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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 


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 


National Pride

(Observations, Louise Guinther, New York City) Permanent link
Once upon a time, long before the Berlusconi era, when Italians still deeply valued their national culture, they did their utmost to preserve, invest in and honor their heritage, not only at home but abroad, exporting their pride in the legacy of the greatest artists of their native land wherever they went. In New York, when Italian immigrants began flooding in during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, this devotion took the form of a series of statues funded by popular subscription (organized by the editor of the newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano) and erected around the city in tribute to significant figures in Italian history.

The statue of Christopher Columbus that towers over Columbus Circle is well known, but I suspect fewer residents and visitors to the Big Apple realize that just a few blocks north of there, the composer who towered over the opera scene in Italy for most of the nineteenth century is honored with a statue of his own. It stands in a triangular island, on Broadway between 72nd and 73rd Streets, known as Verdi Square. 

I had been vaguely aware of the presence of the statue since its restoration in 1996, but I hadn't paid close attention until yesterday, when the afternoon sunshine of a perfect spring day, glinting off the figure of Verdi, caught my attention from across the Great White Way. Wandering over to take a look at my favorite composer rising up out of his bed of tulips, I noticed for the first time the four figures surrounding the lower part of the monument. I recognized only one of them right off, but it was clear that they were all characters from the operas, and a helpful sign on the wrought-iron fence confirmed my guesses about the other three. (You can find that information on the Parks Dept. website as well.) With the warm weather having finally arrived and the Met season still going, I highly recommend that any Metgoers who have a few minutes to kill before a performance take a walk up to Verdi Square and see for themselves.

Meanwhile, I leave you with the following description of the dedication of Verdi's statue back in 1906, from the aforementioned website:

"The sculptures were unveiled by Barsotti's grandchild, who pulled a string that released a helium balloon, lifting the monument's red, white and green shroud (the colors of the Italian flag). As it peeled away, a dozen doves — concealed in its folds — were released into the air, and flowers cascaded from the veil upon the participants." 

Oh to have been a New Yorker in the good old days! spacer 


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