One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at the operatic art form is that it rarely has anything to do with the world we live in. For the generation that grew up watching MTV and rock concerts (in which fast action, lasers, strobes and fog machines dominate the visuals) a traditional opera production can seem frighteningly constipated. To make matters worse, the politics of Cinderella's love life and Don Jose's fatal attraction to a gypsy slut (not to mention the burning question of who gets to marry some rich widow in order to protect the financial health of Petrovania) hold pathetically little relevance to the issues confronting people in a world dominated by drugs, disease and terrorism.
Putting it simply: If new audiences are to be attracted to opera, they must be given a message which interests them. And that message must be delivered with music to which they can relate. "The primary music of America nowadays is rock'n roll. Not everyone listens to it, but everyone hears it (even if you go into a restaurant, what's playing on Muzak is rock'n roll). If you're going to work in the land that created music theater for the people who live there, you either have to speak their language or else you'll fail to connect with them," explains Ben Krywosz, OPERA America's first project director for the Opera into the Eighties and Beyond program. "Curiously enough, the operatic establishment does not speak the language that most people in America do. As a result, there's something which is not quite connecting to people on a core level. And that something has a lot to do with having a different cultural point of view."
Two recent productions crossed the threshold into contemporary culture with stunning success. Each dealt with issues that concern contemporary society; each had a sound which could be embraced by contemporary society. Most importantly, each attracted young audiences from today's society.
SEARCHING FOR A VACCINE
While in Philadelphia, I attended a performance of Power Failure at the American Music Theatre Festival. This new "electronic thriller" with music by Paul Dresher and libretto by Rinde Eckert concerns a corporate millionaire's efforts to find a remedy for his family's strangely fatal blood disease. When, after 20 years of research, a miraculous genetic compound capable of curing all disease is developed, the audience learns that Charles (the millionaire CEO) has no intentions of releasing the cure to the world. Instead, he plans to use it on himself and ransom it off to those similarly afflicted wealthy people (mostly white, corporate males) who can afford it.
Just as he begins to receive the curative treatment, a power failure occurs during which the inner thoughts of the people trapped in the pharmaceutical laboratory -- Charles, his nurse, Judith; Ruth Lehmann (the scientist) and a security guard with a murky past (Merle Townsend) -- become known to the audience. Although it was too heavily amplified for my tastes, I found Dresher's score (which uses a variety of keyboards and tape processors) most appealing. Unlike many other composers, Dresher gives firm support to the dramatic situation and allows each character to develop fully in musical theater terms.
Tenor John Duykers gave a wonderfully selfish and hedonistic performance as the crippled CEO of Delta Chemical while, as the security guard, Rinde Eckert offered audiences a deliciously slimy example of blue collar revenge in the corporate environment. Stephanie Friedman (Ruth) and Sara Ganz (Judith) lent strong support as the two women in Charles's life. Superbly directed by Tom O'Horgan and stunningly designed by Michael Olich, Power Failure is a work which should be seen by anyone whose life has been touched by the insidious politics behind funding AIDS research. I'm sure that local fans of Rinde Eckert and Paul Dresher will be present en masse when this production is staged in Berkeley toward the end of the year. If you're the slightest bit interested in new music theatre -- or finding a cure for AIDS -- make sure you are, too.
BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT
Now that Terry McEwen is gone from the San Francisco Opera, it's possible for the company to begin exploring important works by contemporary composers. Several weeks ago, Philip Glass's music was welcomed into the San Francisco Opera's repertoire with a long-overdue production of Satyagraha. Considering the current events before us -- massive student demonstrations in Beijing and the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Revolution -- Lotfi Mansouri's timing as an impresario proved to be impeccable.
Satyagraha is a powerful piece of ritual theatre which describes, in music, dance and mime, the birth of the passive resistance movement under its leader, Mohandas Gandhi. Having seen several performances of David Pountney's production (as staged by Harry Silverstein) in Chicago and Seattle, I still find Satyagraha to be an intensely moving piece of music theatre. Using the sets and costumes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Silverstein staged the opera in San Francisco (as in Seattle) with the help of choreographer Clare West. Conductor Bruce Ferden (who led the world premiere as well as the Seattle production of Satyagraha) made an impressive San Francisco Opera debut on the podium.
As an opera, Satyagraha is the kind of show whose musical and dramatic success rests on the work of a strong choral ensemble. Under Ian Robertson's direction, the San Francisco Opera Chorus rose to the occasion with tremendous skill and professionalism while Douglas Perry repeated his touching portrayal of Gandhi and Claudia Cummings recreated her characterization of Mrs. Schlesen. Newcomers to the production included Ann Panagulias as Mrs. Naidoo, Catherine Keen as Kasturbai, Victor Ledbetter as Mr. Kallenbach, Philip Skinner as Parsi Rustomji and Emily Manhart as Mrs. Alexander.
Unlike many other operas, Satyagraha is a work that can be placed in an extraordinary social context. However, in order to draw new audiences to opera (Glass attracts a very different crowd from the traditional Verdi, Wagner and Puccini enthusiasts), you have to learn how to speak their language and reach out to them through their media. I find it absolutely appalling that, in a city in which even the Mayor claims political consciousness as a top priority, little if any advertising for Glass's opera appeared in the Bay Area's alternative media -- keenly targeted outlets which would have reached the people most interested in receiving the message of Satyagraha. As a result, although the opening night performance was heavily attended (any Philip Glass event tends to draw out the trendies in the Bay area), there were plenty of tickets waiting to be sold for subsequent performances of Glass's opera. To market Satyagraha to San Franciscans the same way one would attempt to sell the traditional repertoire to the mainstream of operatic subscribers was and is a tragic mistake. Let's hope this kind of mistake is not repeated with future productions of contemporary works by the San Francisco Opera.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 22, 1989.