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Less is more

The financial crisis is hitting opera, but there are ways to find a silver lining in the situation: in Sunday's Washington Post, my thoughts on opera productions that do more with less.

By Anne Midgette  |  January 10, 2010; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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As you point out, this is something straight theatre has been dealing with for years. I forget who it was (Acykbourn maybe?), but one of the old lion playwrights pointed out that younger writers had no idea how to write anything that was longer than 90 minutes with more than five actors.

Do you think there will be an eventual move to heavier programming of works with no (or very limited) Chorus and smaller orchestras?

Posted by: ianw2 | January 10, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

It's never a good thing when the people leaving your show comment on the props, sparse or otherwise. Methinks this dearth of funding will force companies to examine the root causes of why they've been unable to renew their flagging audiences. Hint: It has nothing to do with the sets, props, costumes or FX.

Posted by: upsidedownpoint | January 11, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

“While society in general has reached new heights of visual sophistication -- from art galleries to graphic design to screens streaming information at us from every quarter -- opera has lagged behind the curve.”

-- Anne Midgette Washington Post January 10, 2010

Ms. Midgette, I don’t think that this has really been true in the U.S. for at least the past decade and a half (and historically was never true worldwide). World-class American opera companies (which the new ‘Washington Opera/Opera Society of Washington,’ now, certainly is not one. I hope that someone asks them tomorrow what the company’s new name will be) have often been visually imaginative, often in ways that straddle the borderlines of the abstract and the representative.

One thinks immediately of the Seattle ‘Ring’ of 2005, and especially its beautiful Festival curtain designed by Thomas Lynch; Metropolitan Opera productions going back at least a decade and a half such as those of Strauss’s ‘Elektra’, Busoni’s ‘Doktor Faustus’, and Shostakovich’s ‘Lady MacBeth of Mtensk’ (as well as the much earlier Poulenc ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’, which you mention, the earlier Philip Glass ‘The Voyage’, the recent seasons’ Philip Glass ‘Satyagraha’ and John Adams’s ‘Doctor Atomic,’ and especially this season’s upcoming Shostakovich ‘The Nose’).

Like the MET, the world-class San Francisco Opera has featured some exceptionally contemporary opera productions over the past decade and a half including the recent Philip Glass ‘Appomattox’ and Stewart Wallace/Amy Tan ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ (as well as an exceptionally deconstructivist Busoni ‘Doktor Faustus,’ under Pamela Rosenberg, which even I felt challenging and over-the-top, but again perhaps not over the top to denizens of the contemporary art wings of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the SFMOMA.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 11, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

(I would also add that the former Washington National Opera’s recent production of Janacek’s ‘Jenufa’ was just as fresh and contemporary as a Central/Eastern European art film.)

And certainly the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky State Opera Theater productions of ‘Boris Godunov’ at the Kennedy Center Opera House and ‘The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia’ at the Metropolitan Opera House were exceptionally pleasing to visually sophisticated audiences such as those who also visit the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Phillips Collection.

Finally, Daniel Libeskind’s 2002 production of Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Saint Francois d’Assise’ for the correctly named German State Opera (Berlin) and the production of Kaija Saariaho’s ‘L’amour de loin’ (later filmed) for the correctly named Finnish National Opera, were unquestionably of the very highest world-class visual art standards. Unlike the new Washington Opera/Opera Society of Washington, both of those national companies located in capital cities are truly world-class.

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 11, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

snaketime1 whilst the productions you name have been visually striking, Midgette's assessment is still correct- the US opera scene does lag behind the curve of what is happening in theatre, contemporary art and dance. Production style in the US is still overwhelmingly traditional, or cautiously updated (tragedies to the 1930s, comedies to the 1950s or 60s).

The Met and San Francisco have had a few knockouts (and I ADORED that Jenufa) but on a strictly visual level even they pale in comparison to what is coming out of Europe- even at the regional level, companies like Klagenfurt and Lausanne regularly have visually striking productions. The musical quality can be argued, but visually there is no competition.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 11, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

So, ianw2,

Julian Crouch, Bartlett Sher, Adrian Noble, Mary Zimmerman, Mariusz Treliński , Mark Morris, Penny Woolcock, William Kentridge, Amy Tan, the late Anthony Minghella are all behind the curve?

Whose curve? Yours? Anne Midgette’s? Gregory Sandow’s? Ted Libbey’s?

Large numbers of Americans – who the world-class American opera companies should be, largely, aiming to satisfy – would most likely, in my opinion, not think so.

(Whether Peter Sellars, Achim Freyer, and Luc Bondy as director [not as librettist] are still on, or now behind, the curve is open to discussion.)

Will a concert, prop-less two-night presentation of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” (“directed” by Michael Kahn) be the highlight of the Washington National Opera’s new 2010-2011 season? Is this the future you and Ms. Midgette imagine?

Paging Rocco Landesman and Thomas Hampson …



Posted by: snaketime1 | January 11, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Yes, I would say they're all behind the curve, visually speaking. This is not to say I dislike their work- I'm a fan of Sher and Morris- but on a visual level they are not doing work that is as interesting as what is par for the course in Europe. I'm speaking strictly on a visual level. The link you provide- Freyer's Eugene Onegin- was critically lauded, by the way.

And, coincidentally, those names you list are not people who are primarily opera directors but people who have worked in opera with considerable success in the US.

Crouch- puppet theatre company (3 operas?)
Sher- drama (3 operas, 4 if you count Light in the Piazza)
Noble- drama (1 opera, from memory)
Zimmerman- drama (3 operas?- none of which have exactly set the US opera world on fire)
Treliński- film, but a few operas (most recently Boheme, I believe, which was abhorred by DC audiences)
Morris- dance (2 operas?)
Woolcock- film (1 opera)
Kentridge- art
Amy Tan- novelist (has she directed anything?)
Minghella- film (and whilst his Butterfly was gorgeous, visually, it was very traditional)

In fact, I'd hazard, that with that list you pretty much just confirm what I've said. The bulk of those folks' opera work has been in NY and San Francisco. Some of them have been wonderful, extremely well realised and musically satisfying productions. But the US cannot compete on the visual level of Europe where, for many reasons, you find visually strong work in even the smaller, regional companies.

For evidence of this, just check out the current gallery of productions on Based in New Zealand there can be no accusation of bias, but compare the Met's 'Carmen' with any of the German productions (again, not bashing the Met Carmen, but the visuals only).

Posted by: ianw2 | January 11, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

“And, coincidentally, those names you list are not people who are primarily opera directors but people who have worked in opera with considerable success in the US.”

-- ianw2
I never said that the people I listed were *OPERA* directors. They are distinguished artists — theater and otherwise -- who happen to have increasingly been attracted to Western opera.

I was trying to find people from “theatre, contemporary art and dance”; which are the areas you cited as the generator of your curve.

Amy Tan has not directed anything but wrote a libretto based upon her own work. I believe that she was also listed as “creative consultant” to the San Francisco Opera world premiere.

William Kentridge – “art” -- has directed and designed opera in South Africa, Zurich, San Francisco, and, now, New York City – Monteverdi “The Return of Ulysses”, Mozart “The Magic Flute”, and Shostakovich “The Nose”. He has also made installations based upon operas.

Mariuz Treliński. Let’s ask Placido Domingo. I believe that his Madam Butterfly was loved by Washington, D.C. audiences and sold out several productions. Correct me if I am wrong. My wife and our friends loved it -- but my wife was only a music major and not an “contemporary art” major.

Mary Zimmerman. Her theater works set the theater world on fire e.g. her Argonautika here at the Shakespeare Theater. The night we went there were 25 members of Congress in the audience and none left early (although they consulted their blackberries a lot.)

Choreographer and dancer Mark Morris… he beat Peter Sellars and John Adams to Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan opera.

Gotta run to a seminar … I’ll look at your suggested links later.


Posted by: snaketime1 | January 11, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

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