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Operavore

Must the Show Go On?

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I have been asked, often, about how the cancellations by important artists affect casts, productions and audiences. I will address this at some point with you, but something else has been on my mind.

Two nights ago I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall by the NHK Symphony Orchestra to open the spring portion of the JapanNYC festival that was scheduled long before the current tragedy unfolding in Japan.

The program included Takemitsu’s 1967 work called Green, Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss (with Kiri Te Kanawa as soloist) and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The conductor was Andre Previn. Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director, spoke to the audience about something we all were keenly aware of: The NHK Symphony had come to New York, as had many Japanese musicians, despite the March 11 earthquake, because they felt it was important to keep the music playing. 

Gillinson reminded us that Ms. Te Kanawa’s native New Zealand had also endured a severe quake in February. I recalled that she too is an artist who very seldom cancels, in part out of a strong commitment to her public. I remembered that I had heard her sing these famous songs (which deal, in part, with death and acceptance of it) more than two decades ago with the New York Philharmonic. She had just received news that her father had died in New Zealand but chose to stay and sing in New York rather than fly right home. Was it commitment to her audience? Was it something the music touched in her? There were probably many reasons, but the result for the majority of the audience who had no idea of the back story, was a rendition of the songs that was deeply felt by singer, orchestra and listeners.

A few years ago, I met the fine young British conductor Daniel Harding in Milan around the time of his La Scala debut conducting Mozart’s Idomeneo. We renewed our acquaintance recently and I visited with him at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on the occasion of his superb debut with the New York Philharmonic, leading a program with works by Szymanowski and Mahler. When the earthquake struck Japan last week, I remembered that Daniel had told me his next stop after New York was Tokyo. I contacted him by e-mail and learned that he was safe and sound.

Later on I followed a Facebook thread and found that Daniel had led a performance of the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal and Mahler’s deeply moving Fifth Symphony with the New Japan Philharmonic on the evening the earthquake had hit (at 2:46 that afternoon). While most commenters praised him, one Japanese man called him an “insensitive conductor” for having decided (together with the administrators of the NJP) that the show should go on. Here is his response:

“It is also possible that on such a terrible day it would have
been insensitive to turn away those people who made such
a huge effort to come to the concert. People who decided that
music would help them.  

I don't know the answer. I certainly don't judge others for their
decisions about how to behave, when those decisions are made
honestly and in good faith. 

I am sure the staff of the NJP thought long and hard before deciding
that they wished to proceed with the concert. It is very subjective, but
my impression was definitely that playing and listening to music was
a great help to many of us there in focusing our thoughts.
I am not sure that a group of people coming together to share a
great meditation and discourse on life and death is what I would
term insensitive.”

He noted that he was pleased that the orchestra did not unduly add weight and extra meaning to the Mahler symphony’s famous Adagietto, but played it as the “love letter” that it is.

Japan receives many of the world’s best musicians and ensembles, who love performing for the educated, passionate and courteous audiences there. It does not hurt that they usually earn very good fees too. The Metropolitan Opera is a frequent visitor to Japan and is scheduled to return this spring after the season ends in New York.

Last week, two important European companies were in Japan. The BBC Philharmonic of Manchester was there to play 10 concerts in 17 days. They were riding in a bus over a suspension bridge en route from Tokyo to Yokohama when the quake hit. Upon reaching their destination they found the city under a tsunami alert. It was soon decided that they should end their tour and return home to Britain, but they expressed solidarity and compassion for the Japanese people.

Florence’s opera company, orchestra and chorus -- usually called the Maggio Musicale -- had arrived in Japan to perform a tour that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy (March 17, 1861). They were to give four performances of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, one of his Requiem and three of Puccini’s Tosca, all to be led by Zubin Mehta.

Such tours are a major undertaking, and the Florentines arrived with 113 orchestra musicians; 94 members of the chorus and chorus master Piero Monti; 33 technical personnel; 18 support staff; 8 “Maestri Collaborators”; 23 solo singers and 3 understudies; plus Maestro Mehta and relatives of many of the company members.

Italy is a nation that has endured frequent earthquakes for centuries. I have experienced quite a few of them. While Italians would be as alarmed as anyone by one of the worst quakes on record, it seems that the source of concern was the effects of radiation leakage following the damage to nuclear reactors near the quake’s epicenter. People I know in Florence and elsewhere in Italy became quite alarmed about the threat of radiation and a decision was made to cancel the long-planned visit and bring everyone home except Mehta, the orchestra and a few other staff members, all of whom proceeded to China for concerts scheduled as the next phase of the Asian tour. In fact, just as I was writing these words, it was announced that Tokyo's tap water has shown unsafe levels of radiation and parents have been instructed to not give it to babies. So radiation concerns the Italians had were not unfounded.

A Parallel with Sept. 11, 2001

You probably have noticed that I have not spoken of money or the financial considerations involved in these decisions. (Yes, there is insurance, but still...). I think the choices made by all of these organizations are highly personal and I can find justification for all of them.  And all of this has made me think back to September 11, 2001.

Just days after 9/11 (four days, I believe) New York City Opera performed its opening night of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander. The entire company stood on stage to show solidarity with the city and the families who were directly affected. During the singing of the National Anthem, strapping stagehands sobbed uncontrollably. The local firehouse on 65th and Amsterdam Avenue lost quite a few firefighters, many of whom were known to people at Lincoln Center, myself included.

The Met and other arts organizations followed with their own openings and citizens were encouraged to attend performances. This act would benefit the economy, it was said, but it also provided spiritual uplift and consolation. I was especially admiring of orchestras from Chicago, Berlin, Helsinki and elsewhere who braved the challenges of air travel and security controls to stand with New York by coming to perform for us. Large groups from Oregon came to the city to stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and attend our cultural activities. From that day forward I always favor Oregon wine and food products when I have a choice about what to purchase.

On September 30, there was a concert at Carnegie Hall that included James Levine, Yo-Yo Ma and other artists, most notably Leontyne Price, who emerged from the privacy of her retirement to sing 2 songs for the audience. Tickets were free and New Yorkers quietly lined up to gain admission.

The next day I was scheduled to fly to Australia for six weeks of work that included the Sydney Opera as well as lectures and events in Adelaide, Perth and other cities. Australia has always been my dream destination and this is the only time I have cancelled a trip that included scheduled appearances and audiences who expected to see me. It was not because of fear that I cancelled -- everyone said, in effect, “Go, you’ll be safer there” -- but because I felt that every New Yorker had a responsibility then to stay home and help. There was a sense of “all hands on deck.” 

Two or three weeks after 9/11, I started hearing questions from well-meaning telephone representatives in other parts of the country to the effect of “are you all over that thing yet?” when in fact the city was still devastated and the fires of ground zero had not yet been extinguished. There was so much to be done. From the point of view of Australians, my “show” did not go on. But that was not a reflection on them (they are, by and large, a wonderful people) but on the fact that I believed it was essential to remain in New York

Like tens of thousands of my fellow citizens, I spent most of the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002 doing volunteer efforts to help the city get on its feet. You may remember the daily funerals for months as the remains of victims were removed from the World Trade Center site, identified and then laid to rest. The fires there were not extinguished until December 16, more than three months after the attacks. On that day, by pure coincidence, Trinity Church (dating back to before the American Revolution but which had miraculously stood despite its proximity to the trade center), bravely renewed its annual tradition of performing Handel’s Messiah. The church’s organ wheezed from the ash that filled its pipes, but the message was all the more eloquent because of that sound. We may be injured but we will persevere. Never has the “Hallelujah Chorus” meant more.

From September 11 onward, radio station WQXR kept playing music rather than giving itself over to the constant coverage of everything we New Yorkers saw every day. It became a refuge as the music played on. When things became too much to bear, many of us put on the radio and let the music work its magic. That Trinity Church Messiah was transmitted live on WQXR. [I am not praising WQXR because I write for this blog...it had different ownership back then.]

All that fall of 2001 and into the winter and spring, as we went through various phases of rage, depression, fear, denial, and (for many New Yorkers) anger at the war-mongering that was taking place in our name, musicians, dancers and actors kept working and giving, and artists from elsewhere came to our stages and breathed our poisoned air with us.

'First Responders'

People who head toward a disaster rather than flee are the brave people we call first responders. Those firefighters, police officers, medical teams and construction workers who valiantly went to the scene are not getting the credit or medical care they are now due. Journalists, in disaster and in war, are the ones who put their own lives in peril to do tell us what is happening. They are informational first responders. It is easy for some politicians and citizens to revile “the media” and seek to curtail their activities until such reporters are recognized as essential. Freedom of the press goes with freedom of speech as a fundamental part of our national creed.

I have decided that those who performed, often for free, after 9/11 were Cultural First Responders. Musicians, actors and poets bring solace and, along with writers and visual artists, are the ones who help us understand and deal with tragedy. And if they can make us laugh, that is precious too. Their work could not have happened without all of the stagehands, dressers, make-up and wig artists and technical staff who are essential for a performance to take place. These people are also Cultural First Responders.

I support entities, whether they are performing arts organizations or non-profit radio stations, that endeavor to apply musical or other artistic balm to wounded nerves and spirits. I respect the decision of Daniel Harding to stay in Japan to make music but also those of Mancunians and Florentines who went home. I respect and honor the decision of the NHK Symphony and all of the Japanese musicians who have come to New York to honor their commitments even though I did not fulfill mine in Australia after 9/11.  The events of the past two weeks have not moved me to favor one side of the equation more than the other.

Must the show go on? You tell me.