Saturday, September 30, 2006

Idomeneo et al.

Mozart's Idomeneo begins at a high emotional pitch, but it's not until the next act -- when Dorothea Röschmann's Ilia sings, heart-rendingly, of her joy -- that the current Met revival warms up. Or so it went Thursday, on the show's season premiere. James Levine and company didn't quite pick up where they'd left off from last year's transcendent Cosi (and, before that, Clemenza), but the evening improved from act to act until its most satisfying finale.

Not that anyone was bad, least of all vocally. Olga Makarina is too light of voice to make much of Elettra's outer-act arias, but she hit all the notes and did a commendable "Idol mio" in between. Ben Heppner, who had his troubles at the end of last season, sang the title role well despite starting fairly constricted and never quite showing the vocal sheen that made him famous -- and, judging by crowd reaction, beloved. Everyone else sang unreservedly well, from newcomers Jeffrey Francis (a most elegant Arbace), Simon O'Neill, and (Met Council winner) Lisette Oropesa to the offstage Stephen Milling to yet-unmentioned lead Kristine Jepson. But beyond that...

Though Radames' "Celeste Aida" is the most famous cold start, Ilia's opening recitative and aria may be comparably tricky -- right from the curtain, she must convincingly rage and swoon while delivering huge chunks of exposition for the audience. Röschmann did well with these hurdles, but it wasn't until her early second- and third-act arias that she seemed to communicate Ilia's emotions moment by moment. (At her best, she's been about live currents of feeling borne on dark, quick-vibrato sound.)

But what dramatic energy was onstage was almost all Röschmann's. Jepson, whose energy and spontaneity I'd admired last as Siebel, wasn't able to reproduce that within the much more complex character of Idamante. So the compromise of a notes-but-no-bite Elettra, certainly acceptable in a part that almost always demands compromise, left a surprisingly low quotient of drama on stage. Perhaps each singer could have shown more (Heppner, actually, did well considering his natural limitations as an actor) with more from the others to work off of. But it is Röschmann -- and then the chorus -- from which the dramatic heat comes; the other leads seem simply to reflect it. (By the end, mind you, that was enough, though Elettra's exit didn't -- as it can -- crash through the entire notion of opera seria.)

Levine, too, seemed off the mark. Not that he erred, but no phrase surprised me with its life as almost every one in Cosi had. And surely the singers' lack of dramatic inspiration wasn't wholly their own.

I may be exaggerating the faults. It was a satisfying evening, as I said, particularly from the stand-and-sing perspective. But if you can only do one, wait for the next cast: not only Magdalena Kožená but time should improve the current mix. For a Röschmann fix before Thanksgiving, there's this.

*     *     *

On a different topic: I passed on seeing last night's dress rehearsal of Faust (and don't review rehearsals anyway), but after the then-overlooked end-of-last-season performances of Elisir (which, yes, I never got around to writing up either) I wouldn't be at all surprised to find Ruth Ann Swenson again on her best form in the Gounod. Silly production notwithstanding.

Season three

This post will index all of my commentary on the 2006-07 Metropolitan Opera season.

(Other posts can be found in the archives-by-date, on the sidebar.)

Opening Night
Idomeneo, and its alternate cast, and more, and more
La Gioconda
Il Barbiere di Siviglia -- production and cast
Madama Butterfly
Don Carlo, and more
La Boheme
The First Emperor
La Traviata
Jenufa -- at curtain, first performance, second performance, third through fifth performances
I Puritani
Eugene Onegin -- tenor and others
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Simon Boccanegra
Die Ägyptische Helena
Il Trittico

Friday, September 29, 2006

(Because this is the 21st century)

Reading Beverly Sills' Met program piece (not on PlaybillArts, as far as I can find) on getting opera singers pop star coverage got me wondering:

Who's going to be the first opera star on MySpace?

UPDATE: Ah hah -- Anne-Carolyn notes that there already are a bunch. Good sign; I'm tickled.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Doubling down

Wellsung J is back, with his mind strongly on the social strand of opera experience. So, following his cue, let's put aesthetics to the side for a minute.

One of the more important facts of Gelb's first term is this:
Seventy-seven per cent of the Met's available tickets were sold last season, down from 93 per cent in 1999-2000.
Most of that decline occurred in one season -- because of 9/11 -- but it's troubling that the trend has not yet reversed itself despite our current boom economy. Volpe's general reaction was to bunker down, cut expenses and get more from the current operagoing base. Gelb seems to be pursuing the reverse course: to spend some money, do more things, and make a splash.

Will it work? Well, the price cuts Gelb has instituted at the low end (upper Family Circle seats are now $15 on weekdays -- as cheap or cheaper than standing) should up ticket sale percentages by themselves, without necessarily improving revenue. So any numbers that come out should be taken with salt... Still, his other moves seem to indicate that he has a good grasp of the marginal (potential) operagoer.

His choice of Broadway and middlebrow movie directors to do new productions, for example, seems perfectly to target the particular segment of the Times-reading population here that should be going to (more) opera but isn't. The actual Hollywood star power at opening night surely helped considerably; raising that event's profile via advertising, the open dress rehearsal stunt, and the simulcast venues was a smart move.

But the latter, I suspect, was about more than just local press. It seems to me that Gelb is not only aiming at local operagoers but visitors as well -- particularly foreign ones, whose numbers at the Met have (again) dropped considerably since 9/11. Times Square is a sort of joke to locals, but its visibilty around the country and abroad is substantial... And I saw a lot of foreign press there.

Finally, the singers Gelb has by all accounts chosen to push through the first part of his term -- Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, and Diana Damrau (have I missed any?) -- are all known and very popular quantities in Europe; Netrebko seems even to have hit quasi-pop-star status there (and it, unfortunately, shows). Whether or not this is an intentional bid for foreign tourism, it certainly can't hurt.

*     *     *

What's to complain of, then? (Besides how Gelb's strategy could adapt to lean-growth years.) Aesthetically, these changes are, as I long-ago noted, quite mild. And yet, I do wonder how total this commitment to marketing may be. Will talent -- particularly singing talent -- not yet celebrated or Euro-approved be given lead chances? One thing I've missed from Gelb is any sort of discussion of or commitment to American singers.

The Lindemann program continues, of course, and tonight is Lisette Oropesa's debut. I'm off to that.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Some interesting comments to recent posts here on the Met's new line of tech-heavy spinoffs, about which Sieglinde also has a yes-and-no post (with which I basically agree).

First, one commenter asks:
That these broadcasts will be transmitted through cameras is probably enough to differentiate the movie house version from the live event. In the movie house, you see only what the camera shows you. At the event, you choose what to look at, in an unlimited field of vision. Given that, if someone "comes to opera" from watching it in the theatre, will they have unrealistic expectations? And will the actual event meet these expectations, or be the source of disappointment. I wonder.
Will these movie theatre transmissions resemble the PBS telecasts, or will the cinematography be different? Some of the cinematography on the PBS telecasts left quite a bit to be desired (e.g., too much focus on singers tongues--I don't think that will go over too well in a movie theatre), although it did improve at times.
It would be interesting if someone besides Jay David Saks were to direct the movie versions, though I it'll be him. Whether said director will adapt to the larger screen... Good question. Using more long shots might actually make it less starkly "not live", though as you suggest the close-up may be the main value-added element of camera mediation.

I'm nore worried about moviegoers not realizing what they're missing, though, than their possibly being disappointed on seeing the live thing.

Another commenter opiones on the initial satellite/internet broadcast:
If it's to be this way, I'm hoping Sirius will get its webcasting act together. Opening Night was a wash-out for many who couldn't log on due to their technical difficulties. Also, despite their claim to webcast at the halfway decent 150kbps, currently it sounds more like 35. New adventures in distortion. ffrr it ain't.
Ahh, now that's the technical data I'd been waiting for. I think we've now covered all the venues of the opening.

*     *     *

While I'm at it, I wanted to redress my neglect in thanking those who've left their own impressions of performances in comments here over the years. Some, such as this one, are not only honest and urgent but at least as thought-out as the posts to which they're attached. But I do appreciate them all,* even the quick notes.

*Trolls not included, but you knew that.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The show musn't go on?

I've pretty much forgotten everything that happens in Ponnelle's Met Idomeneo (which is again revived this week), but as far as I can make out it was all fairly innocuous (if effective). Not so in Berlin, however (via Allahpundit, whom I'd never expected to tip for an opera article):
One of Germany's leading opera houses, Deutsche Oper Berlin, announced Monday that it was cancelling a controversial production because of the likelihood that it might offend Muslims. The original opera, Idomeneo by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, makes no reference to Islam, but director Hans Neuenfels introduced a scene to his production that depicts the decapitated heads of the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ, the Buddha and the Greek god Poseidon.
It caused outrage at the premiere in 2003. The opera company said it was cancelling plans to revive the show next month after advice from security authorities in Berlin that the performances posed an "incalculable" security risk.
Not just editing. Cancelling.

Now I think Hans Neuenfels is a worthless and idiotic director, but, well, watch the video.

UPDATE (9/27): 92% of Germans -- and, seemingly, the whole political establishment from left to right -- oppose the cancellation.

There's been a lot of commentary on this since the story broke, but South Park's distillation (linked previously above) still covers all the bases.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Transposed spectacle

Lincoln Center (Plaza), early afternoon:

Times Square, early evening:
I had wondered if the live opening night transmission would make any sort of impact in the canyon of Times Square. With Broadway closed off between 7th Ave. and 44th St., its entire 43rd-44th St. block was devoted to viewers' chairs. They were full.
The opera was shown on three screens: (from left to right) Nasdaq, Panasonic, and Reuters. What did we learn? That Panasonic, unsurprisingly, has the best display. But Reuters did provide a neat vertical banner (which scrolled to mention the Met, not just the title here displayed), and production stills on an adjacent, side-facing screen.
What looked like the equipment used in parks concerts was providing sound easily audible even over the Times Square din. Lack of interest in the opera and Cristina Gallardo-Domas kept me from attending the actual performance, but hearing James Levine make Butterfly's entrance music so strongly tell reminded me that I might've considered his return.

On the whole, there seemed to be a real charge among those present, both those seated and the passers-by, who seemed to do even more picture-taking than is the norm in Tourist Central, USA.

*     *     *

Maury should have a report from the house, as perhaps will the remaining New York Wellsung and other bloggers. My Met season begins Thursday, with Levine and Dorothea Röschmann in Idomeneo.

UPDATE (9/26): Via a man with a non-junk camera, Lincoln Center (Plaza), evening.

(And another Times Square report, from the newest New York blogger: Anne-Carolyn Bird, soon to storm the big stage herself. Congratulations on it all.)

And Maury does weigh in, with a "Yes."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Met radio vs... Met radio

Minnesota Public Radio's blog speculates that the SIRIUS deal may mean the end of the Met's weekly over-the-air broadcasts.

I had thought that the recently-consummated Toll Brothers sponsorship deal was more solid than that, but I could be wrong.

UPDATE: I should check the links in my own prior blog posts.
Joseph Volpe, the Met's general manager, said yesterday that he could not guarantee the broadcasts' survival for more than four years, based on Toll Brothers' initial commitment and other money raised. But he said he hoped the company's support could be extended. "We're relatively secure," he said.
Perhaps less secure now.

The products

I just praised Joseph Volpe for his handling of Met labor issues, so let me begin by saying this: the most significant and groundbreaking event of Peter Gelb's tenure may be the labor agreement he finalized at the beginning of this month.
[T]he Met's orchestra, chorus, ballet and stagehands [...] voted in favor of a new media agreement after extensive negotiations this summer.
In the past, unions have demanded substantial upfront payments to all parties involved in performances -- making recordings, broadcasts and telecasts prohibitively expensive. Gelb calls the new revenue-sharing arrangement a "shift to a more fluid concept of media, in keeping with the infinite possibilities offered by modern technology."
This opens up a huge field for the company and fans alike. No matter how Gelb's specific media and tech initiatives pan out, the labor agreement that enables them is a milestone.

*     *     *

On the heels of this agreement came news of the first concrete initiatives. First, opera-as-movie:
Beginning Dec. 30, the Met will transmit six of its performances live -- with state-of-the-art sound and high-definition imagery -- to movie theaters equipped with special projection systems and satellite dishes throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. After 30 days, the new productions will be presented on PBS stations throughout the country.
Second, something Adam Baer suggested almost three years ago -- live streaming of Met performances (with archival access to follow):
The Met will present live streaming of opera performances on its website with support from RealNetworks®, the leading creator of digital media services. In the coming months, Real will also make the Met's extensive library of radio archive broadcasts available through its award-winning Rhapsody® online music service. Streaming of Met operas is anticipated to begin with the start of the 2006-07 season.
And finally, for the radio-oriented, an entire SIRIUS satellite music channel:
The full-time channel will feature an average of four live broadcasts each week throughout the Met's 2006-07 performance season, with Saturday matinee performances enhanced with live interviews and dynamic intermission programs. The channel will also feature hundreds of re-mastered historic broadcasts culled from the Met's illustrious 75-year history. Additional vocal content will complement the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.
Note, however, that this will largely largely squash the potential of live webcasts:
Met spokeswoman Sommer Hixson said the company had not yet determined how much overlap there would be between the radio channel and the Internet streaming, which will include at most a weekly performance. The streaming is designed to promote the subscription service.

*     *     *

At first opera was one product, then two (Caruso and the gramophone), then three (radio); now it's -- well, look above. (Actually, the announcements just scratch the surface of what's possible under the new agreement. There's no mention of the inevitable DVD series, for example, that will follow from having six telecasts per season.) Still, it's still only two things at bottom: (1) a laborious and irreproducible live activity founded on human presence, and (2) the technologically mediated and therefore infinitely reproducible and disseminable echoes of that activity.

The latter provides more opportunities for happy consumption to many, many more people, and its expansion is generally praiseworthy. But I think it's essential that Gelb and his "new" media customers remember that the live form of opera is the sine qua non, the golden goose without which there would be few fans, fewer singers, and no basis for the niche demand these secondary products exist to satisfy and encourage.

There's little initial risk of forgetting, as the most excited are hard-core fans who've been dreaming of (and/or illicitly sampling) the Met sound archives' riches for years. When people begin, as they might, discovering the Met through these outlets, though... Will they be well-reminded that, as "real" and large and impressive as a live cinematic rendition might be (or as regular and "live" sounding and voluminous as daily radio may be), it omits huge chunks of the live experience?

That's a thought for the future. For the moment, there's much to enjoy.

Friday, September 22, 2006


It was Stendhal, I believe (though I've somewhere lost the ability to verify this), who noted that to make a fortune in business requires something also necessary for writing a successful novel: the ability to see clearly into what is. To these occupations he might have added the successful running of an opera house. Exhibit One: Joe Volpe, whose Metropolitan Opera tenure finally ended this summer.

Volpe in fact stands as a particular example of this virtue, which not only marked his term as General Manager but seems to have been more or less solely responsible for his having attained that position at all. By the plausible account of his autobiography (which is a well-done, interesting work of its kind), it was his easy, baloney-free grasp of the mundane facts of opera -- in an expanding sphere from carpentry to backstage costs to labor negotiations and everything else in the house -- that got him repeatedly promoted from his original job as carpenter. Eventually, Volpe's anointment as "General Director" in 1990 (he became "General Manager" later) followed the short and undistinguished term of the pleasant, socially proper Hugh Southern, who was in a sense Volpe's mirror image. That is: the Met eventually chose -- and recognized the primacy of -- facts. That the house is the largest and perhaps most complicated arts organization in the world precedes and underpins any idealisations or illusions one might have about its role.

Commitment to Volpe paid off in one obvious sense: the Met -- because of a longer season now even more immensely complicated in its operations -- is and has been well-run and financially solid, without serious labor strife, catastrophic shortfalls, or other such outbreaks of widespread chaos. This one would have expected, and is something even most of his detractors will acknowledge. What's less visible is how Volpe's clear seeing extended to the artistic side of the enterprise.

My biggest surprise in reading Volpe's book was discovering how clearly and generally accurately he totes up the triumphs and fiascos among his term's productions. (Fans seem to think of him as sharing Sybil Harrington's crown as Zeffirelli's biggest fan, but one should remember that Volpe -- whose first Met story is of chopping down one of Zef's productions to size -- learned much of his craft working for and with John Dexter.) His belief in Robert Wilson's Lohengrin, for example, has been forcefully vindicated. I wish I had the space and patience to go through the complete reckoning here, but I'll limit myself to this observation: Volpe's instincts in judging which directors should be invited back to the Met were remarkably good. Only Robert Carsen and his unclutteredly poetic production of Onegin get (and got) really unfair short shrift. In the largest matter -- the Ring -- he seems to have picked brilliantly, only to have death take Herbert Wernicke before the production could happen. If Wernicke -- whose Frau ohne Schatten is the clear high-water-mark of the Volpe years -- had gotten four more such productions, how much more luster might this era have?

*     *     *

If there is something that can be said against the man who sees what is, it is that he often is limited in seeing what could be. And it's this element, I suppose, that the board and its supporters think they are getting in Peter Gelb. But we shouldn't forget that Volpe's resistance to the "could be" has done much over the years to preserve the company.

For aside from what each production and each performance and each participant's role is, opera in America, at the Met's scale, has certain inescapable facts to it that one loses track of at one's peril. It is not -- or no longer -- a genteel socialite's timefiller. But neither is it a popular art, nor one about to become so. It is a niche interest, centered in personal presence and highly accountable to its audiences and donors, and as such dependent on the integrity of its brand.

*     *     *

This is not to say that Gelb will not do well, nor that there are no areas for improvement on Volpe's regime. His responses to the post-9/11 drop in attendance, for example, have been sound but unimaginative, and there may well be gains to be had among marginal attendees by, e.g., raising the Met's profile. But under Volpe there was zero chance that the company would do something that would jeopardize its or the art's long-term future here, even when airy popular or elite opinion would have favored it. I hope the same holds true now.

Friday, September 15, 2006


The first regular production of the city's 2006-07 opera season, City Opera's new Semele (starring Elizabeth Futral), opened Wednesday. Notices have appeared in the Sun, the Times, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger.

Being something of a Futral un-fan, I'd planned to skip the run, but Vivica Genaux, Sanford Sylvan, and a relative minimum of countertenoritis may draw me in nonetheless.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years in the new world

Three hundred and sixty-four days a year draw us "on topic", to our niches of work, friends, home, and habit -- the lives we build for ourselves in this elaborate, largely predictable framework that's civilization. But today one can't avoid the abyss over which we've lived for years, which materialized wholly and unmistakably five years ago.

That day's Islamic terrorists rehearsed the gruesome small details to enact the gruesome large ones, in deliberate acts that were no "tragedy" (nor, of course, "art") but mass murder -- crimes, acts of war, abomination -- and a sick fantasy enactment of "martyrdom".

Many cheered -- quite literally -- both abroad and, yes, even in New York.

*     *     *

Those who would enact more such horrors, those who would fund them, and those who would cheer: all still plague us. The next shoe that drops may be worse, much worse. We are neither collectively helpless nor, I think, doomed, but I suspect the natural reflex to avoid looking down at what horrors could be has dulled our true sense of things. And the more likely such horror looks, the stronger that reflex.

Today, however, our mortal danger gets its due. (Except by the deranged.) How it might (again) look. How it might (again) feel. The rupture of every thing and certainty, that may (again) happen. Lest we forget...

It will be a long road before we can afford to, even for a while.

UPDATE: The last embedded video I had put up seems to be overloaded, so I've unembedded it for now. It can be found here when the server recovers.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The slow reunion

While greats of old continue passing, the New York season begins its beginning this week with some festive City Opera preliminaries. Some point soon, the metacommunity of the city's music audience will have reconstituted itself from near and far, as if it had never been dissolved. But it was -- any summer event here may as well have been in a different city altogether.

As for myself, I've not had a happy or productive summer for as long as I can remember. This one was no exception: good riddance!

But I welcome you all as you file in for the third season of An Unamplified Voice, scheduled to kick off very soon.