Monday, November 21, 2011
Sunday, November 06, 2011
Saturday, November 05, 2011
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
“I don’t know the facts of the situation involving the Met,” the noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said in an email, “but as a general matter the Met has no legal right to control what is said about it unless the material published is libelous or written in a way to suggest falsely that the Met itself is the author. Material in the public domain may freely be described so long as the copyright laws are adhered to and non-defamatory material from sources may be published whether or not it was confirmed.”I mean, obviously. In what America could a site like that be "libel" while the RNC's press releases circulate freely?
Sunday, August 14, 2011
1. Productions supplying an existing text/score with stage business that radically departs from the traditional production: COOL. Here's the space for your Regietheater, your modern dress productions, your severe minimalism--you don't have to like it, but this is a valid way to present an existing play in a new light, draw new inferences, keep things fresh. As long as you allow some leeway with stage directions, there's really no theoretical daylight between a "traditional" version produced 100 years after the fact and a "nontraditional" version.
2. Productions that add/subtract elements of the body of existing text in an attempt to get closer to what they believe is an authoritative/performance friendly version: COOL. Yes, this gets tricky, and people can have heated arguments in good faith about what belongs in an authoritative/performance friendly version of a work. But its just in the nature of work written for the theater that "authoritative" is open to debate. Especially in opera, of course, we also have a long tradition of performance cuts. The current trend towards performing more rather than less of a score is a good one, but where cuts are kept, they are kept out of expedience or tradition, not some larger agenda, and constitute a relatively minor sin.
3. Productions that use substantial elements of an existing text but are unmistakably a new work: COOL. Here's the category for theatrical "mash-ups" of all sorts (provided ludicrous copyright laws aren't an issue).
4. Productions that substantially change the source material but could easily be mistaken for the original: NOT COOL. And that's what this new Porgy production sounds like. Go ahead and create a new play that is "about" Porgy and Bess. Call it "Porgy 2000". Proviso #3 says that's fine. But the whole enterprise of revival has to do with grappling with a text and trying to offer what is worthwhile about a work to a present-day audience. Without the bright line of the Text, the temptation to serve the lowest common denominator of current tastes to leverage an existing brand is too great, and surely that is a recipe for the most dishonest kind of art.
Others have suggested that what's really going on here is Paulus/Parks' attempting to be diplomatic about while softening "Porgy's" undeniably racist trappings for a modern audience. But why not just have that conversation outright instead of criticizing the quality of the work? If "Porgy" has more merit than other racist works of the period that have been justifiably consigned to the dustbin, that should be apparent in a good production. If it doesn't have merit beyond the catchy songs, then do a production that questions and interrogates that content (or do a highlights CD). What's not OK is sending the original material, with all its complexities, down the memory hole, and assuming that you can pass off something more palatable as the original.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
It is absolutely true that when income falls precipitously, as it has for many arts organizations, costs must be realigned. And it is also true that unions, in protecting their workers, fight tooth and nail to maintain their members' standard of living and work environment. That is why there are unions in the first place.There sure has been a disturbing amount of union-bashing in the last year or so. Not that one isn't allowed to disagree with specific unions' actions or policies, mind you--these are fallible institutions seeking their constituents' interests like any other, and any specific case will have multiple perspectives. What's distressing are the kneejerk suggestions that have nothing to do with a specific case but just generally assume collective bargaining practices are incompatible with economic reality.
But the key issue is: why has revenue fallen so far for so many arts organizations?
It is not the fault of union members that we are selling fewer tickets or raising less funds. We can blame a terrible economy, lack of arts education in our schools, substantially lower government grants at every level and new forms of entertainment that compete for the time and resources of our audiences for much of the reduction in resources available for arts organizations. A recent study, for example, found that contributions for the arts fell much farther during the recession than had previously been expected.
Thursday, June 09, 2011
But powerful outside groups have had to use hot pincers to obtain much of the support labor and women’s organizations have obtained from the Democratic lawmakers, and still experienced dramatic contractions of labor rights, union memberships, and abortion access. Throwing in with a political party may get the arts community access to machinery and infrastructure—but it would require arts organizations to build formidable new organizations and fundraising capacity to earn a seat at the party table, much less a favorable slot in the list of Democratic priorities.
- Arts subsidies have some fundamentally anti-populist features. This is the protest one hears against government support when aligned with bastions of "high" culture--that the government shouldn't be in the business of supporting culture that is experienced by relatively few people or culture that, despite subsidies, still charges for entry.
- Unsubsidized culture is satisfying enough. If you don't mind largely excluding a few sectors (i.e. classical music), it is the case today that a liberal-minded person in a big city can live a highly fulfilling cultural life without ever consuming (or more importantly perceive that they are consuming) a piece of art that has received any direct government subsidy.
- Arts subsidies' effect on societal welfare is weak to nonexistent. After 40 years of fighting a rearguard action against conservatives who would drown government in the proverbial bathtub, liberals are highly protective of the narrow but unimpeachable space in which justified government action exists. As an economic welfare enhancing activity, the arts may well have some value, but it falls somewhere below the already dubious value of state-sponsored sports stadiums and well short of preferred investments in infrastructure, health care, etc.
- Arts subsidies go to works without redeeming social/political content. This is sort of the liberal counterpart of conservatives' anger over taxpayer dollars spent on "degenerate art"--a sense that, if the people are going to fund art, then it should at least advance the peoples' aims. More fundamentally, it is a rebuke to the (not unfounded) concern that governments sponsor art in order to perpetuate the dominant culture.
Sunday, June 05, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
Monday, May 23, 2011
Friday, May 20, 2011
It’s a piece that grabs you by the throat and leaves you flattened, culminating with a pitched battle between two full sets of timpani, positioned at opposite sides of the orchestra, that evokes nothing so much as trench warfare (the piece was written during World War I) [...] Dausgaard couldn’t get the orchestra to play with all the finesse one might have wished for, but he got a lot of blunt force out of them, and muscled the concert back into the realm of the viscerally exciting where it had begun.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Saturday, May 07, 2011
WNO pulled out the big guns Friday for an Iphigenie en Tauride that was no doubt the most significant musical presentation of the season (not to downplay the many fine qualities in other recent shows, mind you). I've managed to see it twice before, in that celebrated Met Wadsworth version with Domingo, Graham, and Paul Groves, and the '06 Lyric run with Graham and Groves (which I remember as total dullsville production-wise though apparently I had some kinder words for it at the time)--but I'd venture that this outing made me appreciate anew what an incredible work it is. Some superficial flaws aside, this WNO revival makes an excellent case for the taut drama, involving psychology, and disarming music of Gluck's work. As Charles Downey's preview notes, this is a work that thrives the closer it gets to the sensibility of the Greek drama at its source. Where those afore-mentioned productions sometimes traded in heavy melodrama at the expense of clarity, the WNO production does a fine job of letting the plot unfold on the strength of the characters' own motivations and intelligence, and allowing the audience to really engage with the play.
Racette, in a role debut, sounds glorious in this music, if some of the trickier transitions are as yet a bit clumsy and the top thins a bit. This is a more thoughtful, reserved Iphigenie than Susan Graham's desperate refugee--the stern, almost desensitized authority Iphigienie must project in her public capacity clearly contrasted with her private anguish. The second act was gripping throughout, though I think she has room to dig deeper into the possibilities afforded by Iphigenie's arias in the first act, which were beautiful to listen to but somewhat perfunctory.
Shawn Mathey's Pylade turned in a fine first act, including a soaring "Unis dès la plus tendre enfance" (trans. "Oreste, I am totally gay for you"). He remained pretty committed through the second act (I imagine it is tough for most people not to seem just a bit aloof next to his stage bro), though vocally seemed to hit an increasing number of rough patches and was working awfully hard for it by the end. At his best he delivers a warm passionate sound, and his middleweight (vocal) size is a solid fit for the part, even if I find myself wanting something heavier at times.
And of course, Placido Domingo is onstage. I mean, there's just no getting around the fact that hearing him live continues, against all odds, to be one of the greatest gifts you can give to your ears (love this old Sieglinde post from the 2005 Met Walkure's intimating that the dark arts are at work). But even more than that, one pines for the immediacy of what he does with that big wonderful voice. On a stage of sensitive method actors, Domingo is old-school Hollywood--there's little chance of him disappearing behind Oreste, or Lohengrin, or what have you, but that doesn't mean what he's communicating isn't true. His tortured bravado, and the sad tender moments between him and Racette were the dramatic highlights of the evening.
As noted above, the dramatic action between the principals was well choreographed and communicated, and included some striking visuals like the red fabric representing the altar in the finale and the "blood" pursuing Oreste during his great monologue, though there were also a number of needlessly artsy/fussy moments. As choices go, the first act ballet was one of the more intriguing bits, a creepy interlude performed by four dancers in bathing suits and disco mirror caps plus a guy on hoof-like shorty stilts.
Before the half, the physical production flirted dangerously with the sort of unappealing hodgepodge concept we've been seeing a lot of here. But the second half brought enough successful moments to temper, if not entirely reverse, that assessment. The set is your basic "abstract antiquity" theme which, if somewhat static, gets the job done, and things vastly improved after the shiny black terrazzo wall that dominated the first half was retired. Costuming was a kind of lazy nondescript modern dress, trenchcoats for principals, sequined smocks for the chorus--you fill in the blanks. This sort of aesthetic muddiness doesn't really detract from the overall impact, but doesn't do it any favors either.
Oh and PS, if you are seeing the production, do note the whole aria Pylade does by the light of Marcellus Wallace's briefcase...
Thursday, May 05, 2011
Wednesday, May 04, 2011
The principle -- generally accepted by economists -- is simple enough. Suppose you're a company that manufactures things (or, these days, contracts to have them manufactured). As time goes on, the manufacturing process gets more efficient. Productivity rises. So you spend less money to make more widgets.
This happens more or less through the entire economy. So we all (very generally speaking) get richer. (Obviously, I'm leaving out such factors as glaring income inequality, which normally I care a lot about.) Because we're richer, we can have things we didn't have before. Computers. iPhones. More sophisticated cars. More varied clothes and food. We take these things for granted. They're part of our lives. We expect to be paid enough so we can buy them. Which, if we work for a company that shows increased productivity, isn't hard for our employers to do.
But some big players in our economy get left out of this. These are institutions (very typically nonprofits) that don't show productivity gains. Orchestras, for instance. It takes just as many musicians to play a symphony now as it did 50 years ago. Or hospitals. Or universities.
Orchestras, in fact, are less productive than they were, because (see above) they need larger staffs, for marketing and development. And so orchestras fall behind the rest of the economy. Their costs keep rising, just everybody else's do. Just like General Electric, or Ralph Lauren, they have to pay higher salaries than they used to, so their musicians -- and the people on their staff -- can buy computers, and nicely varied food.A nice summary of the notion, as articulated by its main proponent William Baumol in a 1966 book and subsequent papers, can be found here.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
So…about that Walkure premiere last Friday. Not a home run, music wise, but a lot going for it:
Voigt confidently meets the role’s basic demands (this premiere should really silence the shrillest doubters) and, for sheer vocal appeal, is clearly in a superior class than your Gasteens and your Watsons. But if her top notes can still capture that steely purity, further down the staff things grows hollow and pinched. More problematic was the fact that her reading Friday was fairly pedestrian; passages meant to bloom with careful dynamics came off as secure but blunt. Hopefully this is attributable to needing some time to grow in the part (and the run) and not a sign that the level of security she achieves comes at the price of the finesse that really makes the part exciting. Her Brunnhilde wasn’t quite as superficial as fall’s dramatically flat Salome’s in DC, but the overall impression just isn’t terribly authoritative as of yet.
As expected, Terfel is much better served by the Walkure Wotan than the Rheingold one. While that coveted “deity timbre” is clearly not on the table, and the spectre of barkiness can never quite be dispelled, his interpretation offers some undeniable pleasures, like a bitter, haunted Act II monologue and a melting “Der Augen Leuchtendes Paar” that reminded everyone why his casting seemed like a good idea in the first place.
Kaufmann and Blythe are the principles that really deliver without reservation. My small quibble with Kaufmann is that his Siegmund has lots of potential for a great portrayal but would benefit from a bit more freedom and lacked something in the seduction department (Jimmy wasn’t doing him any favors in the pit, mind you). That said, if you see him don’t say anything because with that remarkable voice he should clearly be owning Met Siegmunds for the next decade or so. Blythe is a total pro in this music and offers the complete Wagnerian package—her booming Fricka combined spine-tingling sound with jumbo-sized doses of spite and indignation (I was up against the wall in Fam Circ and could hear her rattling the paneling). Westbroek’s Sieglinde sounded excellent in the first Act but was apparently ill—her fancy cover was Margaret Jane Wray who drove things home with little missed.
Hearing the Met Orchestra play this music with all their exceptional precision and warmth is always a privilege, though Levine turned in a somewhat subpar performance on the heels of his riveting Wozzecks. The problems, as others have noted, were most pronounced in the first Act, which never really managed to catch fire as it should. One can take slower tempos in Act I, of course, provided the payoff is a richer experience of the score, but Levine’s heel-dragging was carried out in rigid four-four time, largely smothering any opportunities for the sensuality and abandon called for. Acts II and III picked up substantially, but I still could have used a little more feeling and sweep in the big Act III moments.
* * *
As far as the production goes: sorry, but I’m out. I wanted to be a good sport about this new Ring, and last night’s Walkure made a much bigger effort than the fall’s Rheingold, but it also proved just what a mess the thing is.
To go back to basics: an opera production follows a certain aesthetic or conceptual frame in order to highlight and enhance intellectual and emotional aspects of the piece in question. In some productions, your Chereau Bayreuth Ring for instance, the visual language helps to articulate a fairly specific interpretation (the industrial revolution setting driving the audience to consider the political and historical currents in the Ring). In something like the New Bayreuth productions of the 50s, severe aesthetic parameters encourage a dialogue with the Ring's past productions and challenge the audience to appreciate it anew without all the baggage.
Even the hyper naturalistic Schenk Ring is far from “neutral” in its production values—it delivers emotional impact by heightening the romantic use of nature that permeates the piece (e.g. Wotan is like an awesome mountain, Siegfried’s puberty is like a sunrise, etc). Its claims to authenticity are as much a konzept as anything, engaging the audience in questions about whether an “authentic” representation brings us closer to or narrows our experience of the piece. And, of course, whether “authentic” is even a worthwhile or possible goal.
The aesthetic of this LePage ring is: “making the big set machine look like whatever we can manage, hopefully pretty”. It is an anti-production, a production without an idea in its head, and unified only by the constant desperation to pull off pleasing looking things within the meaningless parameters of its physical materials. Its most ambitious claim is simply that it can be done—that it will live up to vague promises to astonish. The experience of watching it, waiting Gollum-like for the meager thrill of a spinning plank or fleeting sparkly graphic, is intellectually deadening—an astonishing conclusion to reach while watching a piece so rich with dramatic and intellectual possibility.
Yes, on the surface it seems to be going for some of the same territory as the Schenk production, and there are some nice looking bits to be sure, particularly the trees/snow setup for Siegmund’s opening run through the forest. But any gestures in this direction are just a convenient way to provide some cover for its empty soul. No one really aiming to present beauty and nature onstage—implying an experience that is seamless, elegant, and inspiring to look at—could justify mounting a production which routinely asks the audience to watch the unadorned planks in all their horrible nakedness.
With the needs of the machine reigning supreme, it is perhaps not surprising the extent to which the normal considerations of stagecraft are sacrificed or neglected in this production. The machine generally constricts the singers’ playing space to 10-15 feet between the raised apron and the whirling planks of death, and within this narrow band they are choreographed with a shoddiness embarrassing for such a major stage. Key blocking moments (i.e. the final Brunnhilde/Wotan moment) are played clumsily and have little emotional impact; elegant solutions of routine staging challenges (i.e. how to make Brunnhilde’s getaway at the end of Act II mildly plausible) are simply not attempted (she stares at Wotan’s back for 90 seconds from two feet away before slowly gathering her things and walking off).
Also, the lighting is bad—for long stretches the singers look like they are being illuminated by the Met’s work lights. Even when things are a tad more deliberate, the lighting design does little to evoke the dramatic locale or moment. Consider the Valkyrie horse gimmick: so, yes, the Valkyries each “ride” a plank that bobs up and down kinda like a big horse head. But that’s it. They are bobbing up and down on a uniform brightly lit set that does nothing to evoke a night sky or horses or whatever. The point of this “coup-de-theatre” is not to bring to life this improbable moment onstage—it is to “inspire” the audience to clinically examine the bobbing motion, determine it is like horses, and applaud. Theatrical illusions are supposed to awe by persuading the audience that extraordinary things (helicopters landing, cats flying tires, etc) are happening onstage—LePage’s Ring defines illusion down.
Another complaint: even more so than Rheingold, this Walkure features a number of moments in which one fears for the safety of singers or extras. That’s not to say they are sacrificing singers’ safety for the production—I’m sure everything is on the up and up—but it points to how the design team’s concerns lie with creating apparent thrills rather than real visceral excitement. Audience members may be impressed that you hung someone upside down 30 feet in the air, but if done poorly they don’t actually enjoy it. Take the final scene on the rock: stunt double Brunnhilde is shuffled to the top of the machine, gingerly laid down (attached to some kind of invisible harness) and then very slowly lifted to be upside down and vertical, to get the effect of the audience looking down on top of the mountain, with the whirring planks doing a poor imitation of fire on all sides. By the end of the whole clumsy set up, shown in excruciating detail with little sense of surprise, the audience is simply glad that not-Voigt hasn’t fallen to her death.
But I’ll stop there. I have no problem with a “traditional” Ring, and certainly not a “traditional” Ring that tries to get where it is going with novel means instead of papier-mâché boulders. But there needs to be a destination—some vision for the 17 plus hours of the Ring that gives it a life or meaning that could never be achieved on a concert stage. The disturbing thing about LePage’s Ring is that it isn’t derived from any vision for the Ring, but a narrow vision for a spectacle which isn’t even very spectacular.