The Real Opera World: Brooklyn

Email a Friend

With City Opera’s residency continuing at BAM this week with Jonathan Miller’s La traviata and next with Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, more opera docks at the Howard Gilman Opera House.

Yet while this particular partnership is somewhat novel, the Brooklyn Academy of Music—which is in the midst of its 150th birthday—has seen more years of opera than Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. The company’s first opera, Mercadante’s 1837 work Il Giuramento, played a week after its inauguration on January 15, 1861 (among those in attendance was Mary Todd Lincoln; carrying on that tradition, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was at the opening night of Atys last fall). The opening night concert also featured music of Verdi, which together with Mercadante established the house’s longstanding connection with contemporary music.

After the original Brooklyn Academy of Music on Montague Street burned to the ground in 1903, it reopened five years later where it resides now on Lafayette Avenue with a gala that featured Geraldine Farrar and Enrico Caruso in a production of Faust imported from the Metropolitan Opera. Long before City Opera flirted with touring the boroughs, the Met maintained a longstanding partnership with its neighbors in Fort Greene, performing until 1921. In its final show, L’elisir d’Amore, Caruso suffered a throat hemorrhage onstage, coughing up more blood than Violetta in this week’s Traviata. It was the beginning of the swift end for the tenor, who retired two weeks later.

Luciano Pavarotti in recital at BAM, 1973.

In fact, BAM has been one of the most progressive houses for opera in New York. New York City Opera has some Pulitzer-winning composers under its belt and incubated some of the 20th century’s greatest stars. The Met has had the resources to accommodate elephants and giant 45-ton machines. But BAM was, in many ways, there first. It was the first house in New York where you could see Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, which opened in the inaugural Next Wave Series in 1981, and John Adams’s Nixon in China in 1987 (the Met premiered Satyagraha in 2007 and Nixon in China in 2011, though in the Met’s favor it first produced Einstein on the Beach in 1976, eight years before the opera made it to BAM where it returns this fall).

Valery Gergiev and the Russian revival? Just a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the conductor brought the Kirov to the borough of Kings in 1995 with The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, which has yet to make it to the Met. (Gergiev became principal guest conductor at the Met two years following his run in Brooklyn.) And speaking of major Met milestones, its upcoming revival of The Makropulos Case was last seen in 2001—the same year that the Glyndebourne Festival Opera brought their version to the Gilman. Glyndebourne came first.

Then-Princess Diana visited BAM in 1989 for the Welsh National Opera's production of Falstaff.

While we’re talking about Brits, Jonathan Miller at BAM is old hat. His staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion debuted in 1997 and was restaged in 2001, 2006 and 2009. Same goes for Robert Lepage, who brought the Canadian Opera Company to Brooklyn in 1993 for a double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung. He came back last spring for Stravinsky’s The Nightingale. The latter, while produced on a far more modest budget, outshone even the flashiest moments of the Ring. And while the artistry of William Kentridge in the Met’s The Nose far outweighs his work on The Magic Flute, his 2007 work at BAM was what gave audiences a taste of the artist’s operatic flair before his schnoz donned Pra(v)da.

If rumors are to be believed, Thomas Adès’s The Tempest will be seen soon enough at the Met, in Lepage’s hands, but his original chamber opera, Powder Her Face, came courtesy of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1998. And speaking of overdue Met debuts, just a few months before William Christie stepped onto the company’s podium for the first time, he was curating and conducting BAM’s inaugural opera festival. He also returned this year before The Enchanted Island for the third revival of Atys, which is still a charmer.

Fortunately, there’s no harm and no foul between the Met and BAM. In fact, their turn-of-the-century partnership revived almost a century after it first began when the Met began transmitting its Live in HD telecasts to BAM’s Rose Cinemas. After all, BAM built it—and the people have come.

What have been your favorite operatic moments at BAM? Sound off in the comments below.