Dr Johnson, who would have killed at open mike night (“Ever notice how Whigs and Tories say hello? Whigs are all like, ‘Come, Citizen, let us to the alehouse whence we shall foment dissent!’ and Tories are all like, ‘Prithee, good sir, let us repair to the chapel, where we may thank the beneficent Maker for the rights of true-born Englishmen’”), famously observed that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience; the same is true of subscription series – so many glittering stars and promising debuts, beloved masterpieces and exciting new works, laid out like a map to a new land, eventually turning into the reality of half-forgotten misty ruins, some shining monuments, blurred photographs, and lots of dust and inconvenience, and, always, a pile of bills waiting after the journey. I know this, but still get excited every year, by every company’s announcement. So I took it as a very bad sign for the upcoming San Francisco Opera season that I was bored, restless, and discontented even before I finished reading the renewal brochure.
One of the first things I did when I returned home in 1992 was to subscribe to the Opera, and I’ve been a subscriber (and small-level donor) ever since. The Opera has always formed the spine of my theater-going here. I came close to switching to individual tickets once before, when I was tired of uninspired performances of the same old standards (kids – this is what we call foreshadowing), but then Pamela Rosenberg took over and I could start expecting something interesting at the Opera House. So I actually feel very melancholy about this, and have put off posting about the upcoming season. I was fully prepared, despite an urgent need to pay off home repairs and suchlike, to pull out the credit card for the Opera. I guess I should be grateful that Gockley is watching my expenses for me.
It's like the scene in The Hard Nut when the older daughter, who thinks she's very adult and stylish and sophisticated, opens her gift from her parents, and can't hide her childish disappointment at the ugly fluorescent green sweater covered with weird squiggles, which they obviously chose in the hope that it would be stylish and sophisticated enough to please her. It's a complicated sadness, of misplaced good intentions and misguided hopes. I’m going to survey the upcoming season, so if you’d like to skip the idle philosophizing and rueful retrospectives then feel free to jump on down to where I resume delusional speculation, sorrowful denunciation, and general more-or-less insightful bitching.
First up is Simon Boccanegra, with Hvorostovsky and Frittoli, Runnicles conducting. No arguments with this one, so I’ll go off on a tangent instead, no doubt to the shock of any regular readers. I’m a little surprised this was chosen for Opening Night, but then I don't know why they bother performing an opera at all on Opening Night. They should switch to an hour of popular arias and then straight to the party. Or skip the arias altogether and just have the society women march across the stage in their usually garish and poorly chosen gowns. Warhorse, clothes horse – it’s not a night about music. So I’m definitely getting a ticket for this one, and definitely not on opening night.
Next up is The Bonesetter’s Daughter, a premiere by Stewart Wallace with libretto by Amy Tan. I have my doubts about this. Let me put it this way: I am one who frequently went straight from Symphony Hall to Tower Records (or, in later times, to Amazon.com) to buy CDs from composers new to me whose music I had just heard (Messiaen, Lieberson, Harrison, and Rouse were some of them). I’ve been known to buy CDs just because a review or blog mentioned a composer in passing (certain key words, like “gloomy”, “intellectual”, or “difficult” can always get me to buy, regardless of whether the reviewer means them as compliments). So I was thinking I knew nothing at all about Stewart Wallace, and it turns out he composed the opera Harvey Milk which was done here a few years ago, so I had not only read about him, I had sat through an entire evening of his music, and I still didn’t remember his name. I’m thinking that’s not a good sign. I want to see this just because it’s new, and I’m hoping for the best (if I weren’t basically an easily pleased optimist, I wouldn’t go to the theater as often as I do). But I don’t think the Opera should pat itself on its backstage for taking a risk with this particular new work, at least as far as the box office goes; artistic success is yet to be determined. Amy Tan is an extremely popular author (and she lives in this area), the large local Chinese-American population would be drawn to the story, what I recollect of Wallace’s music from Harvey Milk is, shall we say, not forbidding to the general public, and those desperate for novelty on the operatic stage will want to support anything new.
The San Francisco premiere of Die Tote Stadt is next. Well, so far this season is looking deceptively appealing, since I would love to see this one as well. (Perhaps “City of Death” would be suitable for opening night, especially since the target audience wouldn’t get the joke.)
Idomeneo follows. This is probably my least favorite of the major Mozart operas, partly for semi-silly reasons, and yes, I’m talking about the lack of on-stage sea monster action. Sorry, I just have a sea monster thing, and if you’re going to tease me with frequent mentions of a terrible sea beast, then you’d damn well better put the thing on stage. Also, just as for me Bach’s Christmas Oratorio always conjures up a frosty late December night in an ice-cold church in Harvard Square, and the wooden pew getting harder and harder (possibly because it was literally freezing) and consequently my butt getting more and more numb as the hours slipped towards midnight, and this naïve young concert-goer thinking, This is a whole lot of German, so Idomeneo conjures up a struggle to stay awake on an overly warm summer evening in Tremont Temple during a concert performance of a very lengthy and unfamiliar work with only a bare plot summary to hand, back in the days before surtitles. That might even have been the night when I first wondered why everything, no matter what its length, had to start at 8:00. I remember thinking during the concert, We’re early music people – this is too late for the likes of us. (I looked up the playbill: Roger Norrington conducted, and the cast included Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Idomeneo, Lorraine Hunt [Lieberson] as Idamante, Jeanne Ommerle as Ilia, and Lisa Saffer as Elettra, and yes, I would love to have that evening back, along with the chance to take a nap beforehand, and don’t I feel like one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe.)
So far it’s at least modified rapture; the score is four for four, though as they say in football, some of those were ugly wins. But next up is Boris Godunov, starring Samuel Ramey. Out of respect for a distinguished artist, I don’t want to dwell on this, but I’d like to remember his voice as it was. Normally this would make my cut, but not under these circumstances. The large local Russian population will most likely turn out in force for this no matter what.
Then we have L’Elisir d’Amore, a title the Opera insists on translating, because while apparently “Die Tote Stadt” poses no problems as a title for an American audience, that same audience is incapable of figuring out that L’Elisir d’Amore means The Elixir of Love. This is a new production, set in the Napa Valley wine country (so let me pose the obvious question right now – would Nemorino, raised among wineries, really not realize what it was Dulcamara was selling?). Given that angle, and this opera’s general sunny pleasantness, and especially its short running time, I’m surprised this isn’t the Opening Night victim. Sometimes at the opera I’ll see what is obviously date night for some attractive young pair, handsomely dressed up in dark suit and expensive tie and nice floor-length dress with a gauzy wrap to cover the bare pretty shoulders, and often the night’s performance is really ill-omened for the young couple – Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, The Queen of Spades, all calculated to give pause to young love – and since they seem like such nice kids, I’d like to give them this advice: Take it from one who knows, because he’s read a lot of books, and they talk about this stuff, and he’s had plenty of time to think about such things while sitting by himself in many an ornate and gilded auditorium waiting for the show to start – this is the one to go to for date night. You will smile gently at the lovers’ misunderstandings, you will glow warmly at their happy union at the end, and in between, since all great comedies have moments of deep and pervasive sadness, your hearts will be pierced when you hear Una furtiva lagrima (especially, no doubt, as sung by Ramon Vargas in this production), and you will think of all the secret tears you have shed, or hope to shed, for the beloved by your side, and your hands will creep together, and remain clasped until the end, when you must reluctantly separate them to applaud the delightful show; and in later years – and the Opera seems intent on giving you many, many chances for repeat viewings – your memories of this night will add to your pleasure in the opera and in each other; and I wish my imaginary couple great joy of it, but I’m not feeling the need. You see? I know it all already.
Next up is La Boheme. Of course.
I thought of leaving it at that (the alternative was: Next up is La Boheme. No. Fucking. Way.), but of course there’s more to say. Look, it’s a beautiful opera, and a justly loved masterpiece; it happens I’ve never particularly liked it, and resent it in my petty, brooding way, but I can see what people respond to (sort of like watching Jacques Tati films at the UC Theater back in the day, with a thin smile on my face, while some around me are howling with laughter), and the love duet in Act 1 always made me cry, at least until the last time the Opera put it on. But I seriously feel as if Mimi’s gelida manina are wrapped around my throat, and tightening their grip. Can’t they just let that bitch die in peace? When you live in an area of limited live-opera resources (that is, if you live anywhere outside of New York City), you can’t help but miss all the works unstaged so that the bohemians may once again trot out their increasingly threadbare antics. The big deal with this production (in case you haven’t noticed, the selling points this season are setting and star, not the overly familiar repertory – I was going to look up how many times I’ve seen these operas in my years with San Francisco Opera, but then I realized I didn’t need to bother, since the telling fact is that it seems as if I’ve just seen all of them, even the new ones) is that Nicola Luisotti is conducting, and Joseph Calleja is making his debut, and Gheorghiu is returning. I liked Gheorghiu quite a lot in Rondine, but it will not have escaped my astute readers that I spent more time discussing her truly awful hairdo than her truly beautiful voice – I would be happy to hear her again, but I’m not desperate about it. I understand Mimi is a signature role for her, and I’m curious about that, since Gheorghiu seems to traffic in mid- to high-wattage star power and general glam diva-ness, while the qualities you need for Boheme are sweetness, simplicity, sincerity, and a melting tenderness, qualities which, let me just point out, are all the more endearing when they are only seen at refreshingly long intervals. So I’m back to No. Fucking. Way. (Let me clarify what that means – it means I don’t want to pay for a ticket to this. That would only encourage them. If someone gave me a ticket, I would go, of course –my principles aren’t that strict. I’m not exactly saying I can be bought, but I can certainly be rented for extended periods.)
Tosca, the first opera I saw at the War Memorial Opera House back in 1992, and many times both before and since, follows. Again, I like this opera a lot, but the only way I would pay to see it at this point is if Maria Callas returned from the dead, and even then only on one of her good days.
The Opera, by the way, is claiming that Tosca and Boheme are being presented as a special tribute for the 150th birthday of their composer. Sounds more like business as usual to me, and pretty half-assed as tributes go. I have yet to see Trittico or Fanciulla, or Edgar or Le Villi – can’t they even present unusual repertory from the familiar names? Even a single gala concert by distinguished artists of famous scenes or arias would have seemed more like a special evening and a suitable tribute to their favorite cash machine.
Porgy and Bess, with players to be named later, returns; this is actually the first opera I ever saw, and in the touring production sponsored by David Gockley’s Houston Grand Opera, no less. (Oh, David! You remembered! But I’m still not forgiving you for this season). I love the opera, it’s a great, vibrant work, and I just don’t feel like seeing it again.
Given the nature of this season, you had to know that Traviata would make an appearance – hear that lyrical coughing off in the distance? This time it’s not the audience. Again, a beautiful work, though I could easily name five, or six, or seven other operas by Verdi I prefer (well, if you’re going to force it out of me: Falstaff, Trovatore, Rigoletto, Ballo, Forza, Boccanegra, and Don Carlo/s). I’ll confess to being a little torn about this one; Alfredo is the dashing Charles Castronovo, and each time I’ve heard him (Tamino, Nadir, Don Ottavio) I’ve been progressively more impressed, and Violetta is La Netrebko. People divide very sharply on her. I’ve always been on the pro side of the great Trebs Divide, but she seems to have changed repertory since she sang all those Russian roles here long ago, and I’m curious to hear her now. But last time I saw Boheme, I had changed my ticket so I could hear her Musetta, and even her famously gorgeous shoulders couldn’t carry the overly familiar work for me. (I also note that for this, as well as Boheme, the much-touted stars are not singing every performance, and the second cast is not even named, so why buy in advance when you don’t know what you’re getting?) So right now I’m very doubtful about this one.
Then there’s the new Jake Heggie piece, Last Acts, with a libretto by Gene Scheer based on a play by Terence McNally and starring Frederica von Stade. As with The Bonesetter’s Daughter, I want to see this because it’s new, but I have my doubts, though fewer in this case. Generally I like Heggie’s music, and I’ve enjoyed a number of Gene Scheer’s songs and I thought he did an excellent job with the libretto for An American Tragedy, and von Stade is always appealing. On the other hand, though I especially liked Heggie’s music for his last collaboration with Scheer, To Hell and Back, an updated version of the rape of Persephone premiered by Philharmonia Baroque last year, I thought Scheer’s libretto was a failure, largely because of the simplistic and stereotypical presentation of the male character (who doesn’t even make an appearance; it's sung by two women). As for McNally . . . I’m not expecting much beyond slick and entertaining and sentimental on cue. I heard At the Statue of Venus, his last collaboration with Heggie, a scena about a woman waiting to meet a blind date. The libretto was basically the Barber/Agee Knoxville Summer of 1915 and Sex and the City run through a blender (Sex and the City: the incredibly repetitive adventures of four spunky gals in the big city – the whore, the bore, the priss, and the lawyer – who are not nearly as interesting and intelligent as they seem to think). Mixed bag here, but it’s actually a moot point for my decision on the Opera subscription, since I can get this through my Cal Performances subscription, and I’ll keep subscribing to them as long as they keep bringing Mark Morris back.
So there it is, and I don’t know anyone who is excited about this schedule. Well, let me adjust that, since I am nothing if not scrupulously accurate: there was one. At the intermission of the recent Gil Shaham concert, after appropriate introductions from a mutual friend, I mentioned to the elegantly dressed and obviously respectable dowager next to me that I was disappointed in the Opera announcement. She seemed stunned. “What do you want?” she demanded. “All new stuff?” Naturally I stoutly denied the ugly accusation, but things were never really the same for the rest of our five-minute acquaintance. I just think planning an opera season, especially at a large house, is a tightrope act, and I really think Gockley lost his balance this year.
There’s no shame in a safe season of well-produced and familiar works, but there’s little excitement either, and no glory, and ultimately no future. Twenty-five years ago, I would have been, if not excited by this season, at least satisfied enough to send in my money. But now, like all too many of this season’s protagonists, I’m left alone in my chilly garret, wondering why (O mio destino avverso!) cruel fate has decreed that I must part from my long-time love, the operatic stage. Here’s a conversation I’ve had way too many times:
Me (to Opera-Lover): Are you going to [name of the season’s token “modern” opera]?
OL: Oh, no. I hate modern opera! I don’t want to hear that!
Me (too courteous to point out he/she hasn’t heard the music yet): Oh. Are you looking forward to [fill in name of warhorse]?
OL: Oh, no. How many times do I need to see that?
As with anything, the core group that really loves and appreciates the form is fairly small, but steady, and you need their excitement to leaven the lumpen mass of the benignly indifferent (this applies to baseball or football as much as opera or the symphony), and I just don’t see much here to excite that group. The Opera has been doing a lot of outreach, with simulcasts, and the forthcoming movie (and, I hope, DVD) releases, and with lowered ticket prices this season (I salute that sincerely, and wish I liked the season enough to take advantage of it; all they need to do now is acknowledge that most of us have to work to buy our tickets, even at the lower prices, and raise the curtain earlier), but the outreach is mostly technological and not artistic. I’m not sure that filling a stadium for a live simulcast proves much except that you can round up several thousand people who don’t actively hate opera, and who love a free show. In order to move at least some of those people into paying for tickets, you need to break out of the view of opera as a stuffy, dead-end art form, and I don’t think you do that by showing the same ten operas over and over. Do you need to bring people into the opera house only to drive them out after a few years because they’ve already seen everything there?
There is a potential audience, and not just of music lovers, who turned out for St Francois, Dr Atomic, Dead Man Walking, Le Grand Macabre, or anything exciting, controversial, and adventurous. I have friends who bought tickets to those operas who had laughed at me for going to Boheme and Traviata repeatedly. I think what they were responding to was not any individual qualities in those fine works, but the sense that opera was a closed and somewhat outmoded and smug world for the already-initiated, or an expensive and comforting diversion for the comfortable. I’ve often heard that marketing has taken over arts organizations, and I’ve often wished it were actually true. Considering all the useless or dangerous junk that marketing types convince Americans they need (vitamin water? the Republican Party?), why can’t they convince people to sample something they really do need, like more productions of Janacek? There seems to be an assumption that anything outside the established warhorses is going to turn off potential opera-goers, but that’s just a projection of timid and conservative taste. There is absolutely no reason why Janacek would be more foreign or difficult than Puccini for a contemporary American with an interest in music or theater, and I wish musical organizations generally would stop sighing heavily about how difficult some music is, or how new music doesn’t sell out. You don’t tell people stuff is difficult and doesn’t sell. You tell them: Look, this isn’t for the run-of-the-mill opera-goer; this is for more cutting-edge types who don’t mind something a little more adventurous, and I'm thinking this might be something you would appreciate. You create series like the Los Angeles Opera’s Recovered Voices, with an intriguing premise that will keep people coming back. You don’t tell them something never gets put on because about ten people want to see it; you tell them it’s a rare opportunity to judge a controversial work for themselves. I have no background in marketing, but isn’t this obvious? I well remember walking around and around Boston Symphony Hall, nervously scanning all the posters day after day for weeks, thinking about going to a concert. I finally decided that Mozart’s 40th symphony and Beethoven’s 5th would be safe. I went and decided going to the symphony was OK. Dissolve to several years later, and I’m getting all excited when I hear there’s a piece consisting of 100 metronomes set off at the same time (and it doesn’t sound at all the way I thought it would, and I can no longer even remember what I was so afraid of in my cautious early years). See? It can happen. And I was an exceptionally timid youth. And if you still get people who refuse to see anything but the same ten operas over and over, well, to quote another celebrated quipster (not Dr Johnson this time, but also associated with the Word), let the dead bury the dead.
I wasn’t exactly expecting Moses und Aron or Die Gezeichneten to show up on the schedule, but there are plenty of neglected operas that are well within the artistic boundaries of this season that at least would be interesting to experience live; there are older works by Carlisle Floyd, Barber, Hanson, or Menotti, or newer works such as An American Tragedy or Margaret Garner, or even revivals for some of those world premieres that we keep hearing Gockley championed in Houston. But familiarity, down to each phrase of each celebrated aria in each well-known work, is the guiding principle here. Think of what a deep shock it would be to see Wozzeck on this schedule, and you realize how constricted the season is.
When your big step outside of mainstream repertory is Korngold's 88-year-old opera, already beloved by those who know it, by a well-known (albeit mostly for film music) composer, one considered unfashionable for a long-time because of his lush, melodic sound. . . . well, you’re just not that far from Puccini at all. The repertory this season seems particularly narrow in theme as well as style, and a gray sameness settled over the season as soon as I read through the list; most of them are of the “isn’t this romantic?” school, however misguided such an interpretation might be; most of them are of the “what pretty tunes!” school, however superficial such a judgment might be, or however based on familiarity more than anything else. Perhaps any musicologists out there can tell me if there is a single dissonant passage in this entire season; I feel like the dinner guests of the Emperor Heliogabalus, suffocating to death beneath the relentless cascades and accumulating drifts of heavily-perfumed rose petals.