Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gelb's lies and my experience with opera

Must read for Peter Gelb....
How long will the lights stay on at Lincoln Center?

Of late, I have been sending slings and arrows at the Metropolitan Opera in general and specifically its manager, Peter Gelb, who is--in my estimation--about to cause (through strike or lockout) the greatest artistic crisis in this country.  Today, Norman Lebrecht points out Gelb's penchant for falsehood in a TV interview with Paula Zahn.  In fact, Gelb never gets to the point of answering Ms. Zahn's opening question, which she asked at least three times.  Lebrecht specifically mentions the following comment:

"The box-office sales are down because box-office sales in every city in this country are down for classical music and opera. This is an endemic problem that America faces and that is faced in Europe as well."

As demonstrated through previous posts and voluminous amounts of financial information, this is simply not true.  While organizations such as the New York City Opera have shuttered (due to horrendous management decision) and others, like San Diego, have been on the precipice of failure, companies like Chicago's Lyric and Santa Fe continue to thrive.  The Vienna State Opera continues to sell out, and numbers are up all over Europe.  It is not exactly fair to compare the apple to orange models of artistic support in Europe and the USA, but still, Gelb's lies do nothing to support any of his claims relative to the Metropolitan Opera or its financial debacles.  This much is known: the budget of the organization has ballooned 50% (to over $300 million) during Gelb's tenure and ticket sales are down.  The correlation is all too obvious:  they're overspending for productions the public has little desire to see or hear.

A full house at the MSU Auditorium
Hardly an opera house!
I love this art form and have since my first exposure as a 17-year-old high school student.  The Lansing (MI) Opera held a special matinee performance of Carmen intended specifically for a younger audience.  The roles were all sung by the company's understudies and apprentice singers.  A commentator introduced the action of each act beforehand and the entire work was performed in ENGLISH.  Oh yes, and the cost?  $1.00!  Yep, a whole buck to see Bizet's masterpiece in the grandest style.  Granted, the production took place in the voluminous 3600 seat "Old" Auditorium at Michigan State University, but we had prime seats in what might be considered the "orchestra" anyplace else.  The result?  My friends and I returned the next evening to hear the "real" cast offer the work in the original French, although this time $10 got us "nosebleed" seats.  It really didn't seem to matter; we were hooked.

Another lifetime later (I was about 35) I experienced my first Wagner (Das Rheingold) at the National Opera in Budapest.  Our group had to "bribe" a ticket-seller to get seats at $3.00 USD (normally a whopping $1.50).  This was the way opera is supposed to be heard, in a gloriously appointed house with some 1800 seats.  Our "nosebleeds" here in the upper balcony were still close to the action, and the fact that a single voice could be heard over the endless blare of the massive orchestra was something to behold.

La Boheme I've probably seen more than any other, but no production compared to one at the Statni Oper in Prague, in which the production included a dancer to kind of mimic the role of Mimi.  By the end of the final act (and I still don't know how they did it) the dancer ended up in the deathbed and the singer was at the edge of the stage, singing her farewell in a kind of "out-of-body" experience.  Nothing I'd ever seen nor heard to that point matched this emotional highpoint.  

Upper right hand corner--no place for the Don!
My first Don Giovanni was actually at the cavernous Chicago Lyric, but I also experienced it at thesite of the opera's premiere, the Stavovske Divadlo in Prague.  Maybe it was the surroundings, and the fact that Wolfie himself had once graced this theater, but that was really special.

Elektra at the Mariinsky, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail in Bucharest, Madama Butterfly in Ames (IA), Die Zauberflote in Rock Island, Le Nozze di Figaro, Tosca in Dubuque--I've availed almost as many opportunities as I can to see opera.  In fact, I once appeared as the central character--the corpse of Buoso Donati in an Olivet College production of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.  So, I suppose I'm trying to make a point that I know a little (but not enough) of what I'm talking about.

St. Petersburg's Mariinsky:  1625 opulent seats.
My best experiences were those in which I
  1. Could understand, through a thorough and well-intentioned translation, or in judicious subtitles.  Interestingly enough, I experienced Mozart's Abduction in Bucharest.  Although they had presented Falstaff in Italian, the former was offered in a Romanian translation.
  2. Had a comfortable environment.  How does one enjoy an opera as intimate as Don Giovanni at the Lyric?  It's too damn big.  Nuff said.
  3. And yes, there have to be good singers.  I still have a sour taste for Verdi after hearing the tenor bellow through the first act of a Statni Oper Trovatore.  I left at intermission.
I have a bucket list of house I must experience:  the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and La Fenice in Venice.  Covent Garden and the Palace Garnais might make the list just because of their historical (and architectural) significance.  And, of course, I must experience the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.  As for the Met, it would have to be a perfect production with perfect singers and a generous ticket discount.  Given the current state of affairs, the latter won't happen and the company may be a shadow of its former self before I ever get there.

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