and Europe, as counselor and mentor to numerous singers past and present, as general director of Welsh National Opera and, most recently, as artistic director of Lyric Opera of Chicago - he has always come home to the Ansonia.

Now Epstein is back at Columbia Artists Management (CAMI) as worldwide director of its vocal divisions. HIV-positive for more than two decades, he looks healthier than he has in years, the result, he says, of medication, diet and exercise. He is fifty-eight yet retains the same fiercely exuberant passion for opera that made him a legend in the field by his early twenties, back when he was a brash kid from Long Island who made his way into dressing rooms to give celebrated singers minutely detailed and astonishingly frank assessments of the performances he had just heard. "Of course some of them took it badly," he once recalled. "Some of them took it very badly. But the real artists were grateful that somebody would tell them the truth. There are a lot of sycophants out there."

Young Epstein won admirers (Marilyn Horne prominent among them), then clients (he signed Frederica von Stade to her first contract while she was still a student at the Mannes College of Music), then, at the age of twenty-five, his own division of CAMI, the most powerful agency in the music business. Over the years, he has played an essential role in the development and promotion of artists such as Catherine Malfitano, Samuel Ramey, Kathleen Battle and Renée Fleming, and in the revival of rare works by composers as diverse as Handel, Rossini and Richard Strauss.

Not everyone in the industry holds him in high esteem. The late William Murray, in his book Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers, quoted with evident approval an unnamed source who described Epstein as a "hyper-kinetic three-year-old." "People have always been put off by him," he wrote. "Some are appalled by his outspokenness, some infuriated by his rudeness." Still, Murray conceded, "No one has ever said he didn't know what he was talking about."

In December 2004, a terse press release from Lyric Opera of Chicago announced the severance of Epstein's twenty-four-year connection with the company. (He had begun as an artistic advisor in 1980 and taken over the role of artistic director in 1999.) In the statement, general director William Mason acknowledged, "Matthew and I have enjoyed an excellent relationship for many years, but our visions for the company have changed."

Mason elaborated on the schism in a subsequent interview with Wynne Delacoma of The Chicago Sun-Times. "We do have to respond to an audience," he said. "It's not like you open up a restaurant and say, 'You're going to have liver whether you like it or not.' I don't know if audiences are getting more conservative [in their artistic tastes], but they're getting more conservative about their money. People are waiting to see whether they're going to like something."

Can such "likes" be predicted in advance? Epstein thinks not - and believes the attempt to do so is artistically stultifying. "A couple of seasons ago, Renée Fleming and David Daniels and Stephanie Blythe sold out Handel's Rodelinda at the Met - every single performance," he says. "Last year, Renée Fleming and Marcelo Álvarez did not sell out Massenet's Manon at the Met. Now that's peculiar, because Manon is a standard piece - people know it, it's done all the time, and Fleming and Álvarez have made a recording of it for Sony. Anybody making a marketing choice would have told you that Manon would have done better than Rodelinda, which has no history at all at the Met, but it was Rodelinda that brought people in."

"In Chicago, we sold out A View from the Bridge," Epstein continues. "Mourning Becomes Electra was a big hit, and we were preparing to mount revivals of McTeague and The Seagull. There was suddenly a decision to remove American opera from the 2005-06 season, and then another decision to remove American opera from the 2006-07 season as well. Those two cancellations meant that from the world premiere of Bolcom's A Wedding in 2004 until the Chicago premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic in 2007, there would be no American opera. And then, in 2008, the news is that there will be a joint production with Washington National Opera of Porgy and Bess - no comment! This is not acceptable in a house that has done one American opera every year for the past fifteen seasons."

According to Epstein, it wasn't only American opera that was threatened. "We were to have done Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, but it was canceled when we had a financial downturn - a very small financial downturn in comparison to what was facing the Met or San Francisco at the same time, but a downturn all the same. In three or four weeks, we put together a spiffy, well-cast production of Pirates of Penzance. Now, do I think that Pirates of Penzance belongs in a 3,600-seat theater built like Lyric Opera - a very deep, long theater with not too much relation between the stage and the public? No, I do not. But it was very successful and sold out every performance, and we saved a million dollars for the company. I said nothing at the time. I made no comment to the press. Still, when productions were canceled again and again - I was usually told either by fax or over the phone, rarely in person - I realized I couldn't stay on as artistic director.

"From the moment I started working with the Lyric Opera in 1980, I wanted to make it something more than La Scala West. I wanted it to be a great, dynamic American opera company in a great, dynamic American city. The fact is that the cessation of Lyric's leadership - in its championship of American music, in stage direction, in smart productions of neglected music - was not something I could countenance. As artistic director, I was acting jointly with the general director - not the directors of marketing or public relations or development or sales or fund-raising. The moment creative decisions are being made against the wishes of the music director and the artistic director, something is seriously wrong. I couldn't put my name to a weakened artistic program with any conscience - you can't prostitute yourself to things that are incorrect."

William Mason, when asked to be interviewed for this article, issued a statement: "The creative decisions and wishes of a music director and/or artistic director can only be realized if there is the money to pay for them. Financial integrity is no less important than artistic integrity. If your ticket-buying public doesn't like what you're presenting most of the time, they will stop buying tickets and stop contributing. This is not to say that Lyric will cease presenting new opera or new and possibly controversial productions. But balance is the key."

Epstein declares himself heartened by the appointment of Peter Gelb to the general directorship of the Met. "He's making plans that are far more bullish than they have been in the past few years. Whether they will work, or whether they will bring in a new public, I don't know. We'll have to see. But my guess is that there is an audience for excellent work. I think the fearful, conventional approach loses audiences over time, but an approach full of ideas and excitement will attract a public. Is it your usual operagoing public? Perhaps not. I noticed that when we did Partenope or Sweeney Todd or Regina or something directed by Peter Sellars in Chicago, there was a different kind of audience in the house, a different kind of buzz - the kind of buzz we need.

"Look, there's a dichotomy between the old-line New York and Chicago subscribers and the younger audience that goes to BAM and some of the smaller Chicago theaters. There must be a way to satisfy both groups, but it is a mistake to do only what keeps our rapidly aging big-money subscribers happy when the future is in people who aren't yet at that point. Maybe it's a younger audience. Maybe it's a more last-minute-ticket-buying audience. Maybe it can't or doesn't want to purchase a full subscription a year in advance. But it is an audience - and a growing audience, and an audience that is going to be tremendously important. And we can't eliminate from our seasons the very works that may bring in this new audience.

"The future of opera in America depends on the realization that stars won't do the trick anymore. There are any number of excellent singers out there, but very few real stars left who will always sell out a house - and that number is diminishing all the time. The future lies in ensemble-oriented productions - well-directed, well-designed and well-conducted productions of interesting repertory, fully rehearsed, and cast with the finest singers available for their parts. And if the stars won't commit the time and energy required to perfect such a production, you engage other singers."

I mention a certain American opera company that invests reasonably heavily in name casting of leading roles such as Carmen and Don José, then seemingly goes out on the city streets to ask passersby if they would care to sing the supporting roles of Moralès or Frasquita. "There's a lot of that kind of thinking around," Epstein says, "and in the long run - which may not be very long, actually - it will be fatal to the art of opera. Increasingly, we are seeing the same standard ten or fifteen titles in productions that are neither strongly cast throughout nor adequately rehearsed. But it won't work much longer. It's not really working now, but a lot of people haven't realized it yet.

"Another essential element for the survival of American opera companies is the development of a resident-artist system in every major theater in America," he continues. "I'm not talking only about young singers. Those programs - in cities such as Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Seattle - are very important, but there should be a long-term commitment, where the artist goes on to become part of the resident company, establishing a long-term relationship with the management and the public, which will now be able to watch a fine artist as he or she develops over the years. Instead of relying upon record-company publicity and public-relations puffery, this will permit audiences to learn the work of the artists, and to understand what is being done over time.

"The alternative to these two choices is the complete collapse of the repertory as we now know it. As audiences become more and more conservative, the field will become less and less interesting to anybody interested in a challenging and intellectually interesting entertainment. Give the composers, the conductors, the designers more attention, and perhaps pay a little less attention to the singers. I'm an artists manager, so you might expect me to have a very different opinion, but this is what I believe.

"I was delighted that Peter [Gelb] had decided that the Met should do Doctor Atomic even before the opera had its world premiere, and after it will have had stagings in both San Francisco and Chicago," he adds. "When I entered the San Francisco Opera for the first performance, I thought to myself, with great joy, that here was a piece - good or bad, we didn't know yet - that was going to be played to the three most important opera audiences in the U.S. within a very short space of time. That's a major cultural statement and very encouraging."

The talk turns to young artists. "Elza van den Heever began as a mezzo and is now doing very well as a soprano in San Francisco. Meredith Arwady is a genuine contralto - a big, low, strong female voice, used with great artistry. There's a tenor named Dimitri Pittas, a Greek-American from New York - good guy, beautiful voice. And then this past summer I heard a young mezzo at Santa Barbara named Isabel Leonard, and I started working with her.

"Will they all make it? I don't know. All I can do is offer support and counseling and a strong right arm. After that, they need discipline, ambition, focus and their own inner sense of what they can be. An artist who sits back and waits for somebody else to figure everything out is an artist who is not going to make it. At no time when I was working with von Stade or Ramey or Malfitano or Battle was I dealing with people who didn't have their own ideas. Renée Fleming had her own ideas. Susan Graham certainly did. You have to be chairman of your own board."

TIM PAGE, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997, is chief classical-music critic for The Washington Post.

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