Monday, February 13, 2006

News from the Gelb era

Tommasini does a nice job this morning calling out the elephant in the living room of Sunday's big Gelb article: the absence of new commissions on the agenda. As A. Ross noted yesterday, despite the many inspired ideas floated (the ticket price structure changes, the big name conductors, the big name theatre directors, the movie theater-cast thing) there's just not much here to get excited about music wise.

The more I think about it, it's actually quite distressing that Gelb's plan for reviving grand opera in the 21st century seems to be collaborating with the leading creative lights of every artistic discipline except opera itself. That doesn't leave a lot of hope that Gelb's Met is going to catapult the art form into the twenty-first century or shore up its twentieth century legacy, and its hardly very "daring". It also belies a fundamental misreading of complaints about the Volpe era. Lame productions are of course bothersome, but there's only one metric you need to know to indict Volpe on charges of hideboundness: four new commissions in three decades.

To answer Tommasini's question about Gelb's proposed high-brow Broadway workshop, it is indeed not the Met's job to help Broadway with its own issues. Just think for a second about the impact of the Met funding a high-profile project development program for the stable of contemporary composers Alex Ross suggests--John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Thomas Ad├Ęs--with the final goal of either a Met production or a production at some partner company. It would immediately make the Met THE hotbed for new opera in North America and generate publicity for contemporary opera for years to come. Why should an opera house spend that capital on developing Broadway talent?

Mind you, I am a big fan of envelope pushing musical theatre composers, but they have very different battles to fight. Those composers need to be writing with the goal of retaking territory on Broadway, not the opera house. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine any of these very viable Broadway composers wanting to put something on the Met stage with no chance for an extended run, no Tony conisderation, and no Broadway-level exposure. If the pieces in question are really written as 'opera' they probably won't be palatable or flexible enough to warrant a life on Broadway and will end up dying a noble death in the Met or the Vivan Beaumont. At the end, you just have energy being sucked from Broadway and focus and funding being sucked from new opera.

As for Osvaldo Golijov, I agree this is thin consolation. I enjoyed the Pasion at BAM several years ago, and have tickets to go again this month. But naming Golijov as your one commission from the classical camp is a fairly transparent bid to do 'new music' without engaging new music all the way. Now, I find the whole 'classical' or not thing with Golijov quite silly. His work is obviously a very different and very unapologetic animal: an aggressive hybrid. There's no question that the modern concert hall or opera house can handle it, and those venues are very right to support it. But ultimately it is what all hybrids are: instructive, iconoclastic and by definition an end in itself which lies just outside the traditions from which it pulls. That's not quite the same as explicitly moving the ball forward for contemporary opera.

Finally, I would question how much 'new' can really be accomplished by throwing theatre talent at the standard repertoire. I'm sure there will be some neat things, and I'm glad stinker productions like this year's Romeo and Juliette will be less likely. But unless you go the way of Regietheatre, designing for standard opera just doesn't engage theatre artists to the same extent as letting them shape new works. Reinvigoration for the Met repertoire for sure, but not for the opera world at large.

Of course, I'm not saying Gelb should sacrifice a shiny coat on the Met's bread and butter for a new music crusade (yeah mixed metaphors). But if part of his mission is to pull in the audiences which will do BAM, downtown theatre, and high-brow musical theatre, yet stay away from the Met, I think this strategy will only get him so far. At least as far as its daring-ness is concerned, the Met should focus on making the case that new grand opera is a vital part of the contemporary performing arts scene and worth investing in. Otherwise we're just talking window dressing.


Anonymous said...

If I were Peter Gelb I would

1) Nix the whole Broadway-Opera connection.

2) Commission stagings of some classical music non-operas - e.g Schumann's Scenes from Faust, Mahler 8, Haydn's The Creation and The Seasons, any of the Max Bruch oratorios,

3) Bring back Meyerbeer. Do I have to wait until I die and go to heaven to see a Meyerbeer opera staged? (God is Joe Volpe without union troubles.)

4) More Czech opera - something Dvorak IN ADDITION to Rusalka, something Smetana in addition to The Bartered Bride.

5) Has anyone ever seen a production of Wagner's Die Feen, Das Liebersverbot, or Rienzi? How about Strauss's Guntram? I would love to see them.

6) Commission some modern stuff and have them do it in a workshop at Juilliard - then bring the good ones to the Met. One a year in workshop - if good, then to the Met. If not, then to NYCO (just kidding.) My own personal preference would be to let other operas commission modern works and let the Met focus on what's already written, but I realize I am a Philistine for thinking that.


Anonymous said...

Hail...just FYI, if the MET does indeed put together this theatre workshop with the Beaumont, it won't be the first or only new-opera workshop in town: for seven years City Opera has been presenting VOX: Showcasing American Composers, which consists of excerpts of new or unproduced operas in rehearsed unstaged readings with our young singers and orchestra. It's less a workshop than a preview, true, but it's been utterly committed to new composers of all stripes--from Bright Sheng to David Del Tredici to Anne LeBaron, as well as Michael John LaChiusa--and we'll be back this year at NYU's Skirball center May 6 and 7. (I say "we" because I'm the composer-in-residence there, and my Lysistrata, which goes up next month, was featured on the program in 2001.) Forgive me for tooting the company horn so obviously, but it must be said: in this idea of a new opera workshop, as with so many new music issues (e.g., the first New York stagings of Schoenberg, Tan Dun, and Tobias Picker) City Opera, once again, got there first...Cheers, Mark Adamo

Anonymous said...

Heh, I'd love to see a production of Strauss' Guntram, except that it's genuinely undoable in any number of ways (tenor role=worse than Tristan) and it's an absolute mess. I think it's a *fascinating* mess, but a mess nonetheless, and my nom de guerre notwithstanding, I'm not sure the Met should take a run at it. Props to the more Czech opera thing.

What I'd personally love to see the Met do is bring in someone like the Finnish National Opera to do some of their traditional works. I think there's material there just as compelling as the Czech operas, and the language is equally unintelligible to J. Random Operagoer, so that's no longer a valid objection--why not do either of the Juhas or Pohjalaisia, or something more modern? So many great Finnish singers out there to wave the flag for that repertory.

JSU said...

Straussmonster, that sounds like an excellent early-summer idea, now that we've seen all the Kirov stuff twice and raided all their singers. Maybe something in there would even keep Mattila from getting bored.

Anonymous said...

Alex--I'm a big fan of Strauss' sense of humor in so many areas, and that's certainly one of them. There's some lovely music in the opera, though, and if one is inclined to take the time to listen to it with a thorough knowledge of Wagner, you can read it as an opera with an anti-Wagnerian metaphysics agenda. Youmans' argument on that line is very persuasive (in my humble opinion).

JSU--I love me the Finnish music, and there are some real gems in there. Mattila would make a great Marja in either Juha, although she's more important in the Madetoja (which is also more easily digested in terms of musical language) than the Merikanto (which is more daring and modernist). But where's the next Jorma Hynninen when you need him?

Do those of us in our 20's but not hipsters count as a target audience? If the Met wants to pull in more musicologists, they should get more consistent program notes...

Anonymous said...

The arrival of Peter Gelb has prompted some soul-searching at the MET regarding its mission. It has also prompted some sould searching for me, a relatively young lover of classical music and opera.

What would I want to see the MET do in the next few years? Would I want to see a more aggressive effort at commissioning new operas, performing new operas commissioned elsewhere, and work-shopping younger composers? Or would I rather see the so-called "standard rep" (I know it is a loaded term) fleshed out, with works by composers not commonly presented (e,g, Salieri, Meyerbeer, Auber, Schubert, etc) and by composers whose works beyond a popular few are not done (Saint-Saens, Offenbach, Smetana, Dvorak), and works by early modern voices not heard enough (Schrecker, Martinu, Britten).

I know it is not an either/or, but I would much rather the MET focus on the "older" stuff and let other companies do the new material.

This eminates from my belief that classical music is on its death bed, and that those who write now in its idiom are singing with its last breaths. To use the "English department" analogy - it is an idiom now for literature appreciation and not creative writing. There are many 20-somethings who go to the MET museum to see the classic art works; we should aim to teach them about classical music. (I mention the word "museum", which used to be an anathematic word to me when thinking about classical music, but which seems more appropriate as the years go by.)

ACB said...

I love your thoughts on Golijov. Very well-put. Swing by backstage after La Pasion?