Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Desperately Seeking Substance

January is the perfect time to take stock of one's growth and achievements during the past year while setting new goals for the future. In 1986, I took 90 flights in order to attend 146 performances in 21 cities ranging from Anchorage to London; from San Francisco to San Juan. In addition to interviewing opera singers, general directors and porno stars, my research included such diverse activities as visiting the world's first pencil factory; gawking at some new audio-animatronic dinosaurs on display at Houston's Natural History Museum and watching a bunch of Puerto Rican drag queens lip-synching in Spanish. Although my travels kept me on the road for 135 days, I still managed to publish nearly 150 articles in such a way that my by-line appeared on four continents. No matter how I look at 1986, one fact becomes obvious: life certainly hasn't been dull.

While some people wonder if all these achievements haven't been accomplished through black magic (as opposed to simple workaholism) I should stress that it's NOT all done with mirrors. I owe a huge debt to my computer, a compulsive zeal for organization and the support I receive from a large and very loyal circle of friends. Nevertheless, like Blanche DuBois, I've also learned how to depend on the kindness of strangers -- especially those who are employed in the travel industry. One of my fantasies for 1987 is to attend two different productions of Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen back to back. This would involve traveling first to Seattle in mid-August and then to Arhus, where the Danish National Opera will present the first production of the Ring to be seen in Denmark since 1912. For culture vultures thinking of traveling to Europe this summer, there will be three Ring cycles presented at Arhus (August 18-23, 25-30 and September 1-6). For information about the Seattle Opera's Ring, call (800) 426-1619. To receive a brochure on the Arhus Ring, call the SAS tour desk at (800) 221-2350.

Since all's fair in love, war and public relations, I should also mention that my most recent visits to our nation's capitol were made infinitely more pleasurable by the plush lodgings I enjoyed at the Grand and Bristol Hotels (two luxury facilities targeted to the upscale business trade). Located at 2350 M St. N.W., the Grand's huge, pink marble bathrooms -- which come stocked with loofah sponges, Perrier and Evian water -- eased the tension of watching election night returns while the three-hour time difference between San Francisco and Washington made it impossible to get any news on the fate of Proposition 64.

Similarly, my handsome two-room suite at the Bristol took the edge off being a captive audience to Shelley Winters and Hulk Hogan in the wee hours of the morning. Both of these hotels are within easy walking distance of the Kennedy Center and I can heartily recommend them for future use.

While it's all very well to lounge around in expensive hotel rooms, one must never forget that a hotel is not a home. And, because two recent performances of contemporary works left me spinning my head in paroxysms of cynical disbelief, one must similarly keep in mind that a massive collection of black dots on white paper does not necessarily represent an opera worth listening to.


Before questioning this particular project's artistic merit, I think it's important to note that the million-dollar world premiere of Gian-Carlo Menotti's Goya accomplished a great deal for the Washington Opera in terms of visibility and public relations. Carefully coordinated exhibitions of Goya's paintings by several of Washington's major museums formed an integral part of a cultural exchange program with Spain. In addition to securing the Washington Opera its first telecast, the anticipation of Goya's world premiere sold more than 4,000 extra season subscriptions. In short, the preparations for the event were a marketing person's dream come true.

Although there were big risks involved with this project (Menotti is not famous for meeting deadlines and, in order to "keep his options open," Placido Domingo now refuses to sign contracts with opera companies until two weeks before the opening night of any production) the presence of a superstar tenor in the title role made tickets for Goya as hot an item as Admiral John Poindexter's recipes for misplaced documents and shredded wheat. Unfortunately, on opening night, it became painfully evident that Goya was the kind of artistic lemon which could make Menotti's La Loca sound like Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The opera's libretto -- supremely embarrassing in its own right -- became absolutely appalling when heard through Domingo's thickly-accented English. And, while the score contained some beautiful high notes for Domingo (the tenor was in superb voice when heard live at Kennedy Center on November 28) there was much less to Goya than met the ear. With her voice in tatters, mezzo-soprano Victoria Vergara could only vamp her way through the evening as the Duchess of Alba. Although, as her arch-rival, Queen Maria Luisa, Karen Huffstodt had a few moments of genuine operatic strength, this was white bread opera at its worst.

While the verdict against Goya was pretty unanimous, the saddest part of attending this holiday turkey was the realization that, even in its best moments, Goya is little more than a musical mishmash hopelessly seeking to find a way in which to justify its own creation. In a pre-production interview, Gian-Carlo Menotti (the opera's famous composer, librettist and stage director) confessed that, while working on Goya, he discovered he might not really have anything left to say. "Goya has definitely made me look at my own self and question my own purpose as an artist. One cannot be a charming man and also be a wonderful artist," confided the 75-year old impresario. "But I love to be charming, and that's why I will never be a great composer." Self knowledge can be a wonderful thing.


If Goya felt like a well-heeled and rather futile attempt at musical masturbation, the performance of Thea Musgrave's A Christmas Carol which I attended in Norfolk, Virginia was not much better. Over the years I've held the distinctly minority opinion that Miss Musgrave does not "give good opera" and, if her writing for Mary, Queen of Scots struck me as a mediocre orchestral score saddled with painfully dull vocal writing, A Christmas Carol did little to change my opinion of her work.

Although I had heard many favorable reports about A Christmas Carol following its world premiere in 1978, once I finally got to hear it in performance I ended up feeling about as gracious toward the work as Ebenezer Scrooge. While the composer (who also conducted this performance for the Virginia Opera) managed to cajole some moments of warmth from the orchestra, the success of this production rested primarily in Bill Parcher's constant mugging as Scrooge. Although Miguel Romero's sets and Alex Reid's costumes added a strong sense of atmosphere, in the final analysis Charles Dickens wiped up the floor with Thea Musgrave's music.

The moral of the story? Two hours worth of character shtick performed by a nasty old man does not make for much of an opera.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 8, 1987.

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