Tuesday, September 18, 2007
let me entertain you
Just like Tax Day or Christmas, which always show up punctually at the same time each year yet catch some of us unprepared, the beginning of the autumn theater season is barreling right on down and I keep having to remind myself that it’s coming. Well, maybe it’s more like Easter, which is a moveable feast and therefore provides an excuse for lack of preparation. There really isn’t any preparation necessary, of course, other than keeping an eye on the calendar and the tickets. I’m not going to blame San Francisco Performances, either, or even mention that they sent my tickets a month after they said they would (you’ve heard the expression “being inefficient doesn’t make you artistic”? It should be blazoned on the walls of every arts organization). Anyway, David Gockley was nice enough to send a double-disc CD set reminding me of what I paid for last February. This is the second year the Opera has sent out CDs, in place of the lavish booklets they used to send. Initially the CDs took me aback, but then I decided that since I listened to the CDs and rarely ever looked at the booklets (though I've kept them all and they keep popping up during the clean-up/organization thing I’m doing and I can’t decide what to do with them), the CDs were fine. This year’s CDs are better than last year’s, which were heavy on plot summaries and such insights as “Did you hear about Deborah Voigt and the little black dress?” (yes, way too many times, and I’m sure Ms. Voigt would agree) and “That Nathan Gunn sure is a looker!” (noted). I don’t really understand the persistence of operatic plot summaries in program books – sure, they were vital before surtitles, but now that anyone coming in cold can follow the action as if it were spoken theater, must we persist in draining any possible surprise out of the evening? There’s a little more cultural context in this year’s set; for example, the Samson discussion has a whole lot about fin-de-siecle femme fatale fantasies as a projection of male anxieties, which I suppose is true as far as it goes, which isn’t quite far enough – the funny thing about such discussions is that they’re meant to illustrate the speaker’s insight into and distance from a purely male perspective, but they rarely step outside of the male-centered perspective and make the obvious corollary point that such fantasies may have been enjoyed and promoted as empowering by women themselves. If you were a woman living under the restrictions of upper- and middle-class life in late-nineteenth century Europe, wouldn’t you enjoy seeing yourself as Salome or Dalilah? (Just as you can easily see why some poor Jewish boys in Depression America could come up with Superman.) It’s worth listening to both discs to find out why the Opera switched from the Sendak production of the Magic Flute (water damage – I really love water but have been more cognizant of its destructive side ever since the year in which first the rains caused my kitchen ceiling to collapse and then the water heater failed and flooded the basement) or – and this is quite exciting, I think – Nixon in China will finally be staged here in some unspecified future season. This latter tidbit comes up in a discussion of Madama Butterfly, of all things – even Gockley sounded bored at its return and went off on various tangents, such as the source of La Scala’s name. I’m not criticizing that – I’m easily distracted myself. (Though just when I figured I could skip Butterfly despite the undoubted appeal of Racette in the role, he reveals that instead of the inadequate Franco Farina we saw last time Pinkerton will be played by up-and-comer Brandon Jovanovich, whom I’ve heard good things about and would love to hear in person – like another Italian-founded organization, they just keep pulling you back in.) But it’s a little hard to know quite what to make of these CDs, ultimately, both because I’m not sure who exactly the audience is and because I’m not sure how much is Gockley trying to position himself with an allegedly disgruntled public. When leaving Titus Andronicus with Ms. S last spring, I expressed my surprise that people who cared enough about theater to have subscribed for years didn’t know the basic plots of what I would consider fairly standard works. I had to explain to her that I wasn’t criticizing those people – if anything, I was praising them (and why do people always think I’m being critical? I, who have a heart that is filled with love!); it was more that I didn’t understand how they could keep from knowing these things, at least osmotically. (Which is as good a place as any to point out that Gockley, in his discussion of Verdi’s Macbeth, seems to think that Verdi and Piave changed Shakespeare’s characterization of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth; actually, the whole criss-cross pattern in which the ambivalent Macbeth becomes more cold-blooded and cruel and his fierce wife descends into confusion and madness is faithful to the play.) The moment that really irritated me was in the discussion of Tannhauser, when we are treated to a smug conversation between Gockley and the director in which both agree that “no fedoras” will appear in the production. Throughout, Gockley has said all the correct things about Runnicles and Rosenberg, but I think he’s showing his claws here, since “fedoras” seem to have taken on a Magritte-bowler-hat level of significance in what passes for the minds of the Opera audience. It’s a coded way of assuring us that whatever we see will not ruffle us up too much, which shouldn’t really be the aim of a theater. I just can’t cite any really inappropriate Rosenberg-era productions (with the possible exception of the atrocious and entirely traditional Nozze di Figaro she inherited from Mansouri), which is not to say they were all incredibly successful, but I’m still puzzled at the depth of the hostility. Contemporary American culture generally is very reactionary and anti-intellectual (both symptoms of a fearful culture) and I hate to see an opera company join in, especially with such smugness. I hear the same tone when people talk about how “at last” the terrible reign of the twelve-toners has been overthrown and composers need no longer tremble with fear if they write “beautiful melodies that the audience wants to hear.” Setting aside possible music-world (or academic-music-world) politics, which don’t really concern me as an audience member, I have to say that in my decades of concert-going I haven’t exactly been drowning in the dodecaphonic, and I’m someone who seeks it out. It’s like those articles in which we’re assured that (again, at last) people can ignore the food police and finally resume eating butter, as if all those puffing Americans waddling to their cars had actually ever given anything up instead of just thinking they should. It’s a projection based on guilt. But why not avoid guilty feelings by being open to and trying a variety of things? Isn’t it clear by now that anyone announcing the one true music of the future is only trying to encourage him- or herself to find a path? Why should the audience buy into the thought that one particular style must win? Given that most of us, even inveterate concert-goers, experience music most often through recordings, why limit yourself? Why not try something new and then just sell it to Amoeba if you genuinely hate it (or simply don’t respond to it)? Speaking of recordings, what really springs out at me from both sets of CDs is that the opera has good-quality recordings of their past performances – I realize there are artist permissions and royalties and such things to hammer out, but if they’re not looking into this as a possible revenue stream then they’re crazy. I’d hit that. Well, as I said, I’m easily distracted – back to the new Opera season. It all looks pretty promising to me, at least at this point. I’m partial to The Rake’s Progress, of course, and I’m always happy to hear Wagner (with the possible exception of Meistersinger), and a world premiere is always good, but the one work that keeps recurring to me when I think of this season is Ariodante, with a kick-ass cast (Graham, Swenson, and Podles). But that’s not for many evenings yet.