Opera Now!

2013 10 14 annaNicole1

They said that this city wasn’t going to be for the ultrarich anymore after Bloomberg leaves.”

It was sad enough to write an obituary for New York City Opera, but the bad news that began that week was compounded by more statements and information, ranging from infuriating to immiserating. There was Adam Martin of New York Magazine smirking like an over-privileged letterman over the fact that City Opera’s final production was Anna Nicole, Local 802 president Tino Gagliardi blaming, among other things, “abandon[ing] an accessible repertoire,” and the news of the shameful indignity of George Steel fruitlessly wooing both Alberto Vilar and David Koch. Vilar is a conman who had previously promised enormous donations to the Metropolitan Opera and, unsurprisingly, never delivered, and Koch is an enemy of most American citizens who has been funding efforts to prevent people (young, non-rich) who do not have health insurance from being able to endure possibly catastrophic illness and medical expenses.

The punchline is that Koch turned down the opportunity to save City Opera after seeing Anna Nicole, troubled by the portrayal of J. Howard Marshall III, Anna Nicole Smith’s last husband. He knows the Marshall family, you see, and he thought they might be unhappy. In the opera, Marshall is an octogenarian oil tycoon who marries a surgically enhanced stripper. He sings, he gets a blowjob, he kicks the bucket. One of those things was an exaggeration on the truth, and I have the deepest sympathies for the thought that anyone in our ruling class would be unfairly shown to be singing.

There’s another punchline too, which is that Koch, in a way, was right. In the opera, Marshall is a buffoon, though a genial one, a rich old fuck who just wants to have a good time. Contrary to Justin Davidson’s review, the opera is deeply sympathetic to her and her family, it’s her lawyer/lover Howard Stern, her plastic surgeon and all the star-fuckers who come off poorly. Unlike a lot of those in and around the classical music business, the opera shows some knowledge of the lives of poor American whites; they don’t aspire to be Violetta.

The bad joke is that it’s the rich fucks who screwed up and screwed over the company. Steel is easy to blame for people with just enough interest to tut-tut but not enough to do anything constructive. He not only handled the experience with grace under pressure but managed to balance the budget for two years while also producing musically and dramatically important productions of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, The Turn of the Screw and avant-garde operas from Schoenberg, Morton Feldman and John Zorn. The choice of Anna Nicole is exactly what he and City Opera should have been doing, filling out the vast space in opera not occupied by the Met (which sits broadly across the centerline). Every music institution in the country must be eyeing him.

No, it was the board that did it all, a bunch of rich people chasing prestige. Because the rich give money, they get to be friendly with people in positions to allow them to ransack the endowment. And because they are rich, they think they are more purely talented when it comes to money than you and I, better people with better values, and so deserve special treatment. When they fuck up and make stupid investments – investing does not require much skill – they tell themselves “nobody could have predicted”, like every other establishment ignoramus. They have their own set of rules and live in a world where failure is rewarded as much as success is.

It’s not funny. It’s the kind of thing that, if you care for opera, leaves you looking and feeling like Rick, as the train pulls out of the station in the pouring rain, tossing away the Dear John note from Elsa. The board of rich people so eviscerated City Opera’s finances that Steel had no choice but to take the company out of Lincoln Center. He points out in this illuminating interview that their performances regularly sold out. The audiences were there, the fundraising (the rich people) weren’t. That made all the difference.

Really, it was the seats. Go to the Metropolitan Opera, see the Philharmonic in Avery Fisher hall, and look at all the seats with names attached to them. Those are the fruits of donations, the chance to contribute to a company and for you, and others, to see your name displayed. But moving from BAM to El Museo del Barrio to City Center Theater, City Opera had no seats to give to people, and so the fundraising suffered. That’s it, that’s all it is: there are plenty of people with money to give as long as they can take credit for it in public, and not nearly enough people who will give because they want the opera to survive. John Cage said it: “Opera in the society is an ornament of the lives of the people who have.” It’s the Rich Fuck economic model for arts organizations. Rimshot!

For those of us who merely love opera as a musical means towards the greatest possibilities for live drama, the loss of City Opera is terrible. They were the best opera company, musically and dramatically, in New York, the most important one in aesthetic terms. They could not do better than to begin the season, and end the series, with Anna Nicole. It’s not a great opera, but then the standard repertoire is packed with less than great operas that are programmed again and again and again (Puccini, anyone?). But it is an opera full of great things, starting with Richard Thomas’s libretto, which stands out from contemporary practice in that it is written to be sung, rather than as dialogue for composer and singers to wrap their mouths around. The verses tell the tale with verve, the characterizations are punchy, and there is a welcome irreverence towards class and the conventions of opera. The piece is hampered by Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music, which does little to distinguish the many secondary characters and consistently undermines itself.

The music goes too fast for the story, shifting uneven oompah rhythmic patterns that there is no sense of pulse. Melodic lines are chatty and don’t give the singers much chance to open up their voices. When he does relax and let the music flow, the results are powerful, as in Anna Nicole’s great “You can pray” aria near the close of the first act. But what Turnage giveth, he also taketh away: he writes a lament for the character when her son Danny dies of an overdose (the libretto is excellent here, listing the medications), then starts fussing with the descending bass line immediately after the first bar, sabotaging the expression. Sarah Joy Miller sang gamely through all the rough music, sustaining a musical and dramatic direction the music didn’t supply. Rod Gilfry was also excellent as Stern, his natural charisma perfect for the character’s unctuous narcissism. The production, originally commissioned by the Royal Opera House, is smart and skillful, though the final moment is spoiled by a bit of overdone direction from Richard Gerard Jones.

Despite the flaws in the music, it’s great that this piece exists and that City Opera brought it to New York. The socio-economic class that goes to the opera is one that commonly sees people like Anna Nicole Smith as trash, yet thrills to La Traviata and La Boheme. It’s enough to make Noah Cross’ words from Chinatown about buildings, politicians and whores all growing respectable with age ring true. What makes Violetta better than Anna Nicole? They both used their sexuality to attract wealthy men, they were both condescended to, they both died young and unhappy of unnatural causes. The only real difference is that Turnage is no Verdi, an unfair comparison, but it is fair to say that Verdi bothered to trouble himself with the singing, as every opera composer should. The most tragic part is that there is now no company in this city, the capital of the world, that could bring such a work to stage with such musicality and professionalism. In Alex Ross’ exceptional phrase, it was “an insolent valediction.”

So City Opera went out swinging, aiming to achieve, not to please. I will miss them most in terms of stage craft. They made both Offenbach’s dreadfully stupid operetta La Perichole and Rossini’s static Moise in Eggito lively and interesting. Their staging of Thomas Adès’ incredibly overrated Powder Her Face was entertaining and relevant to an audience that, being American, (hopefully) doesn’t care about some dissipated English Duchess (and the problem with the opera is that Adès doesn’t care about her either, except to hang some glitteringly shallow music around her). It’s hard to see who will fill the void.

Powder her face

The best opera company in New York might be the New York Philharmonic, or at least they would be if they were an opera company. Over the past four seasons, they have produced some of the finest opera and dramatic performances in New York City, with the entire orchestra sharing Avery Fisher’s stage with the singers and dancers. Credit goes to Doug Fitch, along with Christopher Alden (late of City Opera) the finest opera director in the city (neither have been hired by the Metropolitan Opera; Fitch’s most recent gig was producing The Dwarf, by fascinating composer Yoav Gal, for the brilliant, intrepid but underfunded Vertical Player Repertory).

Fitch and Music Director Allan Gilbert have brought us the local premiere of Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre — an important service to the opera world — and a gorgeous and moving production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen (Gilbert was responsible for the Philharmonic 360 event at the Park Avenue Armory, one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve had) and last year they switched to ballet, with A Dancer’s Dream; Stravinsky’s Le Baiser de la fée and Petrushka, narrated in movement in front of the orchestra. Fitch and his Giants Are Small puppeteers engineered the usual astoundingly imaginative staging, with choreography by Karole Armitage, danced by Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar (singers Eric Owens and Anthony Roth Costanzo appeared on film pantomiming the Moor and Petrushka). That there were technical problems on opening night took nothing away from the effect of the performance, which was profoundly charming and lovely.

Each of these productions has been a big hit with audiences and critics, but they have been relegated to end-of-season special events. The orchestra board seems reluctant to count the dollars from ticket sales, as the numbers might encourage them to do less traditional things with greater frequency. The shame is two-fold: we see less of Fitch’s work and we hear less opera and ballet from the orchestra, which played these scores with such astonishing musicality and clarity that it drove home the unspoken truth that the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, despite James Levine’s status as a local demigod, is not a top level group.

What else do we have? The biggest company is of course the Met. That house is in the enviable and damaging position of being the most prominent opera company in the world. It soaks up the bulk of the attention and, because success is what gets rewarded, the bulk of donations and grants, money that if apportioned by actual need would be going to many other places. The Metropolitan Opera has the most seats, the most productions, by far the largest audiences (this fairly includes their radio and HD movie theater broadcasts). They hire the biggest stars on stage and in the pit and mount the most expensive, elaborate productions.

While they are always professional and often excellent, a lot of what the Met spends its (and your) money on is merely adequate, many times inconsequential, even bad. In the gossipy world of opera culture, the business of it on the web and the public sphere, it’s one of the major institutions, but musically it is only inconsistently relevant.

In March, 2013, there was a New York Times Magazine profile of the company’s director, Peter Gelb, that was notable for lacking discernible critical thinking or analysis about music, a disappointing but typical decision from an editorial world that can’t hear the difference between major and minor keys, and thinks everything they see on stage at the Met is wonderful because, oh! isn’t it wonderful to be at the Metropolitan Opera! Look at these seats!

I have nothing against Gelb. His life story is that of being born into a notable family whose status and privilege propelled him through life, specifically into jobs in the music business for which he seems to have some administrative ability but no musical knowledge or talent. He seems to enjoy music – it’s not clear – but that’s only to the extent that enjoying the most prominent compositions from the Baroque through Romantic periods of the Western Classical tradition is a way for upper and upper-middle class white Americans to signify their claim to cultural and thus social superiority. But his story is, in its own way, no different than those of Adam Bellow, William Kristol, Meghan McCain, Arthur Sulzberger, Chelsea Clinton ….

What I do have against Gelb is his claim that what he is putting on stage matters. Sometimes it does, other times it doesn’t. His decisions run from the bland to the safe, and the exceptions point the way towards more of the same while he holds his job. The dramatic high points of the past few years have been a moving revival of Nixon in China, a powerful debut production of Janacek’s House of the Dead from the great opera director Patrice Chereau (it’s a farce that was his only opportunity at the Met), a musically incredible performance of Pelleas et Mélisande with Sir Simon Rattle in the pit, and the execrably stupid Ring cycle staged by Robert LePage. Of the principals involved in all those, only LePage will be back.

Where he appears to be steering the Met is to waters where productions, while not avant-garde or dramatically deep, will be relevant to audience’s experience and consistently well directed and acted, a real change from the Met’s legacy of great singing and non-existent dramatic skill or meaning. Tossing Franco Zeffirelli’s vulgar productions in the trash is a service to everyone. This year’s new, opening night production of Eugene Onegin was notable for it’s naturalism, and putting Verdi in Vegas is an idea that had to happen.

There’s also encouraging news for the future, for new operas at the Met. Opera is experiencing an incredible boom right now, not only is every composer I know either writing one or thinking about one but there is a year-round flow of partly and fully staged new pieces, works in progress and workshops, from the Prototype Festival (opening January 8) to American Opera Projects and everything in between. Nico Muhly’s Two Boys will turn out to be, I hope, one of the more conservative new works the Met produces.

Muhly is a skillful, omnivorous composer working in the mainstream of tonal, post-minimal, neo-romantic language. Two Boys has an attractive sound and strong vocal writing for the lead character Brian (great singing and engrossing, believable acting by Paul Appleby), but it also seems unformed, unfinished. The music for the other characters is indistinguishable — a real flaw considering that at the heart of a drama is a boy who manages to mimic several distinct people — and that for the secondary lead, Detective Inspector Anne Strawson, is pitched in the same emotional tenor, despite the distress the libretto has her experiencing. The choruses could also be entirely cut to focus the dramatic thread.

The staging by Bartlett Sher was adequate and bland. Despite the ingenious idea of using scrolling chat-room windows to show the supertitles, there was no sense of the power of the wide-open, empty screen for a lonely and confused teen. There was intriguing use of surveillance camera footage but no dipping into the roiling waters of the Snowden leaks. And if this was an opera from a ‘Millennial’, digital-savvy composer, shouldn’t they have hired someone like Ryoiji Iekda to visualize what that might look like on stage?

I’m excited, though, that we may see an opera from David T. Little at the Met. He is the leading opera composer of his generation, in no small part because he appears to be the only one grappling with the realities of the world we live in and the cultural environment we all grew up in.

We are in the midst of a solipsistic and self-perpetuating epoch in contemporary classical music where composers proudly, but not loudly, wear their pop-loving eclecticism on their musical sleeves, making repetitive, looping music with audible beats, striving for a pulse and a groove that they might like to listen to at home but which they and their musicians only infrequently make work musically. Little’s music reflects where he comes from and what he is: a drummer who was shaped musically by Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Naked City, Suicidal Tendencies, Napalm Death and King Missile. Then he went on to get a PhD in composition, making forms and structures and lines that convey the direct, forceful expression of the music he grew up with while not trying emulate that sound in any way, except for the useful skronking of the electric guitar.

Personally, he saw the world through Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, Dead Kennedys, Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips. The first presidential election he voted in was 1992, so for decades he only knew a Bush or a Clinton in the White House. He’s not alone in that, but he is the only one who has dealt at all seriously with the perversion of this country under George W. Bush, the savage decadence of permanent war, in new music theater. His grab-you-by-the-throat one-act work Soldier Songs sees and attacks the world he sees around. Little has the sensibility for our demented times, apparent from Dog Days. That’s a thrilling but problematic work, larded up and weighed down by Royce Vavrek’s libretto.

Vavrek is a real problem in contemporary opera. He seems to be a favorite for composers, including Little and Missy Mazzoli. His librettos probably read well, they have the dramatic shape and style of a stage play, but opera is not a stage play. Opera is sung, and words that read well and sound good as dialogue have nothing to do with singing, with how a singer shapes vowels and consonance, with how music extends text with duration, pitch and rhythm. Music tells us more about the characters in an opera than the words do, and playwrights and screenwriters and novelists tend to write librettos that are too long, with too many words and with no sensibility for pulse and the shape of a musical line (one of the strengths of Soldier Songs is that Little wrote his own libretto).

Poets write the best librettos, because the form is essentially verse. Da Ponte was essentially a poet, and the finest contemporary librettist (since retired) is Alice Goodman. The greatness of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer is impossible without her writing, which has pace, clarity, shape, beauty and leaves the music to fill in what the words cannot express. And that is the exact point of an opera: these people are singing because they have no other way to express themselves adequately. They use words with music because the words alone fail. And, if you read a libretto and the words alone tell you everything you need to know, than what you are holding is a play, something that should not be made into an opera.

That is the problem that crippled two lauded new operas, Mazzoli’s Songs From the Uproar and Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song. Vavrek’s libretto for Songs is for reading, it forces a flat musical conception with no dramatic development. And Sumeida’s Song, pitched at an unwaveringly hysterical level, does nothing more than underline the obvious that honor killing is archaic and awful, and it underlines it with self-consciously showy and superficial means. Mazzoli has a creative voice and her story locks her into a standard exposition that undermines her strengths, while Fairouz seems to think opera is about a soprano screaming for an hour.

Then there is Anthony Braxton’s Trillium cycle. No one could create as effective a parody for the infantile pretensions of avant-garde performance than this work. It won’t be coming to a theater near you, but Trillium E is available and, at four CDs, is Wagner-lengthed. In the composer’s words, Trillium “is constructed as a series of dialogues based on logics … the characters act out a series of skits …” A sample:

“The concept of primary information in this context sheds insight into the underlying components of change and demonstrated evolution.”

No, you can’t sing it. You can’t even hum it. If you wish to experience this for yourself, Trillium J will be at Roulette in April.

I don’t wish to denigrate the experimental tradition in opera, I wish to praise it. You won’t find it at the Met (Einstein On the Beach increasingly seems like a wonderfully bizarre accident in their history) but you can find it at Roulette, at HERE. Two of the most interesting, worthwhile operas I’ve seen in the past few years have been at the tiny space off 6th Avenue, Kamala Sankaram’s Miranda and Joe Diebe’s Botch.

Kamala Sankaram in Miranda

Miranda is tremendously inventive, dominated by Sankaram’s thinking, composing and performing. She’s one of the most exciting new music figures, so that’s both a strength and a drawback of the opera, which is a murder-mystery set in a future, corporate state. It’s too short to contain all the ideas inside it: pre-recorded electronica with vocoded singing that sets the scenes and environment, the lead character’s relationships with her family and fiancée, the murder-mystery and its opened-ended solution, the musicians interacting with the stage performers. At twice the length it would be many times as good as most new operas I see.

Botch is entirely different, uncompromisingly experimental. There is hardly any singing, but there is a compositional concept of language as material to be reworked and reshaped into a logical, abstract structure. The four performers interact with a prompter, using hand signals. They all read from the same scrolling, looping text, but improvise by screwing up the syllables, order, syntax and cadences. There is a striking moment when each performer listens to voices coming out of speakers and try to emulate the shape and sounds, it’s fundamentally musical. Botch isn’t a drama, it’s a brain dump, the stream of consciousness of a mind speaking to itself interacting with the bureaucracy of critical self-listening. It reveals the ultimate impossibility of expression through spoken language, making it as much an opera as La Forza del Destino.

Diebe’s piece extends, perhaps unintentionally, the legacy of the great avant-garde opera composer Robert Ashley, whose work — mixing spoken words, singing and electronic sounds — is all about the interior experience of the mind fighting to make itself understood to someone, anyone, else. His Foreign Experiences will be at Roulette in early May and should not be missed. Someday soon perhaps Roulette will also book John Moran, who extends opera into movement and who is missed in New York.

Even the bad and unsuccessful new works are signs that opera as a form is healthy, even with a major player gone. There is no substituting for City Opera, unless George Steel finds another gig with the same level of creative control. Vertical Player Repertory makes great work, but they average only one production a year. Gotham Chamber Opera is increasingly ambitious and successful, and the opera world needs modest sized pieces in unusual venues, but they are intentionally not the right company for In A Quiet Place or Soldier Songs.

BAM doesn’t have their own company which is a double loss because City Opera seemed on the verge of becoming Brooklyn’s opera company. Still, they are the place to go for the best in Baroque opera, and Baroque operas are some of the greatest in the repertoire. They also have the advantage of not being larded up with decades of stultifying staging “traditions” and can be produced with a true sense of musical form and drama. William Christie’s regular visits with Les Arts Florissants are essential, their production of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas dramatically and musically strong, and their classic production of Lully’s Atys is arguably the greatest opera staging that has ever been. BAM is also the place to experience Britten’s great Billy Budd.

And so this article, and my thoughts, reveals itselfs to be a constructively mixed bag, a commemoration of a death that ends up celebrating life. During City Opera’s travails, the term “world-class city” was tossed about, a defensive statement about the level of the arts in NY. It was a superfluous slogan. New York City is the capital of the world, that’s a given. Other cities, smaller ones, have a greater number of permanent opera companies, but those other cities are in Europe where citizens, through their governments, pay money to keep companies running as a public good. We have a poor simulation of that idea in America, where government grants go in major sums to companies that don’t need them and in tiny amounts to venues, and people, who do. City Opera was too old-fashioned, courting the rich in a city where the Met has their ear, a Bill DeBlasio (and Fiorello LaGuardia) company in a Bloomberg town. The town will be changing, I hope, and if it does, there are so many composers and singers and directors waiting to take their turn on stage.