Recently, while participating in a symposium focused on the future of opera in America, the discussion turned toward the tiny number of really great new operas which are produced. Martin Bernheimer, senior critic for The Los Angeles Times quickly brought a reality check to the proceedings by reminding people that, in good times, one really great opera may surface for every hundred that are composed. His point is an important one which needs to be addressed.
During the 19th century, when opera was a popular form of entertainment in Europe, a new work could succeed or fail at its opening in the same way a Broadway musical could in the 1930s. Our society, however, has changed and, in today's America, the pressure to produce a winner often stifles creativity. The cost of producing a new musical on Broadway has become so outrageous that it is almost impossible to do a simple show. As a result, most commercial ventures are severely overproduced. Movie and television scripts are frequently written by committee (a losing proposition). And, even though new operas are premiered within the non-profit sector, the American fetish for producing "a hit," often gets in the way of producing art.
Successfully marrying craftsmen from today's popular culture to an art form whose greatest moments occurred in another time and place is an extremely difficult challenge. The recent world premieres of two operas which tried to incorporate very tired religious themes into their librettos proved just how difficult that challenge can be.
BAD BIBLE THUMPING
What do you get when you take a Hollywood scriptwriter like Judith Fein (who's attempting to rewrite the Bible from a feminist standpoint) and match her up with a composer like Henry Mollicone, whose strongest works have been a pop opera (The Face On The Barroom Floor) and a children's opera (Starbird)? You get Hotel Eden, which received its world premiere last month from Opera San Jose and which makes one's nightmares of what might happen if Love Boat docked at the opera seem frighteningly real.
With a libretto modeled after Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, (three modern couples whose stories parallel those in the Bible use the same room at a tacky place called Hotel Eden), Act I reworked the story of Adam and Eve to show Adam as a wife-abuser, Lilith as his disillusioned ex-lover, and Eve running away from her husband to avoid becoming a battered wife. Act II portrayed Noah as a retired Navy admiral with a drinking problem, whose wife is desperately trying to patch up their marriage. Act III attempted to deal with the legend of Sarah giving birth at 90 years of age after having convinced her husband to leave their wealth to his illegitimate son. However, unlike the original version, in Hotel Eden Sarah's labor pains were accompanied by nurses waving cheerleader pom-poms as they sang "Push! Push! Push it through!" between rhyming verses which suggested that Sarah "Think of nice and lovely distractions, while you're having all your contractions."
It was that kind of show.
Considering the limited space offered by the Montgomery Theater's tiny stage, special credit goes to Ken Holamon for his delightfully tacky unit set, director Daniel Helfgot and choreographer Kathryn Roszak for their work with the performers and Maestra Barbara Day Turner, for her solid musical preparation of a decidedly less than momentous score.
Particularly strong performances came from Susan Gundunas (doubling as Mrs. Noah and one of the obstetrical cheerleaders), Ron Gerard as Abraham, Ross Halper as the chef at Hotel Eden, and David Cox-Cresswell in a variety of bit roles. Elsewhere in the cast, Julia Wade's Eve, Dan Montez's Adam and D'Anna Fortunato's Sarah evidenced sincere work. What I found most interesting about Hotel Eden was the skill with which every one of Mollicone's musical love themes mimicked the music from today's popular soap operas. And I'm convinced that, in addition to their civic pride in producing a world premiere, the latent familiarity of the sounds coming from the pit (combined with the soap-opera bathos of Ms. Fein's libretto) had a lot to do with the San Jose audience's enthusiasm for Hotel Eden.
CALL THE POLICE
Without any doubt, the most publicized musical event of the past few months was the Cleveland Opera's world premiere of rock drummer Stewart Copeland's first attempt at writing an opera: Holy Blood and Crescent Moon. Copeland (whose former Police-man friend Sting is now starring on Broadway in Threepenny Opera) admits that he wrote the first act of this piece at a point in life when he still hated opera and composed the second half when he was just beginning to get into it. By the time intermission rolled around on opening night, that much was clear. However, when the nicest things you can say about a new opera are that the costumes were pretty and the fight scenes especially well-managed, something is obviously missing from the overall package.
Could that something be music?
While Copeland's opera received a luxurious, million- dollar production, from a musical and dramatic (rather than public relations) standpoint it gives Gian-Carlo Menotti's Goya stiff competition as one of the biggest and most intensely-hyped pieces of operatic shit I've experienced in years. Although its orchestrations are quite fascinating (and successfully capture the musical flavor of the Middle East) Copeland's score, which is written in rapidly shifting tempos, frequently reveals that the composer -- who works primarily on computers and may not even be able to read music -- is unable to articulate his musical thoughts in anything but the briefest of creative arcs.
In an attempt to examine the tragic ramifications of mixing heroic love with differing religious ideologies during the time of the Crusades, Susan Shirwen's libretto occasionally rose to the level of a bad Adventures Comics sequence. Imre Pallo conducted while David Bamberger directed a cast featuring Edward Crafts as the Grand Wazir, Gloria Parker as his daughter, Dahlia, Tom Emlyn Williams as the Imam, Charles Karel as King Tancred, Jon Garrison as Edmund, Prince of the Franks, and Marla Berg as his fiancee, Eleanor. Special credit goes to B. H. Barry for his fight scenes.
Holy Blood and Crescent Moon, which was recently broadcast over the National Public Radio network, accomplished everything Cleveland Opera's General Director, David Bamberger, could have hoped for in terms of focusing a national spotlight on his company. For that, I congratulate Bamberger and his company. But as Andy Warhol once warned, everyone is famous for 15 minutes.
The tragedy behind Holy Blood and Crescent Moon is that the money spent on Copeland's artistic mishmash (knowing that his participation would attract national media attention) could have underwritten the creation of ten new operas of substantially greater artistic merit. For that there is no excuse.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 14, 1989.