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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

The Classics Laid Bare

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

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Derek Jacobi as Lear in Michael Grandage's production, currently at BAM
© Johan Persson

Perhaps the best way to preview Michael Grandage's new production of Don Giovanni, due at the Met this fall, is to see his staging of King Lear, playing at BAM until June 5. The works have some things in common — the necessity of vivid, meaningful ensemble work; a descent into wildness as night falls halfway through the show; and a seminal place in each artist's oeuvre in competition with a sometimes more widely esteemed work (Le Nozze di Figaro, Hamlet). Of course, both protagonists spend a good deal of time with their shirts unbuttoned, too, though for admittedly different reasons.

Don Giovanni and King Lear share a common pitfall, too: they can both fall victim to pageantry. Grandage strips the stage naked for his Lear, leaving rows of planks upon which the action unfolds. The play benefits from quick, seamless transitions between scenes, thanks to the unit set, which puts a burning emphasis on the interaction between characters.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the Don Giovanni will go without eye-popping designs. The Donmar Warehouse, where Grandage is artistic director, has shown another way to humanize a classical work. For its sizzling Broadway production of Mary Stuart from 2009, the battling queens were sumptuously attired in period fashions — a visual feast against a spare background that threw into relief both the costumes and Schiller's ornate language.

Either way, if Grandage brings this kind of depth and humanity to Mozart, Met-goers are in for a real treat. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Around the Town

(Performances, Louise Guinther, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

For a music-lover, it's always a kick to re-encounter the figures who, in an earlier stage of one's life, were inspirational and influential in shaping one's passions. In January, I dropped in at Symphony Space, where Richard Wilson — head of the music department at my alma mater, Vassar, and my all-time favorite professor — was conducting the staged premiere of his only opera (so far), Aethelred the Unready. I had heard it in a concert version a few years back and was more than curious to see what a director could do with the very fanciful story line of the Anglo-Saxon king whose unfortunate sobriquet so irritates his wife throughout their afterlife together that she prods him to appeal to the Muse of History to have his reputation adjusted for posterity. The score is on the prickly side, with its jagged vocal lines defying any impulse toward lyricism, but felicitous strokes of humorous orchestration abound throughout, and the libretto (Mr. Wilson's own) is imbued with all the wit and whimsy I remember from his lectures. In a performance such as the one at Symphony Space, where the diction was almost miraculously comprehensible and the simple, straightforward and clever staging further clarified the plot, the antics of the helpless Aethelred as he visits a Publicist and a Hypnotist in preparation for his appearance before the intimidating and memory-challenged Muse kept the audience thoroughly engaged.

On a more recent weekend, an invitation from a fellow Vassar alum, who was the most dedicated and instinctively musical of the Madrigal Singers when we were in school together, drew me to the Aaron Copland School of Music, to see what the Queens College Opera Studio was up to this season. The young voices in a David Ronis's tidy, attractive staging of Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco were strikingly well prepared and, under the tutelage of music director James John, more than up to the considerable challenges of Argento's tricky rhythms and rangy, harmonically difficult vocal writing. 

It's tempting for New Yorkers like me, who have the privilege of regularly attending live performances at the Metropolitan Opera, to allow their view of the city's opera-life to become entirely Met-centric. But these two recent forays into smaller-scale operatic ventures have whetted my appetite for more. Instead of paling by comparison with the productions of the big house on Broadway, I find each enhances my appreciation of the other. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER


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