Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Storm Warnings

When opera's professionals speak of the art form as something that has become very "precious" and "dear," they are not referring to opera's cloying sentimentality. In most instances they are taking a hard and fast look at the bottom line.

During the past decade, the opera business has changed dramatically. The devaluation of the US dollar has kept the best artists working in Europe's heavily-subsidized opera houses where they can earn much higher fees. Meanwhile, the tremendous increase in job opportunities has left more and more American opera companies clamoring after fewer artists. Singers who once coveted a chance to perform with the San Francisco Opera now have many more options. It's becoming a seller's market.

Today's economic recession has led to a cutback in single ticket sales and donations which can only make it harder for an opera company to meet rising expenses. The late Dr. Van Lawrence who, for many years, was Houston Grand Opera's throat specialist, had a unique way of describing opera's fragility:

"Did you ever see a British movie called Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines?" he once asked me. "I like to use that as a sort of analogy. In the film, they have some ancient, creaking old structure that's been put together with piano wire, glue and chewing gum. Eighteen people get behind it and go pushing it down the runway while its wings are drooping and sagging. As they push it, the engine begins to sputter, the thing begins to gain speed and all of a sudden, if they're lucky, it takes off and flies. That phenomenon is analogous to grand opera. It doesn't always take off and fly. Sometimes it crashes in flames and can be God-awful. But, Daddy, in those minutes when things really take off and fly, there is nothing like it. No other art form can even come close. Even now, I'm goose-pimpling as I describe it to you."

While those goose pimples are the thrill every opera fan craves, the road to success is strewn with operatic crash landings. Under the best conditions, one struggles to put on a good show and prays that everything will work. But with so many people involved in one endeavor -- and so many variables at play -- the odds that something will go wrong are overwhelming.

Recent years have witnessed a steady erosion of artistic integrity and quality control at major opera houses. New York Magazine's music critic, Peter G. Davis, notes that today's audiences at the Metropolitan Opera are so easily satisfied (or else so pathetically ignorant) that they will applaud anything -- even if a performance reeks from poor stage direction and sloppy musicianship. Opera companies in Seattle, Houston, Tulsa and San Diego -- which perform on a "stagione" basis -- seem to have better quality control as well as better informed and more truly contented audiences.

Several performances last fall were such shockingly inept artistic fiascos that, had I not been attending on press seats, I would have been tempted to run to the box office and demand a refund. The issue at stake is not merely one of artistic integrity. It involves the severe economic ramifications of continued audience disenchantment.

As the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera have all fallen victim to "feeding the machine," audiences have finally begun to question their need to be charged exorbitant prices for a shoddy artistic product. Lately, I've heard people say that they're not renewing their opera subscriptions because they're tired of feeling ripped off. The blazing mediocrity of many performances has convinced them that they're simply not getting their money's worth. Despite their undying love for the art form, these people feel they're entitled to more bang for their buck.

I really can't blame them. These people are paying a lot more to go to the opera than the press ever does. And, although music critics will rant and rave about all sorts of "egregious" artistic transgressions, the critics don't usually shell out their own hard-earned bucks to pay for opera tickets. Either their publication is picking up the tab or the opera company is supplying them with comps (the perks of a dubious profession). They're rarely forking over $200 per performance to cover a pair of orchestra seats, transportation and dinner with a friend.
A second-rate cast -- in a production that ranges between mediocre and appalling -- genuinely tries my patience.

For many San Franciscans, last Halloween's performance of Un ballo in maschera marked the nadir of the 1990 fall season. Too ill to perform well, soprano Susan Dunn made a brave but abortive attempt to sing Amelia opposite Ermanno Mauro's ghastly Riccardo. Anne Ewers' staging generated about as much excitement as lima beans that have been microwaved far too many times. The only piece of casting which seemed fully justified was Tracy Dahl's Oscar. And therein may lie the key to solving one of the San Francisco Opera's biggest problems.

Casting any opera is a dangerous crapshoot. Yet many of America's regional opera companies are getting phenomenal results using young artists who have not yet achieved international stardom. The Houston Grand Opera has experienced stunning success by casting singers like Maureen O'Flynn, Robert McFarland and Renee Fleming in leading roles. Lyric Opera of Chicago triumphed by casting Donald Kaasch in the title role of Dominick Argento's The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe. If the Sarasota Opera is brave enough to sign former Merolini Tod Kowallis to sing Riccardo in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, why shouldn't the San Francisco Opera be willing to take the same risk?

Wouldn't that be a smarter choice than paying an appallingly mediocre artist like Ermanno Mauro (whose name isn't going to sell tickets) a larger fee to deliver a substandard performance? Why not pay a young American conductor (who might coax more exciting work out of the SFO orchestra) less money than a hack like Maurizio Arena?

It's a big risk. And a major gamble.

But from the artistic and financial standpoints, what is there to lose?

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 3, 1991.

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