Monday, December 3, 2007

In Pursuit of Excellence

When I attended Opera America's annual conference in January I encountered a curious phenomenon. Although the people who come to this conference are usually there to talk shop, several sessions forced them to address the delicate subject of the art they actually produce. Something which is central to the lives of these people suddenly became a stumbling block for those who have been so locked into "fundraising for survival" and "the business of art" that they are rarely given a chance -- especially in any public forum -- to examine their own feelings about the art form which governs their lives.

Panel discussions entitled "Approaches to Presenting or Evaluating a New Work," "Are Our Practices of Producing Opera Fulfilling Our Responsibility to the Art Form?" and "Maintaining Your Producing Integrity" witnessed some of the opera community's decision makers coming out with concise, insightful observations about the problems which confront them while others grappled for words. What became obvious was that the people who fared best on these panels (Skylight Comic Opera's Stephen Wadsworth, Houston Grand Opera's Scott Heumann, Artpark's Christopher Keene and Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ardis Krainik) were those who had a clearly-articulated artistic vision in which they devoutly believe. Their personal and professional standpoints embrace the creation of new works and, rather than investing in a past which can no longer support itself, welcome the challenges of tomorrow's opera world with open arms.

Most importantly, their individual artistic visions seem to be as deeply-rooted as a religious or ethnic identity. I mention this because, on the day Terry McEwen resigned his position as General Director of the San Francisco Opera, he outlined to the press five characteristics which should be sought in his successor. McEwen stressed (a) the ability to speak several languages, (b) strong fundraising potential, (c) some knowledge of how to produce opera, (d) an ability to get along with a board of directors and, (e) high artistic aspirations and standards. What struck me as peculiarly lacking was the key qualification which only a handful of people in America's professional opera community seem to possess: a genuine sense of artistic vision which can carry an opera company forward into the 21st century.


Although the opera profession functions on a tremendous amount of good faith, the arts can and often do become a cut-throat business. Unfortunately, a tremendous amount of denial is at work within this professional community; a dangerously perverse factor which prevents key people from dealing head-on with reality. Many of the nuts-and-bolts topics chosen for roundtable sessions at Opera America's conference ("Reaching a Growing Hispanic Audience," "What To Do and What Not To Do In Planning A New Theatre," "Working With Your Local School Board," "How Opera For the 80s and Beyond Can Work With You," and "New Concepts in Commissioning New Works") seemed geared toward dealing more realistically with the future. It's about time!

As usual, the problem of coping with cancellations by major artists proved to be a hot topic of conversation. Despite all the pissing and moaning from various General Directors, one sensed a profound unwillingness to do anything as radical as boycotting certain artists or suing for breach of contract. At the heart of the problem lies the extremely masochistic tendency of many people in the arts to play victim instead of aggressively fighting the forces which oppress them.

That's why I'm always delighted whenever Anne Murphy (Executive Director of the American Arts Alliance) or William Blair (who is currently involved in the formation of a Political Action Committee to lobby members of Congress on behalf of the arts) take over the microphone. These two arts activists bring a megadose of political savvy and sorely needed reality to Opera America's meetings. In this election year, I strongly urge B.A.R.'s readers to get their hands on copies of "Campaign '88: Arts On the National Agenda" (you can order this publication by sending $3 to The American Arts Alliance, 1319 F Street N.W., Suite 307, Washington, D.C. 20004) and to contact the Alliance of Arts Advocates (c/o William White, Law Offices of Kaplan, Ruffin & Vecchi, 1215 17th Street N.W., Washington 20036) for information on how you, too, can lend a hand to a very important and long overdue political action committee for the arts.


The highlight of my weekend in Houston was an absolutely brilliant production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte which, under the inspired baton of Dennis Russell Davies, featured such mind-blowing ensemble work that I nearly ended up in a state of shock. When taken seriously as a piece of musical theatre, this Mozart opera glows with vitality and, with surtitles written by Scott Heumann, this performance became the most stunning experience I have had with Cosi Fan Tutte since the legendary Jonathan Miller/Richard Gaddes/Calvin Simmons collaboration mounted by Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June of 1982.

Backed by Carl Friedrich Oberle's unit set (which reminded me of my visit to Sweden's Drottningholm Court Theatre last September) and Oberle's delightfully crafted costumes, director Goran Jarvefelt delved much further into the layering of each individual character's psyche and dramatic motivations than most of his professional peers would ever dare to do. Working from a sound theatrical standpoint, he crafted a dramatic whole which was, in a word, breath-taking.

HGO's exceptionally strong ensemble included tenor Goesta Winbergh and baritone Robert Orth as Ferrando and Guglielmo. Winbergh was in exceptionally fine vocal form. Orth's artistic growth during the past five years continues to astound me. This man is a major American talent who I keep watching deliver one finely-crafted character and beautifully-sung performance after another in theatres around the nation. As far as I'm concerned, Robert Orth is an 21-karat operatic gem.

So much for Mozart's vain heros and the men who portrayed them. How did the rest of the cast fare? Finnish soprano Karita Mattila delivered a fascinating Fiordiligi which was vocally impressive and dramatically quite forceful. A tall, shapely blonde, Mattila's soprano dominated the stage with its radiant sound. Nevertheless, there were moments when I was more taken by the dark strengths of Jeanne Piland's magnificently feminine Dorabella. As Don Alfonso, veteran buffo Renato Capecchi cast a seasoned and justifiably cynical eye on the proceedings. Melanie Helton's robust Despina rounded out a cast which would have done any impresario proud.

It's interesting to see Houston Grand Opera scoring so strongly with Mozart in a market whose median age is less than 30. Last fall's production of The Abduction from the Seraglio became the surprise sleeper of the company's opening salvo in the Wortham Center. In many ways, I wish that (in addition to October's Aida and the delayed telecast of Nixon in China scheduled for April 1988) the company could have broadcast this Cosi Fan Tutte so that people would know what happens when high artistic standards reach a healthy equilibrium with the business of producing opera.

Next fall, both Goran Jarvefelt and Carl Friederich Oberle will return to Houston to mount Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro with a cast headed by Thomas Allen, Susanne Mentzer, Francois Loup, Gunnel Bohman, Angela Maria Blasi and Robert Hayward. Although I missed the same team's 1987 staging of Don Giovanni -- a production which was reported to be a major artistic triumph -- I'm told that all three da Ponte operas will be revived as part of a Mozart festival (along with Peter Mark Schifter's wacky Abduction and the Corsaro/Sendak Magic Flute) which is being planned by the Houston Grand Opera for the Spring of 1991.

Stay tuned for further developments and make your travel plans accordingly.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 14, 1988.

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