29 June 2008

and repetition palls him

My last subscription opera was Friday, and since the theater gods had smiled on me and given me a wonderful evening, I decided not to pursue my original plan for marking the end of my sixteen-or-so-year subscription, which was to ascend to the topmost balcony, cry out in electrifying tones, O Gockley – avanti a Dio!, and then hurl myself into the orchestra pit, where with any luck I would land on the cymbals and timpani with a resounding crash. Also, the last thing San Francisco Opera needs is yet another performance of Tosca. Besides, Gockley’s name doesn’t scan right.

So I’ll be slipping unnoticed into the ranks of the single-ticket buyers. From the way I’ve been carrying on, you’d think I was never going to set foot in the place again. But it does feel different, and sad, to me, and I’ve considered just surrendering to habit and resubscribing, even though most of the upcoming season leaves me bored and indifferent. Part of it – and this may just be that relentlessly upbeat, incurably sunny-side-up optimism which has become a byword among all who know me – is that I just cannot figure out Gockley as an artistic administrator, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

I loved Pamela Rosenberg’s programming, but I have no opinion on how she ran the company or worked with people or whatever; I was sorry to see her go, but I had certainly noticed long ago that things have a way of changing even when you don’t want them to, so I was interested to see what Gockley came up with. He is of course best-known for commissioning new works, so that looked promising, and I had a sentimental link to Houston since the first opera I ever saw was their touring production of Porgy and Bess. And on my one trip to Houston, shortly after Gockley had been announced as SFO’s new general director, I had really admired HGO’s production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

Since then it’s been a very mixed bag. His first season here had largely been planned by Rosenberg, and though I was not thrilled that his one major change was to add Die Fledermaus to the schedule, I figured that, given all my sneering at opera-goers who refuse to attend anything they haven’t already heard a hundred times, I had better cowboy up and give my first Fledermaus a fair listen. So I did, and the singers were wonderful, the orchestra excellent, and the staging top-notch, and I loathed every minute of it. I’m too lazy to link to my write-up, but I believe I compared it to being clubbed to death with meringues, which makes for a long, sticky, and endless end. But now I know, right? It’s always better to speak from knowledge than prejudice.

Later I read an interview in which he seemed puzzled that anyone responded to that year’s closing production of Iphigenie en Tauride, which to me seemed so clearly one of the most memorable evenings at the opera that season and perhaps for several seasons that I was puzzled that he was puzzled. I had tried to ignore the interviews in which he assured the SF Philistines, like a man trying to soothe a yappy little lapdog, that there would be no “Eurotrash” productions. I hate that meaningless term anyway. I figured that if he needed to assure nervous patrons that they would be fed a safe diet of sloppy seconds from the Met, then that’s just part of running a big opera house.

But it was starting to look as if he just had fairly uninteresting taste. Then came Graham Vick’s Tannhauser, and Gockley made it clear that he felt this was a signature production for him, which floored me, since it out-Rosenberged anything Rosenberg had presented here. I loved it, but many others didn’t, which, let me say, is an understatement. Given the vehemence of the reaction, I wonder if he simply figured San Francisco audiences are even more averse to nontraditional productions than he had thought. But how could someone who spoke longingly of staging Andrea Chenier with big stars from the Met also consider this art-installation Tannhauser a good example of what he was all about?

I felt Gockley did an excellent job this season balancing the new, the familiar, and the less familiar. So I was stunned by the announcement of next year’s plans. The upcoming season is entirely respectable, and if you hear an undertone of dull and safe in that description, then thank you for reading me as I intended you to read me. Rudolf Bing himself might have assembled this season and proudly presented it to his Met patrons; in fact, with the obvious exception of the new works, it may well actually be one of Bing’s seasons, plucked straight from 1954 (oh, the now fashionable mid-century years!) and dropped into the laps of a San Francisco audience that has longed for nothing else, as it wonders vaguely where all the past years went, and why the glitter has left the atmosphere, and maybe Tony Bennett will be singing later in the Carnelian Room. . .

So I can’t just write Gockley off; he seems to have a zig for every zag, and if the cumulative effect is not one I find interesting or appealing, clearly many others feel differently. I was looking at the calendar for next year and realized I could see just about all the operas I was interested in by early October. For all I know by December I’ll be begging for tickets to Boheme, but somehow I suspect that I’ll just check out some of the DVDs that have piled up while I’ve been out: Britten, Janacek, Schoenberg, Berg, Henze, Chin, Dusapin, and Handel, as well as Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. I know it’s ironic that I repeat myself in criticizing the repetitive season, but we all enjoy our habitual pleasures, and hate to have them taken away, and I'll miss having all my tickets lined up. I sometimes wonder if I rely so much on routine because it frightens me deeply to realize how quickly I adapt to anything’s absence.


The Opera Tattler said...

I loved both that Iphigenie and the Tannhäuser, those were probably my two favorite operas of 2007. I'm very glad you did not hurl yourself into the orchestra pit.

Brian said...

I am in total agreement with your assessment of the Gockley era in San Francisco thus far. His public statements seem to dart this way and that as if he's grasping at straws for some sort of vision. My interest (and financial support) for the house have fallen as well.

Change is unavoidable however and there is always hope. The Iphigenie was spectacular and though not the biggest fan of Vick's Tannhauser (or Lucia for that matter) I was rather fond of the Robert LePage Rake's Progress.

PS - You should definitely watch the DVD of Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland. The video sucks, but I think it's a great opera.

PSS - I think I spotted you across the aisle in row D at the Lucia di Lammermoor performance on Friday June 20th. That's a great seat. I'm not surprised you'll miss it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

OT, I imagine the cleaning crew is also glad I didn't hurl myself from the balcony, and who can blame them? Actually, I know a few people who would be glad to push me, I think. I'm glad someone else liked both those productions -- did you happen to see Alcina a few years ago? Because I'd love it if there was someone else out there who loved that production as I did.

I feel like Berlioz, crying out for more Gluck. Actually, I would be happy if Susan Graham were coming back in anything next season.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yeah, there really isn't much next season that makes me want to take BART across the Bay, much less fly up from LA the way you would need to. Gockley's certainly had his successes, but I'm getting the feeling they're pretty much accidental. And in the context of the programming we were starting to get under Rosenberg, I can't help feeling that he is just managing a more or less strategic retreat, and counter-revolutions are never inspiring.

I don't know if you read my entry on LePage's Rake, but I had some problems with it, kind of to my surprise and definitely to my disappointment.

I was at Lucia on the 20th (in fact, my original plan for tonight included writing an entry on the performance, until I realized ants were all over the kitchen and I'd better do the dishes instead), so that might have been me: third seat in on the left-hand side; my hair is dark and still fairly short, I have a beard and was wearing my glasses because something in the opera house burns my contact lenses onto my retinas; since it was incredibly hot that day I was wearing a short-sleeve black t-shirt as opposed to the long-sleeve black t-shirts (long sleeves -- the secret to elegance!) that I usually wear there. The whole wardrobe thing is very complicated given casual Friday and my unwillingness to wear the same shirt all day. Anyway, very roundabout way of trying to see if I was the one you spotted -- feel free to introduce yourself if you are so inclined next time. I've been envying your trip to Europe, by the way.

vicmarcam said...

Your last line is interesting to me because it rings so true for me, but I never thought it did for you. I always have envied how you have a collection of friends from different points in your life. I tend to form close friendships with people in the same boat with me at that moment in my life, and I tend to think the friendships will last, but I'm a great lapser, sadly.

Your thwarted plan to throw yourself into the orchestra pit deprives me of my one opportunity to mysteriously show up at the opera house in late June every year wearing black from head to toe, including a black veil and black gloves, clutching a handkerchief in one hand and a peony in the other. During intermission, I would slowly and silently walk down the aisle to the orchestra pit and stand and stare. Then I would return to my seat, leaving the peony behind.

The Opera Tattler said...

*chuckles* I think if I had seen Alcina after living in Munich, it would have had made a completely different impression on me than it did. I do love that opera, but the peeling wallpaper and the choreography bothered me a lot. Mostly the choreography though, I was such a stickler for that sort of thing as a young person. I don't think it deserved the loathing that it got though. Random people in the standing room line will bring that up in their list of why Rosenberg was so terrible. I was just thrilled that the production was booed, because that was the first time I had ever observed this in real life.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

V, Please do not allow anything as mundane as reality to disrupt your magnificent plan, and how exquisitely tasteful of you to avoid the vulgarity of tears. I was hoping the peony was a recondite reference to The Peony Pavilion, but yeah, I do just like them. Lilacs (copious I break!) would also be acceptable, and I don't care that they're out of season in June. I won't tell Michael Pollan and Alice Waters if you don't.

But you know what would be totally adorable? If you dressed the cockapi that way and had them scamper down the aisle with the peonies in their teeth! Oh, so cute!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

OT, OK, I guess the cheese still stands alone on Alcina. I loved it, and loved the way they used the huge picture frame to suggest a division between the land of magic and the land of reality. I thought the whole production was very rich and suggestive. I've actually heard people call it "pornographic," which makes me wonder what kind of porn they're watching -- I can only hope that, as with baroque opera, all the repeats are observed. Da capo, everybody! But to me, the island of Alcina is partly about sexual excess, and so the production was true to the spirit of the opera: I've seen extremely traditional-looking productions of, say, Traviata, that were so much about a luxe appreciation of fancy costumes and plush furniture and telling ourselves that we're cultured and well-off that Verdi's intentions in telling Violetta's heart-rending story were completely betrayed -- yet no one is denouncing such productions as "Eurotrash" or "Regie of the worst kind" or whatever.