Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Yuja Wang

Great recital here from last year's Verbier festival courtesy of She plays Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs, the Symphonic etudes, a variety of Scriabin preludes, some Prokofiev, etc. I love what a grand time she seems to have while playing--then as soon as she gets up to bow she can't get out of there fast enough.
Also note that her dresses here would probably also be scandalous if they weren't floor length. That means this whole kerfuffle is about acceptable hemlines. C'mon grandmas. Get over it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Zachary Woolfe has done a great service in digging into the backstory on the Met's shutdown of Brad Wilber's Met Futures page, for fifteen years(!) an invaluable source of information about future Met schedules (also h/t to parterre, of course). Reuters' Felix Salmon, primarily known for patiently explaining stuff about bonds to me, also weighs in.
The Met's pretense was that possible errors on the site somehow gave them the legal whatnot to request he take the site down. As Woolfe's piece makes clear, this is basically a gentle way to say "you are contrary to our corporate directives to control all information and you wouldn't last a second contesting this":
“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?
Not that it's a hill to die on or anything--its opera, and there are more important things in the world, etc. But that's what's so gross about it. Here's a site for the hobbyists, for the hard core that don't do the institution any economic favors but nonetheless carry the flame for opera as a great tradition for the listeners, not just the musicians--as an art form too beloved to be contained in the glossy morsels served up by one PR department. Its proof that the enterprise has a "constituency" and not just a subscriber base. And it's part of what makes New York far and away the greatest opera city in North America. (You don't see anyone committing to a Lyric Futures do you?)
But the Met's behavior isn't surprising or unique here--its just another symptom of the increasing dominance of marketing and PR prerogatives among classical music institutions. To the extent that "buzz" is a factor in reeling in an audience, it's nothing the machine can't generate on its own--and the machine can ensure that buzz is delivered in slick luxury packaging consistent with overall branding principles. One would like to be able to make some sort of statement about how an institution treating its most devoted fans like crap can only make for bad business but it doesn't quite wash. Opera's "fanboys" just don't deliver the goods.
But to channel a little Sandow: it's also hard to see how the increasingly hermetically sealed worldview of big-time classical PR, with its inexorable drive to erase all vestiges of a critical faculty in its audience, its flagrant abuse of superlatives, its need to turn the dark, messy, somewhere on the autism spectrum world of classical music into a Louis Vuitton handbag ad--its hard to see how that kind of PR will ever be terribly successful in facilitating new audiences' love for the art. Those who love it will still come, of course--but they'll love it in spite of its packaging.
P.S. Apparently Opera Tattler seems to be keeping up with San Francisco's futures seasons, albeit less comprehensively. Beware!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Re: Porgy

Stephen Sondheim's epic burn on the "Porgy and Bess" production being helmed by Diane Paulus with new material by Suzan Lori-Parks raises some natural pushback about whether Sondheim is getting behind excessive traditionalism here. So it seems appropriate to reiterate what is cool and what is not cool when producing new versions of old plays:

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.