Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Into The 20th Century

Although music lovers frequently complain that not enough contemporary works are produced on today's operatic stage, the 1987-'88 season offers a healthy assortment of operas written by 20th-century composers. Hot on the heels of Santa Fe's triumphant production of The Nose, the Canadian Opera Company will present Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Berg's Lulu will be heard at both the Metropolitan and Lyric Opera of Chicago; Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men will be produced next spring by Chicago Opera Theatre. In early 1988, Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice will be mounted by the Greater Miami Opera Association and Kirke Mecham's Tartuffe performed in Eugene, Oregon.

While the wealth of the national media's attention will be focused on the Houston Grand Opera's October premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China, the Kentucky Opera will present the world premiere of Philip Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher; Opera Delaware will mount the world premiere of Charles Strouse's The Nightingale and Pennsylvania Opera Theatre will unveil a new opera based on Hansel and Gretel.

A quick look at what's happening across America reveals important revivals of Lee Hoiby's The Tempest (Lyric Opera of Kansas City); Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (Florentine Opera of Milwaukee); Roberto Sierra's El Mensajero de Plata (Opera de Camara de Puerto Rico); as well as Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Oliver Kneussen's Where the Wild Things Are and Dominick Argento's Casanova at the New York City Opera. Opera Omaha is staging Philip Glass's The Juniper Tree while the Lyric Opera of Chicago mounts Glass's Satyagraha.

The Connecticut Grand Opera performs Andrew Lloyd Weber's Requiem while Opera Delaware offers subscribers a concert version of Thea Musgrave's Harriet Tubman: A Woman Called Moses. On the West Coast, the Long Beach Opera will mount Szymanowski's rarely-heard Krol Roger and the Vancouver Opera will stage Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen.

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess will be heard in Calgary and Baltimore; Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Consul in Washington, D.C. and Jackson, Mississippi. Benjamin Britten's operas will be represented by The Turn of the Screw in Omaha, Sarasota, Boston and Vancouver; Peter Grimes in Philadelphia, A Midsummer Night's Dream in Los Angeles and Albert Herring (in both Little Rock and Milwaukee). Menotti's The Medium will be performed by Opera San Jose while Amahl and the Night Visitors delights holiday audiences in Orlando and San Antonio.

For those who have accepted Broadway musicals into the bosom of the operatic repertoire, productions of West Side Story, Working, Irma La Douce, Man of La Mancha, Sweeney Todd, Kismet, Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man will be offered on operatic stages across North America. Whether or not one embraces any or all of these works, the mere fact that they are being kept alive and performed throughout the land is a matter of critical importance.


Now that we are several seasons into the use of Supertitles, some technical points about their use need to be raised. In both Los Angeles and Miami, I've noticed that titles appear blurry, unfocused and are often projected in such a way that they become difficult to read. In San Francisco and several other cities, I see a stubborn adherence to a practice begun in the early days of Supertitle technology which needs to be rethought and perhaps reworked.

Initially, the folks who were writing Supertitles had severe doubts about just how much text an audience could absorb and at what speed the slides containing Supertitles could be successively flashed on the screen. One result was that, all too often, two or more lines of dialogue would appear followed by a long pause before the next slide was shown. This led to a situation where audiences would laugh before the performer could deliver his line or where audiences knew the resolution of a dramatic trick before it could happen onstage.

Several technological advances in the use of Supertitles have demonstrated that audiences can indeed absorb far more text at a quicker pace than was originally anticipated. While this phenomenon is most apparent in those opera houses which use computer-generated images rather than slides to project their text, I strongly urge those companies using slides (this includes the San Francisco Opera) to rework some of their Supertitles so that there is less dialogue on each slide and more slides are used which contain fewer words. This way, the dramatic effect becomes much smoother and the text more accessible to the audience.


Earlier this year, when the Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the American premiere of Stephen Oliver's Beauty and the Beast I encountered a bizarre phenomenon. Although directed with a strong sense of theatricality by Colin Graham and conducted with great skill by Hal France, this opera struck me as staunchly unmusical and of questionable stageworthiness. The cast members I spoke to confessed that Beauty and the Beast contained some of the most difficult music they had ever tried to memorize (baritone John Brandstetter admitted that he couldn't wait for his next engagement just so that he could wallow in the luxury of singing an honest melody). And yet, although most of the people involved in the production confessed that they did not really enjoy it, the overwhelming sentiment was that the composer was "such a nice man."

The razor's edge which separates the artistic merit of one's creative output from the charm of one's personality is a phenomenon which has plagued Gian-Carlo Menotti throughout his long and prolific career. It may bedevil Stephen Oliver as well; I do not know what the future holds in store. What I do know is that, after two performances, I'd had more than my share of Beauty and the Beast. Marie Anne Chiment's sets helped to create a netherworld of fairy tale drama, but I doubt that we'll see or hear much more of this opera in America.


I regret not having sufficient time to attend a second performance of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel while in Los Angeles last month, for that truly would have been time well spent. When a company like LAMCO (Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association) manages to pull off such a dramatic triumph in its second season, you know that its future will be exciting.

This production, acted on steeply raked and dangerously angular sets designed by Robert Israel, was a joint venture with the English National Opera and Geneva Opera. It was also one of the most exciting pieces of opera theatre to be seen in a long, long time. Superb cameos were delivered by Marvellee Cariaga as a deranged sorceress, Gary Bachlund as Agrippa of Nettesheim and Ken Remo as a medieval doctor.

While baritone Roger Roloff did an excellent job with the thankless role of Ruprecht (a character who strikes me as the stupidest schmuck in the operatic repertoire) he served primarily as a dramatic foil to the rantings and ravings of Marilyn Zschau's obsessive Renata. Whether fiercely battling a host of unseen demons, insanely demanding that Ruprecht execute some ridiculous errand or exulting in trance-like spasms of religious ecstasy, Zschau (whose strident voice is perfectly suited to dementedly evil roles like Renata or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) dominated the stage throughout the evening.

The soprano's towering performance was carefully framed by Andrei Serban's wild stage direction (whose more bizarre moments included demons popping through strangely-lit trapdoors, American Indians shooting arrows across the stage and Mephistopheles eating a little child). Serban's depiction of a wall which oozed black tentacles of demonic ectoplasm or a chorus of crazed nuns who began baring their breasts in an orgy of mass hysteria were examples of opera theatre at its very best.

Speight Jenkins, the General Director of the Seattle Opera, insists that the theatre is a place which, by definition, is supposed to be dangerous. Under Lawrence Foster's baton, LAMCO's large cast did a splendid job of presenting a dramatically confusing, musically challenging and theatrically exhilarating 20th-century work to an audience reared on a steady diet of TV sitcoms. No matter how one reacted to this staging of The Fiery Angel, there was no denying its effectiveness as a highly provocative piece of musical theatre. The production was exciting, challenging and, during certain moments, terrifying. Who could ask for anything more?

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 22, 1987.

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