Monday, December 3, 2007

Taking Care of Business

Although the theme of 1987's Central Opera Conference was "Opera At The Crossroads," during the course of the meeting it became increasingly difficult to determine just which intersection was being discussed. Was it the problem of a changing repertoire in which opera must share the public's attention with musical comedy, performance art and other multi-media or avant garde forms of expression? Or was it the nagging question of survival, when more than a hundred opera companies are struggling to save their artistic and financial souls?

And yet, convening just a few days after Wall Street's calamitous stock crash, the COS conference furthered the unfortunate image of many opera people as intensely passionate music lovers who, when the going gets rough, prefer to bury their heads in the sand. One person, who kept wanting to know if and when the Met's spring tour would be resurrected, obviously did not want to believe Bruce Crawford's claim that television now does a much more effective of job of reaching the nation's public than a poorly-produced tour to three or four cities. Another conference participant invoked God as a means of cushioning the opera world against future shock.

Alas, it seems as if many opera fans have developed a dangerous habit of isolating themselves from the present by seeking refuge in the past. Like closeted homosexuals who long to return to the period when they functioned in a secret society, opera's traditionalists wish their beloved art form would revert to the golden days before the jet plane and television forced it from its privileged cocoon. It can't and it won't. Whether they like it or not, America stands poised on the brink of a brave new operatic world.


Many years ago, when Glynn Ross was in charge of the Seattle Opera, he predicted that, as trade continued to develop and intensify along the Pacific Rim, the center of the nation's arts activities would slowly move from the East Coast to the West Coast. To a certain extent, Ross's prediction has come true. Some of the best opera in the United States is now produced in Chicago, St. Louis and Houston -- cities which lie in the nation's heartland -- and the decentralization of opera in America is a force which continues to gain momentum.

Previously-held blanket assumptions that anything which happens in New York must be of national and international significance while events west of the Hudson River are merely "regional" no longer hold water. In fact, when told that the Houston Grand Opera would have to come up with something of greater than regional interest if it wanted to telecast more productions, HGO's publicist, Ava Jean Mears, didn't hesitate to remind a PBS spokesman that, to most of the nation, New York is not only considered regional but rather provincial in its tastes.

One of the most dramatic shifts on the domestic opera scene is visible in the changing strength of arts organizations from Seattle to San Diego. Opera Pacific -- which opened for business in Orange County's brand new performing arts center -- had an astounding level of subscription sales for its first two years. As the West Coast's financial center continues to move south (due to Los Angeles' growing trade with Far Eastern ports) the Oakland Symphony has gone bankrupt and the once-proud San Francisco Opera been forced to cancel its summer seasons. Under Terry McEwen's dubious leadership, the San Francisco Opera has deteriorated to the level of a sadly provincial opera company while Peter Hemmings continues to steer a bold and exciting course for the newly-formed Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association (LAMCO opened for business with the seventh largest budget of any American opera company).

Because of the growing power of the Japanese yen (and the weakness of the American dollar) the Far East has recently become a major importer of both European and American opera companies. The New York City Opera's performances in Taiwan last month were part of the opening festivities for Taipei's new cultural arts center. In addition to the Met's upcoming Japanese tour this spring -- which features performances of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman, Verdi's Il Trovatore and Mozart's Le Nozze Di Figaro -- Opera Theatre of St. Louis will perform Minoru Miki's Joruri (an opera written by a Japanese composer on a Japanese theme which had its world premiere in St. Louis in 1985) in Tokyo next November. If all goes well, the San Francisco Opera hopes to bring its productions of Mozart's The Magic Flute and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress to Tokyo in 1989 or 1990 as part of a Japanese festival celebrating the art of David Hockney.


Speaking of the San Francisco Opera, suppose we take a look at what the future holds in store for local subscribers while keeping in mind that any predictions made in this column are purely speculative and, therefore, subject to change. The 1988 season is already a matter of public record and it should be noted that, in December, Opera America will hold its annual conference in San Francisco.

Although the 1989 season looms dimly in the crystal ball, opera fans can expect it to open with a revival Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Mozart's Idomeneo starring Ruth Ann Swenson as Ilia and Mary Jane Johnson as Elettra. Also in the works is a new production of Richard Strauss's Elektra to be conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi with Dame Gwyneth Jones singing the title role, Dohnanyi's wife, Anja Silja, as Chrysothemis and Brigitte Fassbender as Klytemnestra.

Ponnelle's delightful Falstaff production returns to town with Leo Nucci's Ford, Ruth Ann Swenson's Nanetta, Marilyn Horne as Dame Quickly and Kathryn Cowdrick as Meg Page. Puccini's Il Trittico (with Mirella Freni singing all three soprano roles) looks definite, along with a revival of Wagner's Lohengrin to be conducted by Charles Mackerras.

Ermanno Mauro returns to town as Verdi's Otello (probably opposite Cheryl Studer's Desdemona) and the beautiful Kathleen Kuhlmann stars in a new production of Vivaldi's rarely-performed Orlando Furioso (probably using the sets and costumes from Dallas Opera). Sticking to his policy of promoting Merola Program graduates to lead roles, Terry McEwen will revive Mussourgsky's Khovanschina with Dolora Zajic as Marfa and may also bring back Puccini's Madama Butterfly with Nikki Li Hartliep starring as Cio-Cio-San.

All that is known about 1990 so far is the identity of its three new productions. The season opens with a new Rigoletto featuring Ruth Ann Swenson as Gilda. 1990 includes a new production of Dvorak's Rusalka (probably a shared venture with the Washington Opera) that has Charles Mackerras on the podium and Gabriela Benackova in the title role. Baritone Stephen Dickson returns to town in a new production of Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria.

Stay tuned for further developments.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 7, 1988.

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