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Who is Sylvia?

On Friday night, I went to "Songspiel," a show assembled from Kurt Weill songs, starring the soprano Sylvia McNair as a homeless woman on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. This kind of unlikely set-up is typical of American Opera Theater, the small group that assembled the show (it had its premiere in Baltimore in November), and since I recently touted the "do less with more" approach, it would be downright ungracious of me not to salute AOT's work. "Songspiel" is filled with interesting ideas, some of which work better than others; it was certainly gutsy of McNair, a Grammy winner and former Met star, to take on a challenging project with a small company; and while I had some reservations, I wasn't by any means sorry I saw it. My full review will run on Monday or Tuesday; before that, there are two more performances, on Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2.

By Anne Midgette  |  January 16, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , opera  
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Another compelling and novel approach to presenting opera is written up by Matthew Gurewitsch in today's NY Times ("Space Opera in a Proper Galaxy, Arts & Leisure, p. 25). Unfortunately, the WNO remains frozen in a General Motors mentality and a götterdämmering that is both anachronistic and way beyond their grasp.

What makes the Gotham Chamber Opera seem especially admirable is their focus on the operatic quality of what they present, rather than its political correctness. I hesitate to take issue with snaketime, who evidently knows a universe more than I do about music, and anyone who recognizes the garbage perpetrated by Francesca Zambello can't be all wrong, but I still am puzzled by the jingoistic focus on "American". Fellow Americans who want to be musicians certainly deserve my good will and encouragement, but "American" is not relevant as a criterion of artistic quality. Smaller and more informal venues than full-dress performances, such as the American Theater mentioned in Anne's review above, would seem to be a much better way of giving new works a hearing and a way to compete for acceptance into the canon. But that acceptance should not be predicated on the nationality of the author(s) or the locale of their theme (is Fanciulla del West an "American" opera? Does Puccini count as an American composer?).

Posted by: gauthier310 | January 17, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Thanks gauthier310. But no one was supposed to know that I was an actual music major.

You raise interesting points, as always, and it is true that the WNO, in staging Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” for 14 productions next winter, is probably, shamelessly, thinking that it is producing an American opera. (The production will be from San Francisco, whereas I believe that Charles T. Downey wrote somewhere that it would be a revival of a WNO production.)

http://sfopera.com/press/Cinemacast/MADAME_BUTTERFLY(Hatch,Racette,Cao)Photo_by_TerrenceMcCarthy.jpg

Fairly briefly and unless anyone is really interested, the history of Western opera has been largely furthered by national schools of opera -- and we are not yet at the end of history. China, Korea, Brazil, and India are beckoning – among the new leading, now more powerful G-20 nations.

Venetian pride, French court pride, German pride (initially Hanseatic commercial before Munich court opera), even British pride led by Henry Purcell – to speak of baroque opera

Habsburg Imperial pride led to the achievements of Gluck, Mozart, and Beethoven.

German romanticism and pride led to Wagner; while Italian nationalism and pride led to Verdi.

French romanticism and historicism and pride led to Berlioz and others.

German historicism and pride then led to Richard Strauss and others.

Russian pride led to Glinka, Borodin, Chaikovsky, Musorgski, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Czech pride led to Dvorak and Janacek.

Polish pride led to Moniuszko and Penderecki.

Soviet pride led to Prokofiev and .. Shostakovich.

American pride led to operas by Gershwin, Barber, Carlyle Floyd, John Adams, and several others.

Why should not today’s French National Opera program Rameau, Berlioz, Debussy, and Dusapin; the Vienna State Opera program Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Berg, and Cerha; the Finnish National Opera Rautavaara and Saariaho; the German (State) Operas of Berlin and Munich, Weber, Wagner, Strauss, and Rihm; the Mariinsky Opera Theater of Petersburg, the Russian Federation, Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev; the Metropolitan Opera Barber, Levy, Harbison, Picker, Adams, and Golijov?

Unlike today’s Washington National Opera under Placido Domingo, these are true world-class opera companies, but they have not forsaken their own pride in their national traditions and histories.

(I had once thought that the Metropolitan Opera, the WNO, the Los Angeles Opera, and the San Francisco Opera, by each producing one American opera every season, would provide the 300 million Americans (and not only the rich) with a variety of ‘American Experiences,’ perhaps reflecting different regional histories and American experiences with multi-culturalism.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | January 19, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

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