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Of Ghosts and Men

Today, the Opera Theater of St. Louis premieres the new, revised version of John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles." When I first posted about this a couple of weeks ago, a commenter asked when Washington National Opera would do this opera.

The question, actually, isn't "When will WNO do this opera?" but "When will ANYBODY do this opera?" "Ghosts of Versailles" was a big success, and in some circles a big scandal, when it opened at the Met in 1991. It was a 20th-century look at 18th-century forms, wandering through the opera canon and plucking out Mozartean whimsy and Romantic excess at will. And it was that rare bird, a critical success that the public also generally liked. But the Met only brought it back once. Chicago Lyric staged it in 1995-96. I'm not sure there have been other productions. (I seem to remember there was one in Germany, but I can't find the reference.)

The main reason is simple economics. Corigliano set out to write a grand opera for America's grandest opera house, and the result was too big (and thus too expensive) for smaller companies to put on. (It has even become too expensive for the Met to put on; a planned revival for the 2009-10 season was canceled for financial reasons.) Hence the interest in this new St. Louis version, which is scaled down for smaller forces: an attempt to create a more performable edition of a work that certainly deserves a second hearing.

I've heard questions over the years about whether the opera was really as successful as people now think it was, and I've certainly read attacks on it (Edward Said, for one, absolutely hated it). I remember liking it quite a lot, and certainly appreciating its over-the-top approach, which is too often missing in contemporary operas. But whatever you think of it, it's an interesting comment on today's opera world that one of the most successful new operas in recent memory was scarcely performed after its premiere.

I'd be interested to hear other thoughts on "Ghosts of Versailles." Special credit to anyone who's attending and posts a review of the performance.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 17, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
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The European premiere of the Corigliano/Hoffman work took place in 1999 at the new Niedersächsische Staatsoper in Hannover, Germany; timed to coincide with the Hannover 2000 World's Fair.

I am still trying to understand why you took issue with a reader asking "When will WNO do this opera?" I concur with that reader that this is a valid question in its own right, and one that is just as relevant today as your condescending alternative question.

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 17, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

No issue taken at all with the reader's comment. I thought it was such a good question that I dedicated a whole blog post to answering it.

Thanks for identifying the German performance - I couldn't remember where/when it had taken place, and my Internet connection in China kept cutting out when I tried to look it up.

Posted by: MidgetteA | June 17, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

So when exactly will the Washington National Opera do John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman's 'Ghosts of Versailles'?

(I doubt that it would have been more expensive to produce than Wagner's "Siegfried" [much less, Wagner's "Götterdämmerung"]; and, furthermore, I do not consider the Washington National Opera a smaller company or house.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 17, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I'll take a stab at this, with the caveat that I'm speaking on well informed personal opinion...How would a full-blown Met production, particularly one of the scope of "Ghost of Versailles," fit on WNO's stage? The WNO stage is, foot for foot, significantly smaller, as is the backstage space. They're just very different opera houses. I'll ask around to those who are more an expert than I, but my guess is that, expenses aside, the Met's Ghost is a logistic impossibility for WNO. Can't wait to see how the scaled-down production works at St. Louis--I'll be thinking good opera-karma thoughts for them. I love Corigliano.

I think the more interesting question here would be "Would Washington audiences jump at a contemporary opera?" such as Ghost or "Powder on Her Face" or "First Emperor." Washingtonians have a reputation (deserved or not) for being conservative, loving the Aidas, Bohemes, Carmens, but snubbing the new and unknown. A few years ago, I would have argued that a new opera would have tanked in Washington, but more recently, it seems DC audiences are more open to the edgy and new. WNO's Lucrezia Borgia and Siegfried, while not new operas, had some elements that could be considered edgy, and were both resounding successes, artistically and at the box office...makes me wonder if maybe DC is ready to shake things up on the opera scene.

Posted by: OperaLove | June 17, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

To be honest, if its so hard to sell Grimes in DC I'm not optimistic they could see Ghosts and sell it they must to even consider staging it in its original form.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 17, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

OperaLove (and ianw2), thank for mentioning the issue of the size of the Kennedy Center Opera House stage compared to the huge (almost unprecedented indoor) size of the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.

I realized last night (after watching “Chess” on PBS recorded at the huge Royal Albert Hall, London) that I hadn’t been clear in my commenting yesterday, especially when using the word smaller.

I think that a proper answer to the original question concerning the Washington National Opera and “Ghosts” would have been something to the effect: “Ghosts” was written and composed for the huge resources of the MET Opera House (similar to Barber and Menotti’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at the MET house’s opening in the late 1960s) and the MET is attempting to secure the resources to revive it (following revivals at the MET and in Chicago and Hannover). Those interested should perhaps wait for an upcoming MET revival of the “epic” work, NYC not being too far from Washington, D.C.

Alternatively, a proper answer would have been: the WNO Opera’s technical staff has advised artistic and financial administration of the company that the following scaling back of the original operatic intent would be required to mount the work, as originally conceived, at the Kennedy Center. This scaling back would be similar to the scaling back of MET productions that occurred when the MET Opera regularly visited the Kennedy Center (and elsewhere in America) until the middle 1980s.

The ‘answer’ however provided was that an alternative, smaller scale version of the work had recently been commissioned and premiered, with the permission of the now aging composer and librettist, by the leading Opera Theater of Saint Louis (OTSL) and not by the now lagging Washington National Opera company.

The Opera Theater of Saint Louis venue seats 987 – roughly 40% of the Kennedy Center Opera House and a quarter to 30% of the MET and the Chicago. (I will guess that the elegant, large Hannover House, only restored from WWII in 1985, seats about the same as the Kennedy Center Opera House – unlike many German opera houses which seat less than the Kennedy Center.)...

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 18, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

... Now, the question becomes, will the Washington National Opera be considering for future production a slightly scaled down, although still “hugely” expensive full orchestral version of the original “Ghosts” opera, or the OTSL commissioned chamber opera version, for reduced forces?

My guess is that the WNO will be considering the scaled-down, chamber version because it could be produced in nearby Lisner Auditorium and not the Kennedy Center. (Similary to how Scott Wheeler and Romulus Linney’s WNO Opera “Democracy” was ghettoized by the WNO to the smaller university auditorium.)

OperaLove, with all due respect, I take issue with the remainder of your post.

Until recently, the Washington National Opera was a ‘moderate’ American opera company and not a ‘conservative’ American opera company. The Washington Opera, in the last century, mounted such new works as Bomarzo, Menotti’s Goya and Saint of Bleeker Street, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Aspern Papers, Dangerous Liaisons, Cassanova’s Dream, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A View from the Bridge; as well as such recent works as The Crucible, Susannah, Vanessa, and Mice and Men. (I imagine that the WNO could recycle the costumes for Dangerous Liaisons to save money on a chamber-version production of Ghosts of Versailles – perhaps playing a night or two at Lisner.)

(I would personally prefer that the WNO revive Barber and Menotti’s Antony and Cleopatra, and leave the original Ghosts to the MET. I would nominate Washington’s own Michael Kahn to direct the Shakespeare opera. )

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 18, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Hail, Anne, all: I'm actually here with John in St. Louis--the opening was last night, and in my (admittedly biased) opinion, was a triumph for all concerned---but I do want to clear something up for some of your commenters (snaketime1): this isn't quite a chamber version, on the scale of, say, The Rape of Lucretia; it's a reduction, like the one of Salome Strauss prepared to contract its orchestra from 100-ish players to 60-ish. And, while OTSL is indeed a 900-seat auditorium, this production is designed to expand, as well as contract, because two of its co-producers (the Wexford Festival and Vancouver Opera) have enormous stages and auditoriums.

Posted by: markadamo | June 18, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for the very important and relevant information, Mark. I hope that Ghosts will be one of the ten American operas that the Washington National Opera produces at the Kennedy Center Opera House over the next decade. (I hope you make the list, too.)

I did, in fact, realize after posting that I should not have used the word 'chamber', but rather stuck with 'smaller' or 'reduced'.

correction: Argento's 'Dream of Valentino'. (Also, the WNO staged the contemporary Chinese opera 'The Savage Land' and a few others that I'm sure I'm missing. For example, I can't remember whether Bernstein's 'A Quiet Place' was WNO or Houston Opera visiting DC. I know that Floyd's 'Willie Stark' and Adams's 'Nixon in China' were Houston visiting DC. At one time, contemporary opera flourished at the Kennedy Center Opera House.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 19, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

oops ... I think that the Washington National Opera's staging of the late Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice qualifies as a contemporary opera.

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 19, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Okay, I have to chime in from the left coast. There's never been mention of doing "Ghosts" here in San Francisco. But SF Opera rarely, if ever, stages contemporary operas it doesn't itself premiere (or co-produce the original project).

SFO would have the resources and sheer size to do "Ghosts" (the company has imported Met productions before and this fall will stage its co-production with the Met of "Il trovatore"). But the only contemporary opera that's being talked up for production here that was not premiered here is "Nixon in China."

Posted by: knightstale | June 19, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

The Moores Opera Center at the University of Houston has done Ghosts in two totally different productions in 1998 and 2007. The work is completely do-able on a relatively limited budget if approached the right way. The large cast makes it ideal for the summer festival circuit or a house that has a young artist program.
It has an undeserved reputation as being impossibly large due to the Met's initial production. It's a real audience-pleaser and should be done far more often. For photos see

Posted by: BuckRoss | June 19, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

BuckRoss, thanks for the great news and your comment!

I had the nagging suspicion that an American university had done ‘Ghosts’ (I had incorrectly suspected Indiana University School of Music), but I wasn’t able to find time to do the research. (Didn’t somewhere in Texas also do the American premiere of the Philip Glass/Christopher Hampton “Waiting for the Barbarians?” Was it Austin?)

Knightstale, a response to your important comment. The San Francisco Opera is a great company but they do, in fact, produce second and subsequent productions. Briefly (and without looking), the SFO did mount the American professional premieres (I think), but not the world premieres, of Gyorgy Ligeti’s ‘Grand Macabre’ and Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Saint Francois d’Assise’.

But I grant you your point that the San Francisco Opera is a daring, imaginative, and risk-taking American opera company, willing to bankroll world premieres on a regular basis (thanks to some great and wise patrons such as the Oshers and the Goldmans).

On the other hand, for years it has been fairly common knowledge that the Washington National Opera is not a daring, imaginative, or risk-taking American opera company.

It was assumed, I believe, that when the Washington National Opera was granted its ‘national’ designation by Congress it would not mean more world premieres, but rather more second productions of American operas premiered elsewhere and needing and deserving further exposure (and perhaps tweaking to give them legs). There was a whole literature funded by the NEA and Opera America in the 1990s about the important need for second productions of new American operas.

The vast majority of the American operas I mentioned above were second (or perhaps third productions) – as was the most recent WNO staging of Nicholas Maw’s opera "Sophie's Choice" (and the Chinese opera in the Western style, “The Savage Land.”)...

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 21, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

... The Washington National Opera doesn’t have the intellectual staff, nor the supporting community (including the newspapers and universities), to successfully produce world premieres and contribute to opera history.

The track records of Bomarzo, Goya, Dream of Valentino, and Democracy don’t reflect, in my opinion, a company knowing what it is doing (especially Dream of Valentino) in the art of commissioning, and until the company is headed by someone of the caliber of the SFO’s David Gockley, it should probably, in my opinion, stick with staging ten second productions over the coming decade and not attempt any world premieres.

And when I refer to risk-taking, I am not referring to OperaLove’s hope that the Washington National Opera will produce Thomas Ades’s ‘Powder Her Face’, which is most remarkable for its extended scene featuring oral sex between a man and a woman.

I would have to review the legislation surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts refunding in the 1990s, but I believe that the staging of such a scene is banned by Congress. And even if it wasn’t banned, for the Washington National Opera to stage “Powder Her Face” might cause the National Endowment for the Arts to lose $100 million and the Washington National Opera to lose its ‘national’ designation.

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 21, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

As I think I made clear from the start, my comments were not suggestions about what our hometown opera company should stage. Rather, my line of questioning was aimed at soliciting opinions about "What do Washington audiences want? Will they embrace new works, and if so, to what extent?"

But hey, I guess I'm not intellectual, so what do I know? :-)

In all seriousness though, can anyone offer examples of new works in Washington that were critical AND box office successes? Are DC audiences really as conservative as might be assumed?

Posted by: OperaLove | June 22, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

For what it's worth, I attended the "Ghosts" premiere last week. (My review is here I rather liked it despite a libretto that I felt unraveled well before the music finished. It's hard not to be charmed by such huge ambition. It still seemed to be a rather immense undertaking even in this relatively small space.

As to the viability of staging "Ghosts" in the future, I suspect that the whole thing is much more enjoyable to an audience familiar with its many operatic references to begin with. There was quite a significant drop off rate between the first two acts in St. Louis by my estimation, but the audience that remained did seem enthusiastic about the performance.

Posted by: outwestarts | June 23, 2009 3:04 AM | Report abuse

A response to OperaLove (and with thanks to outwestarts for the important insights):

Since the editors might close this thread if there is too long a pause, here are my ten suggestions for operas that the Washington National Opera could perform over the next decade. (I was going to include 'Ghosts', but let me make the last minute substitution [without prejudice] of Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan's 'A Bonesetter's Daughter', even though I have not seen or heard it, except for the video clip that national arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown did on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer last fall):

Hindemith: Mathis the Painter/Mathis der Maler
Barber and Menotti: Antony and Cleopatra
Adams and Sellars: The Flowering Tree
Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally: Dead Man Walking
John Harbison: The Great Gatsby
William Grant Still, Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey: Troubled Island
Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer: An American Tragedy
Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison: Margaret Garnier
Hugo Weisgall: Nine Rivers from Jordan

I'll be curious as to your ten choices for the Washington National Opera's next decade, OperaLove, as well as those of pancakej and others here.

[Exactly thirty years ago this summer, I wrote a letter to the Washington Post editorial page, which was published, suggesting that the Washington Opera should stage Leos Janacek's "From the House of the Dead." The suggestion was apparently too intellectual for the Washington Opera, even though the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Opera, and now the Metropolitan Opera (under Peter Gelb's intellectual direction) have now staged it -- or plan to stage it next season. As a hometown booster, I wish that the Washington National Opera had beaten the Metropolitan Opera to it.]

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 23, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

correction: The Bonesetter's Daughter; Margaret Garner.

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 23, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

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