Opera in Every Sense

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When I was asked to contribute to a blog about opera for WQXR.org I accepted without hesitation. Many people who know me say that I live on a metaphorical Planet Opera, which I take as a compliment even though opera is only part -- a wonderful part -- of the fabric of my life. I know that anyone who embraces opera, which is to say loves opera rather than merely “appreciates” it, lives more richly and is usually more in touch with the human experience. This is because opera addresses, on many levels, the core issues and questions of who we are.

My column will not contain reviews and I will cast only the occasional glance at breaking news. Dare I say that I will aim for the lofty heights of “what does it all mean?” At the very least, I plan to explore what the creators of opera -- the librettists, composers, musicians, directors and designers -- are trying to tell us. I realize that initial readers of my posts will be mostly from the New York area but eventually -- through sharing, forwarding, Facebook, and the peculiar way that writings and broadcasts ricochet around the Web -- I will be speaking to a wider audience with different experiences and opinions. And there we will find the commonality of the human condition that opera so effectively embodies. 

Think of each posting as an operatic Urbi et Orbi, with New York at its core but with all of Planet Opera in our view: Orpheus in Cyberspace. I will be objective when objectivity is called for, but also will tell you what I think. If you are looking for gossip, dirt or meanness, look elsewhere -- that is just not my thing. Almost all of the artists who work in opera do it with seriousness of purpose and face huge challenges in their professional and personal lives. My wish is to point to the best of what they do and explain what makes it special. If I decide to chide anyone, my observations will be professional and not personal. This blog is a privilege and an honor, but it is also a responsibility.

Much of my point of reference will be the Metropolitan Opera, a place I have worked at and love dearly. It is the world’s greatest opera company, day in and day out, but it is hardly the only one that does things of consequence. And it is not perfect. If, every now and then, I am critical of it, you should not read any subtext into those comments. They are just the informed opinions of someone who wants to see all opera flourish, including that which is presented on the stage of the company that is the beacon for so much of what we expect opera to be.

New York has at least 40 organizations that present opera in one form another each season and no city (sorry lieblings in Vienna, Munich, Berlin and Zurich!) offers more variety even if others give more total performances. There is the invaluable and feisty New York City Opera that deserves better luck than it has had in recent years. I plan, whenever possible, to highlight the small groups such as Da Capo, Teatro Grattacielo, Gotham Chamber Opera, Chelsea Opera, Opera Orchestra of New York, Vertical Opera and others that passionately strive to take audiences where they have never been before. And I will also keep an eye on our music schools for trends and breakout performances. 

For this first post I had planned to explore how we can best experience opera by using our senses to their fullest extent, something few people do. I am convinced that most aspects of our lives would improve if we used our sensorial gifts and will gradually address this down the road. You should expect that I use all of my senses as I explore Planet Opera with you.

I travel widely and I will give you reports -- postcards, if you will -- about what is happening in the places I go. There are great performances everywhere and I want to share them with you. There are so many styles and tastes to learn about -- always with an open mind and all the senses working full blast. For example, Munich offers many of the best singers and musicians in the world and has an audience that really knows its opera. Because German cities, states and the federal government see Culture (Kultur) as being as important as other needs, there is a lot of opera to choose from, though often with productions that focus more on the concept of a stage director than the ideas of the composer and librettist. So in Munich you might see a sublime production of a Strauss opera one night and then Rigoletto set on the “Planet of the Apes” the next. I’m not making this up, you know!

When I hear great artists elsewhere who I think belong in New York and in other important venues, I may shine a light on them. Parisians and a few other lucky Europeans have had ongoing contact with exciting and musical Anna Caterina Antonacci, who turns 50 on April 5. Now, I know that some artists come to the attention of New Yorkers rather late in their careers (Giuseppe Taddei was 69 when he made his Met debut as Falstaff), but this is a major oversight. I believe that Antonacci has an Alice Tully Hall recital in spring 2012 -- watch this column.  

Another wonderful singer whom we scarcely know here is Daniela Barcellona, a sensational mezzo-soprano who performs the heroic Rossini repertory in his hometown of Pesaro. Expect me to spotlight her at some point as well as many artists I unabashedly love. After all, looking for and finding that thrill from a performing artist is central to why we keep going to the opera. That is how I felt the first time I heard Stephanie Blythe, Sasha Cooke, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Anja Harteros, Angela Meade, Rene Pape and Bryn Terfel -- artists I point to when I hear that tired old (and erroneous) kvetch about “there are no good singers anymore.” There are lots of wonderful singers and it is incumbent on managers, critics and audiences to pay attention to, support and encourage these artists. I have already circled days in my calendar when I will be in the same cities as the singers I cherish.

Although I have been an operagoer for more than 50 years (I was quite precocious, thank you very much, and am still quite full of ginger, vinegar and all of those other flavors we associate with vigor and optimism), I am not one of those opera lovers who lives in the past. It is a great point of reference for understanding how we got where we are and a constant source of pleasure to draw from. So I will occasionally pull out a page from the memory book or assess historic performances as a sort of master class for your delectation, but I am not implying that things are not what they once were. Things never are what they once were, and seldom were what we think they were. Our lives roll toward the future and that is the direction to which I look.