02 February 2008

fighting vainly the old ennui

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.


vicmarcam said...

You made me laugh, but also you made me sad. I feel like I'm watching the dying embers of a long marriage. Soon you'll be showing up everywhere listening to your shiny new music. SF Opera will try to lure you back, and you may try, but something will be forever broken.
Even I, very infrequent opera-goer that I am, was rolling my eyes at the amount of very, very familiar choices. I think it must be difficult, though, to set up an opera schedule. On the one hand, you have people like you who have seen so much already. On the other hand, you have a chunk of the audience quite literally dying out every year. As you point out, it is often something kind of famous and safe that lures people in for their first time (or something safe to bring a date or children to). But you are also right, I think, that something new and interesting (with the right marketing) would keep them coming back. It always seems to me that some of the more obscure works by the most famous composers would be kind of a happy medium, but that seems to happen, at least in San Francisco, the least of all the choices.
Meanwhile, where can I get tickets to see that Dr. Johnson? Is the let the dead bury the dead guy opening for him?

Patty said...

I was actually pleased with the choices, but I have only started to go to the opera, so I guess that makes a bit of sense at least. (Well, as much sense as I'm capable of.)

I've played in a pit for some of these in a little, somewhat unknown, opera company to the south, but I've not seen one of 'em live and in person. (Money. Kids. Busy schedules. It all made us unable to afford this. Now things are a wee bit easier ... the kids are out of the house and we have a bit more time. No moeny, but whatever.)

So anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing what I've heard, as well as seeing and hearing new things (Die Tote Stadt for one). Maybe the ones I know will fit my "vision" and maybe not. Time will tell.

Enjoying your blog.


Civic Center said...

I'm afraid it's you and your taste that is graduating, rather than the other way around. "Simon Boccanegra" is in my Top 5 Verdi easily and it's rarely done. "The Bonesetter's Daughter" is probably going to be as awful as "Harvey Milk," but maybe not. At least, it's a world premiere following last year's "Appomattox," which is an amazing two years in a row at a major house like the SFO. "Die Tote Stadt" I've never heard on disc or in person, so we're way up on the adventure, danger scale. "Idomeneo" is an exquisite opera, and I have to confess to an even worse lack of appreciation than you and your starry cast. I was a supernumerary in the production they did last time with the beautiful in every way Barbara Bonney, and never bothered to stay and watch the entire production after being freed from my chains by the aforementioned Ms. Bonney in the first scene of the opera (I hated the woman who played my wife so I always fled as soon as possible). Though there are no sea monsters in this production, it's quite beautiful.

Hearing the original Moussorgsky version of "Boris Godunov" is actually a rare treat. The usual Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated version with all the "Polish" scenes is more than a bit bloated, so it should be fascinating to hear the original, even with Ramey at the end of his vocal estate. By the way, I think he only appears in two out of the seven scenes in the weird, original opera.

"Elixir of Love" is probably going to be corny and fabulous, and a shortened version is being used for "Elixir for Families." I'll try to avoid it like the plague but will probably be cast as a frolicking villager supernumerary and will grow to love/hate the music intimately.

Next up is "La Boheme," "Tosca" and "La Traviata" which are all part of the bread-and-butter of every opera company in the world. As I said in the opening to this very long comment, you've graduated, Mr. Vaz. You need never see any of those operas ever again, but there are little Patricks who need to see them for the first time.

So forget the subscription and don't worry that you won't make it to the opera house out of sheer inertia. I think you need to become one of those fabulous gay "walkers" who go with brilliant, expensive old women to lovely evenings at a nice restaurant and an opera box to those productions you both find interesting, which of course are NOT "Tosca," or "La Boheme." With your hair and your nearly perfect teeth, you're a natural.

LaDonnaMobile said...

I'm nowhere near SF so have no right to comment specifically, but I do feel NFW about Boheme. I like Tosca and Trav but they are performed so often I take them or leave them largely on the grounds of how much I fancy the tenor ;-)

I agree that novel works can be marketed but they have to have something on which to hang the marketing. Last spring I went to a (seemingly) almost sold out Satyagraha, which sold itself on an amazing production and a decent cast, to theatre regulars rather than opera regulars, on the whole. And a half empty Katya Kabanova where they tried flogging the expensive seats for less than the price I paid for an indifferent seat. It had no selling point other than itself, and the exercise has actually made me less inclined to but cheap seats for something I'm unsure of, taking the gamble that they'll try to entice me with cheap-expensive seats.

We've also got Die Tote Stadt in London, making its UK staged premiere.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

Ms V, I actually was thinking of you when I heard the announcement, because you've seen, what, maybe ten operas? -- and at least two of them have been La Boheme. Plus the DVD, of course.
And gosh, it's awfully sweet of you to think that the Opera will try to lure me back, but I think we both know how these things go, at least for me -- I'll run into the Opera one day when it's with some wealthy society hag who wants to clinch her cultural credentials by buying all new couches for the latest Traviata production, and the Opera will nod to me with cheerful indifference, but I'll be awkward and defensive, and finally when they're clearly wondering why I'm still there, I'll blurt out, "I'm going to be taking a trip to New York City. Yep. Sometime this year. Definitely. Gerard Mortier -- he gets me." And the Opera will smile benignly, and tell me to have fun, and as I walk away hating myself I'll hear the dowager (but don't call her that to her lifted face!) saying, "Well, if he can take trips to New York, why doesn't he buy a decent pair of shoes?" And they'll laugh, and I'll go home, and though the room is getting darker I won't bother turning on the light, because I'm listening to all the Schoenberg string quartets, and I'm drinking and crying, and I'd wonder where it all went wrong, but I'll know where -- this season.
In other words -- I think that over the years the Opera has done a pretty good job balancing the familiar and the new and the unfamiliar by familiar names, but we just had an Opera 101 season, and I don't think we needed another.
You can find Dr Johnson in fine establishments everywhere. The dead bury the dead guy won't be opening, though -- he considers himself a headliner, and the closing act and final word. Sheesh, dude -- share the spotlight!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hi Patty,
I'm glad you enjoy the blog -- I'm always especially pleased when actual musicians find some enjoyment here.
And given your circumstances, this season most likely will be worth the investment in time and money. It's not that I think it's a bad season, and maybe that's what's depressing me so much -- I just think that for regular opera-goers it's very narrow and unadventurous, in subject matter, musical style, and staging (I know they're making a big deal about the Traviata being set in the 1920s, but Nazimova did that in Camille decades ago -- in fact, in the 1920s). There are very few operas I just find a complete waste of time, and they're not even in this season (here's the shortlist: Arabella, Manon (Massenet), Fledermaus, and I think I'm forgetting another). Even with Boheme, it's a case where I feel I should take Mimi's tiny frozen hand and say, honey, it's not you -- it's me. There's a lot of interest here for those who haven't had a chance to get to the opera a lot, but given the nature of opera audiences, a lot of them will have seen these works many times before, and I don't think there's enough here for them. I thought Gockley did an excellent job this season in balancing the familiar, the new, and the obscure, and I don't see that happening next season. And given the context of SF Opera's recent history, I see this season as a definite retreat from the more unusual or challenging operas and stagings of recent years.
But let me know if you're planning to post reviews in your blog -- I'd love to follow up and hear your opinions.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike, You put me in the awkward position of vehemently denying that my taste has changed or improved over the decades. Even as a neophyte, I would have found this list a bit disappointing, though still interesting enough so that I would have subscribed anyway. I realize Boheme, Tosca, and Traviata are the bread-and-butter operas, but -- all at once? all the time? I realize there are little Patricks who need to see them for the first time, and I have no quarrel with that, because the reason they're so popular is because they're so great -- but let me point out that if the world were really going to be blessed with lots of little Patricks, the best way to hold their interest would be to throw some Janacek, some Berlioz, or some Handel, and so forth, in there. Yes, even back in the day I was more excited when Sarah Caldwell was doing The Makropolous Case than when she was doing Traviata. Some of this is just my personal taste -- I would have been thrilled with Trovatore, but someone else might prefer Traviata. This is kind of the perfect storm season of operas I like but am sort of indifferent to.
You must have gathered by now how easily depressed I am -- did you have to remind me I live in a world in which Boccanegra is a rarity? And in which two new works in two years is even rarer? (Though that was Gockley's big selling point in Houston, and I would consider that a major house. I keep hearing that the problem is that new works don't get second or third performances -- why couldn't he put a series together of such revivals, and market it the way LA is marketing Rediscovered Voices? Actually, why aren't they doing Rediscovered Voices up here?)
I have heard Die Tote Stadt on disc, and while we may be up on the novelty scale, we are not up on the adventure, danger scale. It's a lush, beautiful work on a very romantic subject -- lush, beautiful, and romantic the way Traviata, Boheme, etc. are lush and romantic. I don't mean that to sound dismissive; this is one of the operas I'm really looking forward to. But there are other styles and other aspects of romance that they might put on -- to name some familiar works, Walkure, Anna Boleyna, and Lulu are about romance to, but they don't blur together in the mind.
Your suggestion for my future actually horrified me so deeply (I felt a terrible ache in my no-longer-quite-perfect teeth, and the lustrous waves of my fabulous hair got a little grayer) that it took me a moment to realize you were joking. I will now prove my unfitness for such a life by responding seriously: I know it's unfair, but I find the whole picture repulsive. I mean, I go to baseball games, and some people are connoisseurs of the game, and some are casual fans, and some just show up for a fun afternoon in the sun, and that's fine, but art is different to me. I hate that whole "opera as decoration to our gracious lifestyle" thing. That's one reason I don't go to opening night. If I'm a mad-eyed prophet denouncing those who have profaned the temple of art, can I still keep my fabulous hair? This may not be the most emotionally healthy attitude, but it's how I feel viscerally, and I never claimed I'd be posing for any "Men of Mental Health" calendars anyway.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Gert, Feel free to comment, no matter where you are -- I'm not near London, but I feel free to envy you your riches. (Though I'm kind of surprised to hear that Tote Stadt is only now making its staged debut -- maybe, like Anne Trulove, it is I who was mistaken. I mean, perhaps I really am naive about how adventurous people are.) I would think that you could market something just based on its novelty, especially in an area like this one, where people like to think of themselves as unconventional, adventurous, open, and liberal (it's irrelevant that they really aren't most of those things, at least to any strong degree, since marketing is about self-image, not the truth). I envy you Satyagraha -- I love the opera and was hoping to go to NYC this spring to see it at its Met debut, but that's clearly not going to work out for me, though at least my house now has plumbing that works, sort of. As for half-empty houses for Katya Kabanova . . . I just don't know what to say. I can't help feeling that people would go if they had any notion. It's not even that long! But your point about the theater-goers who attended the Glass reminds me that I've seen a similar phenomenon here for things like Le Grand Macabre, and I really think they need to reach out more to this audience -- it would be a reverse of the usual opera audience, and though they'll come for the Ligeti and Adams, they'll end up coming back to explore Verdi and Puccini.
By the way, check out Charles Castronovo -- he might make your cut, depending on individual taste, of course. But I wonder if his Violetta will be as announced, since Netrebko is pregnant, and congratulations to her.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I don't know its full performance history, but I believe Boccanegra has always been a rarity, as great as it is. The original version was a flop; even in the revised version, audiences find the political aspects of the plot murky and the twists and turns hard to follow. Mike, it's one of my top five Verdi operas as well. I consider it the last Great Unknown Verdi, too. I can't understand why every good baritone in the universe doesn't demand to sing it.

I am with Patrick. Yes, the Puccini operas and Verdi pop operas like Trav are great and popular, and everyone deserve to hear them, but you don't know who will be grabbed by Janacek, Wagner, something obscure. I mean, there are lots of early Verdi operas SFO has never done, and they contain plenty of good music. I'd love to hear a good reading of Ernani, for example. I have seen it once, with an overly-restrained English cast, and thought it very good indeed, needing primarily some blood and thunder to really take off. I'd like to see a staged version of Il Corsaro. How about Stiffelio or Alzira?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I guess I'm pretty lucky to have seen Boccanegra live twice, then. First was one of the final Met tours, and when I saw that the plot summary had a "before the curtain rises, here's what happened" section, I thought, uh oh -- trouble! It is complicated. But that was before surtitles, and I think it's easier now. Second time was at SF Opera a few years ago, and it was the performance when the lead (I think) lost his voice and the singers had to switch roles in the second half, which didn't help clarify the action, but I still loved it.
The brand name familiar operas do draw in people who want a safe bet (it's a pretty expensive investment unless you're already a junkie) and want to experience Traditional Opera, but I think there are just as many people who are put off at the thought of going to Boheme or Traviata or Butterfly exactly because they seem so safe and traditional. You really never do know what exactly is going to grab people, which is another reason it's best to vary the menu.
I'd love to see all the operas you mention, Lisa. I'd even be thrilled to see Un Regno di Giorno (his first comedy -- I hope I'm remembering the title correctly). When I delusionally thought I was going to be able to continue my Nathan Gunn Tour of America this April with a NYC/Boston trip, I noticed that Ernani is on the Met schedule, with Radvanovsky, and I've heard she's a fantastic Verdian. I can't remember the rest of the cast, and it would depress me too much to look it up, since I'm not going anyway. But, yes, envy towards the New Yorkers who get to hear Ernani. . . .

Henry Holland said...

Found your blog via Lisa Hirsch's place.

Perhaps any musicologists out there can tell me if there is a single dissonant passage in this entire season

Well, we might need to define "dissonant" because since I listen to so much Schoenberg and so on, even Stockhausen sounds "normal" to me, but Die Tote Stadt has parts that are pure bitonality/have very slight connection to the tonic.

The difference is, where, say, Birtwistle would orchestrate that passage with woodwinds schreeching in their highest register and a battery of percussion, Korngold makes it go down smoothly with a large string section, celesta and harmonium.

I wasn’t exactly expecting Moses und Aron or Die Gezeichneten to show up on the schedule

It probably won't have Nathan Gunn in it, giving you less incentive to travel obviously, but Los Angeles Opera is doing Schreker's fantastic opera in 2009/10 or 2010/11, of course.

If you don't know the Recovered Voices opera they're doing in 2008/09, Braunfels Der Vogel, but you should seek out the one recording of it and give it a spin or three. I think it's an absolutely ravishing piece, one that people that flock to Puccini or Rosenkavalier Strauss would love, but again, it's the name recognition factor. People seem to automatically assume that if they haven't heard of it before, it's going to sound like Bernd Alois Zimmerman or something.

osborne said...

Did you see that Kosman gave you a very flattering shout-out on his blog today?

BTW - it's Un giorno di Regno, sounds more like Rossini than Verdi, and is better avoided. Radvanovsky is amazing in Verdi - certainly the best around, though I know that's not saying much these days. She's singing with Hampson and the inexplicably omnipresent Marcello Giordani, who I believed last darkened SF's door in a pretty dreadful Luisa Miller back in Lotfi's day. It was the great Paolo Gavanelli who became ill during that Boccanegra you saw - I was there that day too.

I'm totally with you on an SF version of LA's Recovered Voices - what is the point of world premieres if they do not live on even in the margins of the repertory?

I'm also with you on the upcoming SF season, though I will continue to subscribe in the knowledge that things will get better. In the season after next SF will have Salome, a new Trittico (with Gavanelli (yay!!) and Racette (boo!!)), a new Trovatore (with Radvanovsky, Hvorovstovsky and Stephanie Blythe), Fanciulla (with Voigt and Licitra) and, I believe, Peter Grimes and The Makropolous Case (with Mattila). Plus, I believe that the Ring cycle will resume that season. Surely that is an interesting season!! So if you like your current subscription seats, it might be worth hanging on to them.

Again - it's hard to get excited about much next season. The Boccanegra may be good, but I've never thought Hvorovstovsky should sing Verdi, especially not in a barn like the War Memorial. I'll wait for those world premieres to be "rediscovered". The Tote Stadt's cast may keep me away, as will that for Idomeneo - I well remember that last run with the exquisite Bonney - also the great Gosta Winbergh and Vesselina Kasarova, and prefer not to sully that memory. If it's true that Ramey will only sing in 2 scenes in this version of Boris, then it may be worth a go. Elisir, Tosca, Traviata, Boheme - the casts are mostly very good, but these things are very hard to look forward to? However, I will make one plug - briefly noted above is that Joseph Calleja will be making his debut in Boheme (unfortunately in the second cast, not with Gheorghiu). This man has the most purely beautiful voice I have ever heard live, bar none, and I've heard many of the now-deceased/retired legends. I will probably exchange my tickets (for a fee) for many of the other operas and go to every one of his Bohemes. A word to the wise, however - if you do not like a quick vibrato (as appears to be true of many people nowadays), you will not like him.

I'm a big fan of this blog.

Lisa Hirsch said...

osborne, nice comments. Agree with you about "Un Giorno di Regno" - I saw it once and it stank. (I don't know if a comment of mine got lost or what, but it's the second time in 2 days I'm writing that. Maybe on my own blog?)

But what about the Racette hatred? She gave a stunning, completely involved, beautifully sung performance in this past season's Butterfly and I've seen her give great performances on other occasions as well.

Where did you get those rumors about next season, if you can say??

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Henry, Well, obviously I was exaggerating for effect in my dissonance remark, but you see what I was suggesting, both about how only certain styles of music are perceived as "dissonant" and about how what people hear as "dissonance" or "ugliness" is usually just unfamiliarity, with the particular work or with the style. I have read your reservations about this Tote Stadt production on Lisa's blog, by the way. As for Die Vogel, I was actually pondering a trip to LA to hear it, but I'll have to see what my finances are like then. I like LA but rarely go there since for a non-driver it's difficult to get around. I went down there last April for the Tristan Project, and though I enjoyed the performance very much the rest of the trip was not so great. So I'll have to wait and see. I actually have two recordings of Die Vogel (one is a bootleg (um, I guess I can say that), and I should find it). I'm sure you know all about the "Entartete Musik" series that Decca/London (I think) was issuing several years ago -- I bought quite a few of those, and yes, I agree completely, Die Vogel is a lovely work that should be better-known. I did not know that the Schreker was coming up, so thanks for the tip. I have the recent DVD but haven't watched it yet -- another advantage of not going to La Travemeiosca is that I'll have some free evening in which to watch DVDs of operas I'm more interested in.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Osborne, Thanks for the comments, and I'm very glad to hear you enjoy the blog. And thanks for the correction on Un Giorno di Regno -- embarrassingly, I had typed it correctly, looked at it and thought it wasn't right, and switched it, though a moment's thought, or googling, would have given me the correct version. That's what I get for not checking and for writing quickly at a time when I shouldn't have been writing at all. I picked that one just because it's probably the most obscure and least-regarded of the great man's operas. I like Rossini, so the similarity doesn't bother me and is actually kind of historically interesting for me. I have a recording, which I obviously hadn't listened to in a while, but I'm listening to it now (Jessye Norman and Carreras). Like Lisa, I'm curious about why you dislike Racette so much -- I've always found her an involved and committed actress, and I like her voice. I'm afraid I'm a little more mixed about Gavanelli, though -- his Rigoletto hasn't quite won me over. It might just be that I identify too deeply with the character and want baritones to do exactly what I would do if I were able to perform it.
Your comments about the upcoming season have increased my uncertainty -- why couldn't that season be this season? Even one or two of the works you mention would be enough to make me re-up. I do like my seat, but probably not enough to justify the expense of subscribing to a season about which I feel such lack of enthusiasm. Also, just as I will sometimes buy recordings of all my favorite unpopular composers just to do my little part to show that they do have a paying audience, I do feel that continuing to subscribe and donate is only encouraging seasons like this one. On the other hand, it does seem like once you've broken the connection, it's more difficult to re-establish it. I'd want to know what seat they'd give me, though. Agh! I wish this was an easier decision. Even the operas I don't want to see have their temptations -- Calleja, for instance, as you mentioned. I still think they should have an "opt out" choice, so you could eliminate one or two operas yet still keep your subscription.
I did see the very flattering (yet strangely accurate) mention in Kosman's blog, though I didn't get a chance to comment there until this evening. But I would just like to say that Mr. Kosman is obviously a critic of the most refined intelligence and discerning sensibility.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Lisa, If I'm remembering correctly, you don't like Rossini, right? Would you consider Giorno di Regno stageworthy for someone who did like him? I think it would be interesting to have that and Falstaff in the same season, but I just want to see a decent staging of Falstaff.

osborne said...

Well I did post a response to Lisa earlier this afternoon, but it has not appeared, so I will try again.

The 2009-2010 schedule predictions are all from reliable (mostly) published sources (such as artists' web sites or printed interviews) or from Gockley himself (directly or via the Chronicle). I know also that the Trittico will open the season, and Grimes will be conducted by Runnicles. The only thing I'm not sure about is the dates for the continuation of the Ring and The Makropolous Case. It is possible that these may be for the following season.

Opera Tattler lays out these same predictions, though she is not my source:


And yes - why can't THAT season (plus Calleja!) be THIS season? I completely understand your ambivalence about giving up your subscription, as well as the fear of rewarding mediocrity. But keeping my hard-earned and beloved seats is always of paramount importance to me and - along with an optimistic nature - keeps me re-subscribing even for seasons with the dimmest of prospects. I would suggest that you lay out your concerns to Gockley in an email. I gather from friends that he reads and responds personally to all email, and genuinely wants feedback.

As for Racette, I have gathered from the Opera blogosphere that she is a polarizing figure. Speaking for myself, I find that she has a pretty voice, but I unfortunately can not tolerate her poor intonation, for which - and of course I speak only of my own capacities and limitations here - no amount of commitment or passion compensates. Her SF Luisa Miller and Jenufa were most unpleasant to hear, and I have avoided her ever since. I did hear her in a concert about 1 1/2 years ago, and the voice seemed very beautiful to me but otherwise unchanged - just under the pitch, as always.

Gavanelli also seems to be a polarizing figure - so I am not surprized by your reservations. Beauty is, after all, in the ear as well as the eye of the beholder.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Osborne,
Thanks once again for the information and the opinions. I'm torn about this, but still leaning towards not renewing or donating -- it just doesn't make financial/emotional sense for me right now to spend that much for something I'm already disappointed in. As for e-mailing Gockley, that actually would never occur to me, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I actually am a mild-mannered, courteous fellow who prefers to avoid confrontation, so I'm not sure what I'd say. I mean, I didn't really expect the season to cater to my personal tastes; I just didn't think it would be so completely and thoroughly not what I would like. I'm sure he didn't need me to point out to him that he's scheduled a lot of, let me just say, very very popular works here (way overdone works, that is, or "beloved classics" if you're in the marketing department, and why don't they come up with stuff like that for the more offbeat offerings?). He could defend his choices, but I'm not sure to what end -- I hate to use the words "fair and balanced" to describe what I wrote, but mostly because they've been tarnished by Pravda, I mean Fox News, not because they don't apply. I acknowledged the difficulties of pleasing the many opera house constituencies, I acknowledged that the chosen operas are beautiful and beloved and justly so, and I praised the casting, by and large, even for operas I don't want to hear -- I would even dispute your implied characterization of the season as mediocre. I would call it safe and tame rather than mediocre. What I'm condemning, and short of calling me in tears to announce he's cancelling Boheme and Tosca and substituting The Excursions of Mr Broucek and Die Soldaten there's really no response he can make, is the narrowness and timidity of the season, in musical style, subject matter, and staging. What is the point of being an Opera House if you are afraid to be operatic -- that is, bold, extravagant, strange, vast, and naked?
That said, this is a semi-public forum ("semi-public" because I can boot or delete anyone whom I consider inappropriate or whatever), and people are welcome to read and comment and defend the season. I'm just not sure how exactly anyone could defend it from my main criticism, which is that for someone who goes to the opera a lot, this is a really boring selection.