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Editor's Desk

The Distancing Effect

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

When the 2012 Grammy Award nominations were announced recently, Ian Bostridge's name was prominent on the list — in the category of Best Classical Vocal Solo, for his EMI CD Three Baroque Tenors. It's Bostridge's twelfth Grammy nomination, and he's won twice before — a remarkable achievement for an artist who spends most of his artistic life quite outside the classical-music mainstream.

I heard Bostridge most recently on November 28, when he appeared in recital at Carnegie Hall accompanied at the piano by composer Thomas Adès. It was a strange — also strangely memorable — evening that I'm still puzzling over to some extent. Bostridge has always spiked his recitals with peculiar poses and lurches about the stage that often make it difficult to determine exactly what his specific motivation might be. He did so again at the Carnegie Hall performance, and he was matched moment by moment by Adès, who attacked the keyboard almost ferociously at times, punching out individual notes rather than sculpting phrases. One odd detail about Adès's playing: he often picked up one hand from the keyboard and stared at it momentarily, as if he was surprised that it had shown up for the performance. The overall effect was that the music sometimes seemed pulled instead of merely allowed to take shape. This unnerved me most of all during their performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe which has to go down as one of the most eccentric performances of this cycle I've ever heard. The entire recital was built around the theme of loss and personal isolation, so many of their choices made sense dramatically. Yet underneath it all, I had a strong feeling — which I'm encountering in performance more and more these days — that the artists onstage weren't particularly interested in bringing the audience into the experience of portraying alienation. For me, the high point was Dowland's magnificent "In Darkness Let Me Dwell." I couldn't help but wish that more of the recital had managed to be so chillingly desolate and illuminating at the same time. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Director's Cut

(News, Observations, Brian Kellow, Arts Journalism, New York City Opera) Permanent link

It's refreshing that New York City Opera has been leading arts coverage recently. I only wish it were for different reasons. At a press conference on July 12, NYCO's artistic and general director George Steel said, in response to a question from The New York Times's Daniel Wakin, that the company had no plans to dispense with the services of music director George Manahan. Members of the press corps who are inclined toward skepticism may have noted that Steel seemed peculiarly vague about how many months Manahan had to run on his contract. 

Only three weeks later, the company announced that the position of music director was being eliminated. I have commented in other sections of OPERA NEWS on Steel's lack of candor in certain areas, and I'd prefer not to return to the subject here. What troubles me is this: what kind of future does NYCO have without a music director in place? One very important thing that music directors do is to block ham-handed artistic decisions from being put into play. If music directors are any good, they examine the artistic health and future of the opera company as a whole entity. (Obviously, guest conductors don't necessarily bring this concern to the table; often, they are focused on maximizing their isolated appearances at the opera houses, their eye very much on their own future.) An opera-house orchestra usually absorbs — for better or worse — the artistic personality of its music director. Without a single person at the helm, an orchestra runs the risk of sounding like a pack of musicians on a freelance gig. If all this isn't a compelling argument for the existence of a music director, what about this one (since money seems to dominate conversation in the opera world these days)? Music directors come armed with their own network of major donors. I know that New York City Opera is dealing with punishing financial realities, and I feel for the company. But for Steel and the board to treat this central position as if it were a mere vestige seems more than foolhardy. It seems maddeningly self-defeating. spacer

BRIAN KELLOW

Listen to the Music

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Listening, Criticism, Keeping it Local, New York City) Permanent link
Have you noticed that so many conversations in the world of opera now focus on one general area — audience outreach and product access? Whenever I speak with opera-company directors, in particular, they say surprisingly little about the quality of what is being put onstage; instead, they mostly want to talk about how they will continue, in these challenging times, to put bodies in the seats. More to the point, they want to discuss how they will continue to put young bodies in the seats. Recently, I was on the phone with an executive at a major West Coast opera company. I wanted to ask her about the company's programming thrust for the coming season. Before I knew it, she was performing a lengthy commercial for her efforts to involve all of the local comic-book artists in the opera scene, and how such initiatives were vital to bringing in the opera newbies. By the time I hung up, exhausted, I had forgotten why I'd called her in the first place.

I support this push for new audiences in opera, but I think I may be coming at it from a slightly different angle. Implicit in all of the arguments about the need to lower the median age is the suggestion that all of those older people currently filing into the theater are engaged, tuned in, fully responsive to what's happening onstage — and that it's crucial to get younger audiences to function in the same way.

I would hope we could get the new audiences, wherever they may come from, to do much better than that. I do not believe for one second that most of the senior citizens I often find myself surrounded by in New York really have a profound connection to the music that the younger generations will have trouble matching. I think many older people, in New York especially, were brought up with the idea that attending live performances was crucial to being culturally well-rounded. They may be paying to fill the seats, all right. But I’m not sure they're filling them in a meaningful way. 

One recent example, among many: in mid-June, I attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, with Ludovic Morlot conducting. On the first half, the orchestra played the lovely Prelude to Khovanshchina, followed by William Walton's Violin Concerto, impressively performed by the wonderful Gil Shaham. The woman in front of me dozed off as soon as the Mussorgsky began. The man next to her waited until the Walton to start bagging his Zs, and he came to only when the audience broke into sustained applause at the end of the entire concerto. Behind me, a man wrestled with his hearing device, pitched at air-raid level. My favorite, though, was the lady to my left, who, before the music started, bitched endlessly at her husband about the jacket he was wearing. Later, she wondered aloud why it took so long to rearrange the stage for the Walton. Throughout the first half, she restlessly leafed through her large-print program notes without once looking up at the stage. In the middle of the concerto's exciting final movement, she said, to no one in particular, "You’d at least think the program could mention that Gil Shaham comes from Israel." What could any of these people really have taken away from the evening other than a hefty Visa bill for dinner and a parking garage?

As a journalist, I prize evenings such as this. It’s wonderful to be able to look around and eavesdrop on the people sitting near you, because you can learn a great deal about where we’re heading culturally. But my greatest hope for the succeeding generations of ticket holders is that they'll be more tuned in than those who came before them. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Memory Play

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The Queen of Spades is one of my favorite operas, and I was very happy to attend the Met's revival of its Elijah Moshinsky production on March 15. But one thing kept nagging at me throughout the performance: why cast Dolora Zajick as the old Countess? I think this was a blunder, for reasons that don't have to do with Zajick's abilities. She certainly sang the role well — particularly in the second act, when the Countess recalls a few lines from Grétry's Richard Coeur de Lion. But Zajick is still in excellent vocal shape, still performing leading mezzo roles — she is still very much a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

I think this is key to the casting of the Countess: as Mark Thomas Ketterson touches on in his "Coda" in the March issue of OPERA NEWS, the audience's memories of the star singing the role should bring with her a certain gravitas, an emotional connection from the past that matches up with the Countess's own sad, backward glance. We need to be aware that it is really is an older woman up there — not a healthy, vibrant woman in her mid-fifties. It's what gives the role its real punch: our feelings about the aging singer and what she gave us over her long career play into the performance itself. I'm reminded of Elaine Stritch's observation that women in their forties and fifties have no business singing Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."

My choice for the Countess would have been Renata Scotto: she has more magnetic glamour than ever, and even though she's seventy-seven, I'll bet she could have sung the role superbly. Any other suggestions? spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Personal Best

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

It's been a season of great losses in the opera world, the most recent one being Margaret Price, who died of heart failure on January 28 at her home in Wales. She was only sixty-nine. Why does her relatively early passing make me so sad? Maybe it's because her career never quite seemed to reach the heights that many of us thought it should. I don't mean to suggest that Price was underrated, certainly not by anyone who ever heard her live — at least not by anybody I knew. But she never maintained a highly aggressive approach to her career, and her appearances in the U.S. were relatively rare. She always left us wanting more.

I was there for her Met debut in 1985, as Desdemona. The company was chastised for not having her sooner; after all, she had made her professional debut twenty-three years earlier, as Cherubino at Welsh National Opera. Belated or not, her Desdemona was widely discussed as one of the most important Met debuts in years — another being Jessye Norman in Les Troyens in 1983. Price gave a superb performance. The sound she poured out was ample yet with an exquisite fragility and femininity. She was all we could ask of a Desdemona, and even though she loomed large onstage physically as well as vocally, I don't remember anyone I knew saying a word about her size. Her degree of vocal artistry made it seem crass even to suggest that she was too hefty to be "convincing." 

She returned to the Met in 1989 as Elisabetta in Don Carlo. This is the performance of hers I will always carry with me. She was a study in torment as she sang "Tu che le vanità," her ravishing voice filling the house. In the years that followed, I remember thinking it was odd that this performance wasn't commented on more feverishly when people I knew were recalling great performances. Perhaps this was simply her own shyness and reticence coming through to the rest of us. Perhaps we perceived somehow that she didn't want us to demand too much of her: she just wanted us to listen and leave her alone. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Keeping Quiet

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Leonard Bernstein) Permanent link

It's the midway point of New York's opera season, and the other day, while I was crossing Lincoln Center Plaza, I suddenly realized something: of all the staged productions I've attended since September, only one has really made any impression on me — New York City Opera's new Christopher Alden production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth's A Quiet Place

This was the first time I'd heard the opera onstage; I had become interested in it, years ago, on the basis of the 1986 Deutsche Grammophon recording. Back then, I thought it was a fascinating mess. I still think so. Parts of Wadsworth's libretto — particularly parts of the ending — are painful, like undigested thoughts and memories thrown out randomly in a therapy session. I can understand why my companion denounced the whole thing as "dreck." And I don't think that it quite works to integrate Trouble in Tahiti into the middle of the work. I grasp the idea of a simpler time versus a more complex one, but it seems to me that Trouble in Tahiti simply interrupts the spell cast by Act I of A Quiet Place and reminds us that it has better tunes than the later work. 

And yet — the damned thing moved me even more than it did when I first listened to the recording all those years ago. Bernstein contributed some wonderful writing to A Quiet Place — the warring eighth and sixteenth notes of the strings do a marvelous job of conveying Sam's tormented state of mind, and I love the oddball harmonies of the trio "Dear Daddy" and the prelude to the final act. I think Bernstein and Wadsworth must have felt a mutual need to create a tribute to the American family in all its inarticulate glory. A Quiet Place is no well-made musical play: it's much closer to a Robert Altman movie, showing the way real families function — we miss each other's points, say the opposite of what we mean, don't notice when people are reaching out to us. At the time of its unveiling, The New Yorker's Andrew Porter was one of the few critics who understood this. 

I think A Quiet Place means even more to me now because it's really about something we can all understand. It isn't a dry literary transcription of a book we were forced to read in high school or college. It's a real, American, contemporary story — something that's always a rarity on the opera stage. Perhaps if it had been more successful originally, its example might have led to more of the same. Perhaps not: it's amazing how insistently the world has ignored the example set by Bernstein, in so many ways.

I don't know what Stephen Wadsworth thought about this production. He's a fine stage director himself, so I'm sure he had strong opinions about it. I couldn't help thinking, however, that Alden had made an excellent case for the piece. I gasped when the lights came up on Andrew Lieberman's funeral home set at the beginning: everything looked exactly how it should have looked, to the degree that I was deeply uncomfortable.

It's probably too much to expect an NYCO revival anytime soon, but kudos to the company for having taken a chance on it at least once. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW


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