When Belts Are Tightened (Part One): Keeping Opera Vibrant in Tough Times

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The financial state of much of the world is precarious, to say the least. Some politicians and economists call for austerity while others prefer stimulus money to crank up the growth engine. In effect, it is a cup of tea versus a shot of espresso.

Opera has not been immune from these issues, but is different in that it puts much more faith in long-term planning than do government or industry. I wonder if things would be different if a general manager of an opera company had to present his credentials every four years and seek another term? I think long-term planning in opera is, for the most part, a good thing. Financial goals can be set, singers and production teams engaged, and orchestra and chorus can take time to learn new music.

Sometimes opera companies such as the Dallas Opera and the Washington National Opera choose, in the planning stage, cancel new productions for fiscal or artistic reasons. After undertaking a fully-staged Ring cycle, the most ambitious of all operatic endeavors, it became necessary for Washington to do Götterdämmerung in concert form because there simply were not the resources to mount a full production. This season the WNO is only doing five operas, fewer than in the recent past.

The Metropolitan Opera under Peter Gelb has been more espresso than tea, charging forth with ambitious projects in the belief that this energy and visibility will keep opera consequential. This is laudable but can also be costly. While companies in Vienna and in Germany do more operas in a season than does New York, the size and scope of what the Met does is staggering.

In the 2011-2012 season that has just commenced, the Met will do 26 different productions, 19 of which are revivals and seven new. These include the world premiere of The Enchanted Island, a baroque pastiche with a marvelous cast conducted by William Christie; the just-presented company premiere of Anna Bolena; another attempt at making Faust relevant (right); new takes on Don Giovanni and Manon; and the massively challenging Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

There are many tantalizing revivals -- the ones I am most looking forward to are Billy Budd, Ernani, Khovanschina, Macbeth, The Makropulos Case and Satyagraha. To cap it all off, the Met will do the first three complete cycles of Robert Lepage’s (thus far) opinion-dividing Ring.

While dealing with demands of making this season a success, some members of the technical and musical departments are also at work on upcoming seasons. Future productions are in various stages of development and, in addition to what is being done now, time and space have to be provided for these embryonic projects.

Should it Stay or Should it Go?

On a recent visit to London I heard that the Met is considering a new co-production (with the English National Opera) of Eugene Onegin, to be directed by Deborah Warner, whose work I often admire. If my source is correct, it would come to the Met in the 2013-2014 season. This would mean, though, that the Met will retire Robert Carsen’s excellent 1997 take on Tchaikovsky’s opera. I think there are some opera stagings in the Met repertory that merit or need a new version, but this certainly is not one of them. While it is always important to bring new interpretations to opera masterpieces, when money is tight and certain other productions in the repertory are so conspicuously deficient, is it wise to spend time and precious resources to replace something good?

The current Onegin production marked the Met debuts of conductor Antonio Pappano (now music director of London’s Covent Garden) and an outstanding production team led by Carsen, with set and costumes by Michael Levine, lighting by Jean Kalman and choreography by Serge Bennathan. Pappano has never returned to the Met, Carsen and Levine did 1999’s Mefistofele, and Kalman (who I think is one of the best lighting designers at work today) returned for Don Giovanni (2004), Macbeth (2007) and Attila (2010). Whatever anyone thought of those productions, the lighting was fabulous.

Reviews for the 1997 Eugene Onegin were mixed at the time, in part because the principal singers (Galina Gorchakova, Vladimir Chernov, Neil Shicoff) were probably more suited to their roles when they were contracted than when they reached the stage. This is one of the risks in long-term planning in opera. Voices change and become more suitable to new roles while parts that once were congenial become a stretch.

For example, Anna Netrebko did not have the requirements for Anna Bolena a few years ago, but it is a part she has played to great acclaim this year in Vienna and New York. By contrast, Joan Sutherland famously withdrew from a couple of operas she had been engaged for at the Met, including the daunting role of Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, when she realized that she could not perform at her estimable best. Although she gave the company more than a year’s notice, the management at that time punished her (and, I believe, Met audiences) by not contracting her for a few years in other operas.

Because the first cast of Eugene Onegin was deficient and perhaps Pappano and the Met orchestra did not establish the necessary feeling for one another, the greatness of Carsen’s intelligent, rational and passionate staging was not fully appreciated. It would only become evident in revivals when Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Thomas Hampson played the title character and their Tatianas were Renée Fleming and Karita Mattila. The playing space of the stage is, for much of the performance, defined by autumn leaves and chairs with high-backed frames. There are high white walls that shift subtly during the opera’s seven scenes. When combined with sensitive lighting, specific direction and, above all, outstanding singing and acting by the leads, not much else was required. Watch Fleming and Hvorostovsky in the closing scene, and please ignore the French subtitles:

I have been thinking for quite a while about productions in the Met repertory that are -- in my opinion -- “keepers” or could become so with a bit of tweaking or restoration. When money is tight, sometimes judicious restoration of something that is essentially sound is wiser than attempting to replace it. I also have made a list of operas that desperately need to be revisited, like the upcoming Faust that must provide a corrective to the dreadful stagings by Harold Prince (1990) and Andrei Serban (2005).

I will present my ideas on what the Met might keep and what it should replace later this week in the second installment of this post, and then ask for your recommendations. For now, though, please weigh in as to whether you think opera companies facing budgetary challenges should opt for the safe and tame route or continue to take risks on artistic choices. This applies not only to readers of this blog for whom the Met is their home company, but the many of you who have sent comments in from all over the world.

Photo credit: Jonas Kaufmann in the title role of Gounod’s Faust at the Met; Nick Heavican/Metropolitan Opera