Should Opera Companies Feature More Ballet?

Many Great Opera Companies Feature Ballets, but One Major Lags Behind

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 - 01:24 PM

In my twenties I liked ballet as much as I did opera. There were great stars such as Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev, every bit as exciting as Sutherland and Pavarotti.

The stories told in ballet appealed to a young person and the music was infectiously rhythmic. I spent a lot of time in London in my student years and went to whatever what was on at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, whether it was the Royal Opera or the Royal Ballet. The latter had great stars (Margot Fonteyn, Merle Park, Anthony Dowell) and choreographers including Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan. There was a buzz of excitement at Covent Garden and as I sat in the slips (the cheap seats with restricted views), I was bitten by the ballet bug.

And yet, ballet soon began to show its limitations for me when compared with opera. No one made beautiful sounds in the storytelling. The miming of emotions became tedious when they could have been sung with full-throated passion. The rhythmic music began to sound repetitive and dull, lacking the complexity of opera. The scenery, costumes, lighting and other technical components seldom compared to what opera could offer. And the more opera I saw, the more I realized that it was my true love.

Talent and Dysfunction

From the ages of 25 to 31, I was Performance Manager at the Met. At that time, the opera company performed until mid-May and then went on a national tour. All my pals left and I had to stay behind to be the custodian of the opera house during what was called Presentation Season and deal with visiting companies, most of them dance troupes.

First and foremost was American Ballet Theater (ABT), a talented and troubled bunch with many outstanding performers (my favorite was the sexy and vibrant Cynthia Gregory) and often dysfunctional management. Dancers such as Gelsey Kirkland, Patrick Bissell and Alexander Godunov all were charismatic and gifted, but seemed to have black clouds above their heads. Mikhail Baryshnikov was super-talented but not the most endearing artist I have ever come across.

After ABT’s run ended, other companies arrived from around the world, most of which were resident in major opera houses, including the Royal Ballet; the Kirov from Leningrad (now the Mariinsky of St. Petersburg); the Bolshoi from Moscow; the Paris Opera Ballet with its glamorous stars known as etoiles and others. There were also companies that did folk or modern dance (the Moiseyev from the USSR; the Dance Theater of Harlem, etc.). All of these troupes were more vibrant than ABT even if our home company had highly talented artists. Across the plaza, at the New York State Theater, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were creating one splendid dance program after another for the New York City Ballet (pictured, right).

This pirouette down memory lane was occasioned by attending two performances of the Mariinsky Ballet this past week during their visit to the Met as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Valery Gergiev was there to lead a full-length ballet based on Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” with a score by Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932) whose music brings to mind Prokofiev and, especially, Shostakovich. I liked his spiky use of percussion and modernist idiom. The set and costumes are by Mikael Melbye, a Danish Renaissance Man who began his artistic life as a baritone (listen to him with Margaret Price in a duet from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte). He eventually stopped singing and became a prominent stage director, designer and portraitist in painting and sculpture).

The second Mariinsky program appealed to the opera lover in me as all the music was by Bizet. First came “Carmen Suite,” adapted by Shchedrin in the 1960s using only strings and percussion and sounding like Carmen as performed in a James Bond film. It was of its time and worked brilliantly. The Mariinsky brought a simple production design suggesting a bullring and dancers costumed to look as if they had sprung from the deck of cards Carmen consults to learn her destiny.

Then came George Balanchine’s unforgettable “Symphony in C,” using music written by a seventeen-year old Bizet. What floored me about the Mariinsky troupe’s soloists and, especially, the corps de ballet, is that they were technically precise and yet danced with an amazing sense of freedom. They were staggeringly good. I had forgotten that ballet can make me feel this way, though it will never come close to doing for me what opera does.

Watching the Mariinsky made me realize that many of the world’s great opera companies have ballet companies whose artistic profiles and followings are as high or even higher than the opera troupes. When you look at the season calendars of companies like London, Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Moscow, ballet evenings are regular features that attract huge audiences. They also make money for the theaters because dance is cheaper to produce. In its 2010-2011 season, for example, the Opéra de Paris had 19 opera productions and 12 dance programs.

Whither The Met’s Ballet Tradition?

All of this made me think of the Metropolitan Opera. I believe that it still offers more high-quality opera performances each year than any other company. Its marvelous orchestra, under James Levine, has carved out an additional identity as one of the best ensembles for playing symphonic music at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. But has anyone in recent memory even mentioned the Metropolitan Opera Ballet? Is there such a thing, or are they just the corps de ballet who show up in Aïda, La Traviata, La Gioconda, Eugene Onegin and other standard repertory works that have dance sequences?

Dance is important in many operas, especially those created for the Paris Opera in the 19th century when it was customary for every opera to have a ballet sequence. The Met used to stage many of these works, including Mignon, Robert Le Diable, Le Prophete, Les Huguenots, Le Cid and more. Operas with ballets created for Paris that appear at the Met more regularly include Don Carlo, I Vespri Siciliani, Carmen, Faust, Les Troyens, Samson et Dalila and Tannhauser, whose sexy and controversial ballet at the start of the opera made Wagner rather unpopular in Paris.

A search in the Met archive revealed that the company used to do a lot more dance. A particular feature were divertissements, one-act ballet programs that followed shorter operas but were not related to them. The first I found was a Fidelio followed by a ballet in 1888. Other operas through the years at the Met that were followed by a ballet include Aïda, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Bohéme, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, La Fanciulla del West, Hansel und Gretel, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, La Sonnambula, Tosca, and Il Trovatore. The last one was in 1956, a ballet called “Soirée” that came after Don Pasquale.

Luisa Tetrazzini’s debut as Lucia di Lammermoor in 1911 was followed by a program called “Imperial Russian Ballet.” In the same year was an all-dance evening called the Anna Pavolva Farewell Gala that included the great ballerina and other dancers in a series of famous and lesser-known excerpts from many full-length ballets. The only other ballet evening in the opera house I discovered was on March 22, 1959, that included the Met dancers performing to Barber, Poulenc and Richard Strauss, whose Four Last Songs were sung by Eleanor Steber and danced by four soloists. In the 1960s the Met dancers did programs elsewhere in the city, including Town Hall, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Lewisohn Stadium.

Since the early 1980s, the dancers in the Met’s corps de ballet (it is hard to call them the Metropolitan Opera Ballet as one would for the companies in Paris or St. Petersburg) have had a very low profile. No international tours, no etoiles, no sense of occasion when they show up. I do think that Met General Manager Peter Gelb has made an effort to improve the choreography in existing productions (Aïda, for example, is much better) but that’s it.

A Proposal to Peter Gelb

I notice that the Met under Gelb has more “dark nights," those evenings during the season when nothing is on the stage. Some of these might be used for rehearsals or just to give the company a breather. But I think a few dark nights could be made available for dance performances by the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, as I want to call them. The cost of staging these is much lower and anything earned is more than the Met would have by remaining dark.

Perhaps the first program, which can be done on occasional dark nights throughout a season, might be called “Opera at the Ballet.” This could be a double or triple bill based on stories from opera. The Mariinsky Carmen would be great to start the evening. There exists a ballet version of La Sonnambula from which all or part could be done. Then, why not engage a choreographer or two to create new opera-inspired ballets to complete the program?

Two suggestions that might work are Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi. The former has a theatrical sequence at the climax that would work well as dance. The latter would need to be trimmed and focused, but there is a lot of room for humor and Puccini’s lush melodies would carry the day. I would love to hear your suggestions for operas that might make a nice ballet of thirty to forty minutes rather than a full evening.

The Metropolitan Opera Ballet could create one new mixed program of classical and contemporary dance every season to perform on a half-dozen dark nights. They do not have to be opera-related but would give the dancers a chance to flex different muscles just as the orchestra musicians do in their symphonic concerts. They could keep building and improving, just as the orchestra and chorus have. 

Perhaps they could do short American tours after the opera season, along with the orchestra and a singer or two. This would not be as costly as touring with whole opera productions (the Met’s annual U.S. spring tour ended in 1986) and would extend the company’s reach and influence in the way only live performances (as opposed to HD and radio broadcasts) can. And maybe one day, years from now, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet will be invited to dance in London, Paris, Copenhagen or St. Petersburg? It is something worth aspiring to.

Photos:

Members of the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Episodes."

Aida at the Metropolitan Opera: Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

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Comments [11]

Harry from Brooklyn, NY

The key point Mr. Plotkin misses is that New York is NOT St. Petersburg or Paris or London. In Europe, ballet developed primarily as a poor relation of the opera. As David has pointed out, dance was central to French musical theatre in the Baroque era [making the Paris Opera Ballet the oldest classical dance company in the world], but as opera became more naturalistic, stylized elements like dance became less important. The Paris Opera Ballet survived mainly because Jockey Club patrons insisted on seeing their mistresses on stage.

The history of dance in New York is quite different. In the classical world, Balanchine is the dominant influence. While he created terrific "story ballets" (THE NUTCRACKER, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM) and was, in fact, once director of the Met Opera Ballet, his real passion was turning abstract musical scores into patterns of movement that stand alone as works of art. While some of Balanchine's contemporaries in the modern dance world (Martha Graham and Jose Limon in particular) saw dance as a narrative art, nearly all younger choreographers have followed Mr. B into the world of dance as an abstract art, rich in emotional impact but independent of a literal narrative: Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Garth Fagan, Mark Morris, and on and on. Even more important, Balanchine (with Kirstein, of course) deliberately created a dance company independent of an opera house -- as did all the choreographers I have named, even Graham and Limon. When Lincoln Center was built with one house for the Met and another for New York City Ballet, the separation of opera and dance in America was literally cast in stone.

To be sure, Mark Morris has enjoyed success in staging Baroque operas, where stylized presentation, adapted for modern tastes, works very well. Perhaps this is a path to re-uniting dance and opera. But trying to turn the Met into a copy of Covent Garden or the Mariinsky is trying to make water run uphill.

Apr. 13 2012 11:13 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I would imagine that many performers in opera companies are also well versed in ballet. This may be the time to, not necessarily merge, but introduce a bit of crossover between the two art forms.

I'm thinking how Beethoven merged choral music to his 9th and how much dance is such an integral part of other musical forms.

A good choreographer could do this work without trying to "modernizing" or "jazzing up" the piece (we don't need another Harold Prince production).

Jul. 20 2011 08:55 AM
Eliane Lordello from Brazil

Yes, they should! The most interest aspect of the opera is its sense of entireness. No other genre can gather so well music, dance, literature, theatre. Best wishes, Eliane.

Jul. 20 2011 07:42 AM
David from Flushing

There are some French Baroque operas that blur the distinction between between opera and ballet. One would be Rameau's "les Indes Galantes."

I bought a DVD of this filmed at the old Paris Opera. This lavish production had a shockingly large number of dancers appear for the final curtain call.

Jul. 20 2011 07:30 AM
Roger Dodger from Brooklyn

I suspect the Met won't do more ballet because it's not part of its star system. The company is very focused on promoting individual talents and using Hollywood-style marketing around each of its productions. Ballet would be a sideline distraction, a case of muddled branding. Not that it doesn't have merit but they're probably not thinking about anything other than star singers and directors at the moment.

Jul. 20 2011 06:23 AM
Laurie from Turin, Italy

How very sad to read this thoughtful post at this moment, when the Met seems about to abolish any full time ballet corps. The evidence seems to indicate that if Gelb were to feature any kind of "dance season", he'd no doubt bring in high profile companies, rather than feature home grown talent.

Jul. 20 2011 03:58 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

Just to be clear, dear readers, I am not advocating more ballet IN opera but more ballet APART from opera to be done by an opera company's dancers. This will give them more exposure and work, give the opera company in question a different profile and expand its audience, and raise the skills and self-esteem of the dancers.

Jul. 20 2011 12:44 AM

They SHOULD include more ballet........ ( because people just look sexy in TIGHTS)

Jul. 19 2011 10:10 PM
Frank Feldman

Wagner had pretty much the right idea re the place of ballet in opera.

Jul. 19 2011 05:45 PM
Bernie from UWS

@David I think you're right there. It's not considered as prestigious for dancers in general. I know a lot of opera fans who turn their noses up at ballet sequences in operas. Armida at the Met this past season was a classic example. There was a whole tedious act in there that was just a ballet! If we're taking Gelb to task for not enough ballet, be careful what you wish for.

Jul. 19 2011 05:29 PM
David from Flushing

Some former coworkers of mine were big ballet fans and sometimes mentioned that performing in opera ballet was bad for a dancer's career. I do not know if this is considered a trivial form of ballet or what, but there seems to be some prejudice against it in dance circles.

Jul. 19 2011 05:19 PM

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