Misconduct at the Opera House

Saturday, March 30, 2013 - 11:00 AM

Recently I had an experience that I wish I could get out of my head, but I cannot. One of my favorite operas was playing at the Met and I attended three performances. The cast was great and the conductor highly esteemed, someone I have enjoyed on other occasions. While not necessarily my favorite, I have heard him lead excellent performances of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and Puccini works. A couple of these are among my most treasured memories from my thousands of nights at the opera.

Why go to the same opera three times over 19 days? With masterpieces, one wants to immerse and listen each time as if it were the first time. You always discover something new in works of genius. I know every note of this opera, can recite long passages of its libretto, and think about it even when it is not in the repertory. It’s that good. And yet, this time, the performances were excruciating. Why was that? The production was familiar to me, so I did not have to adjust to a new version of the work. The cast was very strong overall, including singers who are among my favorites. The Met orchestra and chorus are top-flight and perform this opera with aplomb. 

The problem was the maestro, who seemed to have no feeling for this opera. I have decided not to name the conductor in question simply because this article is about a phenomenon to draw lessons from and not a review. 

This performance was numbingly slow, lasting twenty to twenty-five minutes longer than scheduled. The conducting had no pacing to speak of, no structure or architecture to the rendering of the score. Moreover, the maestro seemed to have no idea how to accompany the singers. Love duets dragged so much that the singers ran out of breath. Solos moved at a glacial pace. The narrative the orchestra provided (as led by the conductor) was non-existent.

Many people asked me why the singers did not sound nearly as good as one would expect. Sometimes a singer has a cold or a bad night. But, in this case, most of the cast struggled mightily at all three performances I heard. Singers are used to working with conductors with whom there is a give-and-take, so that both the orchestra and soloists sound their best. This exchange is developed in the rehearsal process and then a conductor is supposed to be alive to changes during performances. If a singer is short of breath or has made a vocal entrance slightly late, a good conductor compensates for it.

To understand how this process works at its best, I direct you to any video of a performance conducted by James Levine. Even when the cast was sub-standard, Levine shaped what the audience heard so that the pace and volume of the orchestra was expressive but also supported the singer. It is not uncommon to hear singers say that there is no better conductor to work with than Levine. You will be able to experience this when he returns to the podium next season for Così fan tutte, Falstaff and Wozzeck.

A famous example of Levine’s responsiveness came three decades ago during a live transmission of Tannhäuser, starring Richard Cassilly. This excellent tenor had been giving thrilling performances of the fiendishly hard title role, pouring endless heart, soul and artistry into every moment. On the day of the television transmission, the performance began wonderfully, with Cassilly, Eva Marton, Tatiana Troyanos and Bernd Weikl in sensational form. Then, during the long “Rome Narrative” in the third act, Cassilly lost his voice. A combination of his professionalism and Levine’s flawless support got him through so that most of those watching were riveted and did not realize that Cassilly was in vocal crisis. Watch part of that performance. The video is blurry but the sound is faithful.

Both the tenor and orchestra were profoundly expressive. The pacing was such that his breath was not unduly taxed. The orchestra’s volume, when Cassilly sang alone, was at a level where he could be heard without sounding forced or parched. The orchestra was present and audible, sensitively collaborating with the tenor. Then, once Tannhäuser died, Levine revved up the orchestra and chorus to produce a knockout finale. I was in the theater that day and the roar of the crowd was something one seldom hears nowadays. The reasons for this are for another article --singers are different, audiences are different-- but what the public responded to that day was a glorious performance whose difficulties were hardly noticeable except to those with the most practiced eye and ear.

I do not wish to imply that the artists in the opera I recently went to were having a vocal crisis. On the contrary, most of them came on sounding fine but were gradually dragged into musical molasses by the conductor. I am still sorting out how this happened. The conductor appeared for all of the performances, so it probably was not a health problem.  Occasionally, a conductor and a singer don’t get along and seem to do battle during a performance. But, in this case, the conductor was at odds with all the singers and, it seemed, the orchestra too.

Lessons to be Learned

There are lessons to draw from this experience. The first is if you attend an opera performance and don’t enjoy it, do not give up on that opera. Sometimes, you are not ready for that work. But it might be that singers, the conductor, the orchestra or the production are not right for the opera in question. For me, it took four different productions before I connected with Madama Butterfly, an opera I now love. 

The second lesson is that most operagoers, even the most experienced, seldom pay enough attention to the conductor. This is, after all, the person who gets the last bow at a performance because he or she is the one who must shape it and hold it all together. Most conductors I have conversed with say that conducting opera is much harder than symphonic music because there are larger musical forces to work with and gave shape to. He presents the opera as a music drama, giving scrupulous care to the sound of the orchestra and chorus so that they tell the story of the opera but also coordinate with the singers. Great opera orchestras, such as the one at the Met, listen not only to the maestro and to one another but to the singers on the stage. One of the many reasons I like sitting upstairs in opera houses is so that I can watch the conductor and the orchestra at work.

The third lesson, one I will get to in more detail in a future article, is that you are missing out on a lot if your primary focus is reading projected titles. It is the conductor’s job to make the performance so arresting musically that the thing you most want to do is listen. This is how I felt at the Met’s recent Parsifal, which was unforgettable because it seemed that everyone involved—conductor Daniele Gatti, all the singers, producer François Girard and his design team--seemed inspired to use the music as the primary means of telling the story. People I spoke to who slavishly read titles at Parsifal missed out on much of what made the performance great.

The fourth lesson, one that most people don’t realize, is that you might think a singer is no good but it might not be the singer’s fault. Take the example of one of the most famous sopranos of the 1980s, one who sharply divided opinions. For some listeners, she had a gorgeous voice and was a splendid singer. For others, she was dull. Why? She was an artist who refused to push her voice beyond its natural limits. If a conductor played too loud, too fast, or too slow, this singer seldom tried to adjust to him. Rather, she sang in the way that was most comfortable for her. Some audience members noticed the discord (a most appropriate word) between singer and conductor and ascribed the problem to her. It is fair to say that this singer and some conductors did not concur, during rehearsals, as to how the music would be performed.

Finally, a lesson that is both obvious but merits stating: Creative chemistry is not a given. Even the best opera companies can field singers and a conductor who, in other circumstances, are at the top of their game but simply do not jell when put in a particular production. This is not unique to opera, but can be found in the casts of films, plays, ballets or television programs. The same applies to co-anchors of news programs (Harry Reasoner/Barbara Walters; Matt Lauer/Ann Curry) and in many human relationships, professional and personal.

I suspect that the conductor in question will not return to the Met. He will continue to work elsewhere as long as he wants to. He has done good work for this company, in opera houses in Europe, and with several symphony orchestras. My only wish is that audiences and decision-makers at the Met do not fault the excellent singers who were in the cast and think that, because the performances of this great opera were profoundly disappointing, the singers are to blame. We need every good singer we can get.

Photo: A scene from Act I of Wagner's 'Parsifal'; Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


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Comments [16]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute,. Boonton, NJ

LA SCALA AND THE MET OPERA ARE DISBANDING THEIR BALLET COMPANIES AND OTHER MAJOR OPERA COMPANIES HAVE SIMILARLY MADE SUCH ANNOUNCEMENTS. News today by the general manager of LA SCALA, Stephane Lissner that the world-famous opera house that was VERDI's outreach to the musical world is suffering government subsidy cutbacks and diminished attendance records will cut back on its scheduling, its season length and the number of productions. Worldwide the excuse by governments for cutting back on support of their cultural institutions, the opera, the symphony, the music conservatories, the museums, the universities and television and radio public broadcasting is 'we can't afford it." What we can't afford is the ignorance of our respective cultures that provide the incentive for achieving, that entertain and inform In the USA we are not even paying attention to our intrastructure with thousands of bridges and roadways and hospitals and schools in dangerous conditions, falling bridges with vehicles plunging into the waterways below. Terrorists terror but simple-minded, ethically challenged politicians potentially are even more destructive of an enlightened civilized society. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. www.WagnerOpera.com

May. 27 2013 03:15 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

C'mon,people,get real here! There is really only one constant in the world of Opera:Sets and productions come and go,singers and instrumentalists and conductors come and go...only the notes on paper remain!!! And that's what we're supposed to be talking about,not the supposed affront to your eyes. One person's disgust can be another person's delight. I started listening to Met broadcasts when I was 12 ('Rigoletto' with Warren,Peters,Tucker,Elias and Tozzi conducted by Cleva). I never 'saw' the production but in my mind's eye I saw it (with the help of the Milton Cross book of opera stories) and it was magnificent! Imagination counts for a lot in the enjoyment of opera even when you're looking at it. People have a right to try to come up with some ideas of their own in presenting an opera. Some times it works - some times it blows up in their faces. But to treat everything as though it were a moral and ethical abomination just because it is different than one imagines it (however 'Magnificent') does an injustice not only to oneself but to others' rights to be good,bad or indifferent. Get over yourselves a little. And this comes from someone who still thinks Maazel's conduction was God-awful!

Apr. 07 2013 01:54 PM

Again and again as I read all these interesting comments after a most thoughtful and informative article, I come to the same conclusion: These days horrendous visual realizations and interpretations of operas are being carried along on the back of very high traditional musical standards. But it is only a matter of time until the double standard of the Gelb's administration's deplorable visual artistic standards and HD focus begin to corrupt the very brilliant musical standards as well.
Sensationalistic, overly stylized or radical realizations of operas eat away at the the most basic level of understanding their stories and feeling the authenticity that makes them come alive. Cool, attention getting, avant garde, modernized, relocated or controversial productions often emphasizing some obsession of the director and designer instead of serving the original opera and history faithfully is a big turn off often even before their novelty wears off.
Last night at Carnegie Hall, our entire row was taking about their dissatisfaction, even revulsion, of the Met recent productions and the result is a reluctance to renew subscriptions or see these dreadful productions even a second time. When productions are conceived, designed and directed with the end product of HD as their goal, the music is gradually going to suffer too. No sane person pays Met prices to simply close one's eyes and listen to the music. And HD films often look better than being in Ultra-Prime, dynamic priced Orchestra Seats since 16 to 18 cameras can actually make any production look good. It is only a matter of time when those same methods are applied from the visual to the aural. If a production is sounding poorly, you can bet there will be some acoustical adjustment for the HD to make it seem more perfect.
The only solution to save the Met is to remove the talented Mr. Gelb from decision maker on productions. He simply does not have the artistic taste, discernment or creativity to know a good production from dreck that can be hyped or used to get attention. Please let Mr. Gelb make his terrific HD films, but get someone else to make the in house performances independent and great again. Oh, yes, and please stop him from turning the facade of the Met building itself into a billboard to advertise his misconceived productions.

Apr. 06 2013 01:50 PM
Pat W from NJ

I totally agree with you! Don Carlo is my favourite opera also, though I only saw it twice this season. Great cast - but they were hampered by the slow tempo, and in places seemed to be trying to move the conductor along.... I hope the Met repeats it soon, with a conductor more in tune to the opera!

Apr. 05 2013 03:06 PM
Joanna from East Brunswick NJ

Well said. I've been listening to and attending Met performances since 1970 and of course in that time have heard some real winners, for better or worse. As much as I like it when old wine is successfully decanted into new bottles, I am absolutely not a fan of the current "La Traviata". What a heavy-handed production, smacking the audience on the head with the so-called "point". How insulting to the audience' intelligence! The slightly bare-bones production of "Barber of Seville"worked like a charm for me. This "Traviata" just made me want to leave. The orchestra and most of the singers were wonderful in spite of the production.
I'm aware that one function of art is to be thought-provoking. Perhaps that was the goal, in which case I suppose it succeeded. I'll just make sure to change my tickets if it ever shows up on my subscription again.

Apr. 04 2013 11:06 PM
Alexandra from Milan and NY

Fred, I see in the comments of your fans that lots of them are bothered by the stagings and attire of the singers in most of the productions of the last 15 -20 years. I too find them ludicrous, ridiculous and repulsive. But no production seemed to me more nauseating than La Boheme from Salzburg 2012, with Netrebko and Beczala (through no fault of the singers, as superb as ever.) This "updating" of this magnificent opera was nothing but a transportation of the plot to a garbage dump, with the characters changed into homeless derelicts. Not able to watch this abhorrence, I simply closed my eyes and listened. In my opinion, this feat, instead of bringing operas closer to today's young audiences (as the directors claim), accomplish the opposite, contributing in great measure to the demise of this musical genre. (e.g. Who will want to buy this DVD?)
Fred, what is your view on this contemporary phenomenon?

Apr. 04 2013 09:41 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

@ Kazi: Great insights from an insider. My father was a trombonist and his evaluation of an opera tended to be based on the trombone parts. So Wagner, R. Strauss and Gluck were great but, curiously, the only Verdi he liked was Otello. It took me years to figure out why!

@Bill Epstein: The production of Butterfly that hooked me was two ago at the Met (memory tells me that the first name of the designer was Motohiro). The production was very Japanese, but not obsessively so, and Renata Scotto was Cio-Cio-San. She was magnificent in every way. The previous productions I had seen were in Europe and probably under-rehearsed and under-cast. I was bored silly. Interestingly, I have seen all kinds of productions since Scotto, including the famous Robert Wilson (in Paris and LA) and the Minghella at the Met. They could not be more different, though both work well when they have great singers in them. It also helped, after the Scotto, to listen to older performances and have that production in my head. The one that grabbed me most was Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker from the very early 1960s. Simply amazing. A great way to deepen one's knowledge of an opera is to listen to recordings AFTER seeing it performed live.

Apr. 03 2013 10:37 PM

As a opera orchestra musician I have experienced the phenomena you describe so well from the other side. One example: While Falstaff and Othello thrill me, I don't always enjoy playing some of Verdi's earlier works simply because the viola parts are tedious. This is not a statement about the beauty of the piece. I had not really enjoyed the many productions of Il Trovatore I had done over the years until the time that a magical combination of singers and conductor changed my attitude completely. I couldn't wait to go to work. Sadly the opposite has happened too, where an opera I had always loved became a torture. The pacing and the exchange between the conductor, the orchestra and the singers are what it's all about: the very reason I love to play opera. A great conductor continues to reveal musical nuances no matter how many times you play it (or listen to it). I love the moment the baton goes down and the giant, many faceted machine that is opera, goes into motion.

Apr. 03 2013 09:43 PM
Bill Epstein

Dear Fred,
Excellently written review. I also saw the recent Don Carlo. I couldn't agree more. This is especially true with regard to your statement that

"if you attend an opera performance and don’t enjoy it, do not give up on that opera. Sometimes, you are not ready for that work. But it might be that singers, the conductor, the orchestra or the production are not right for the opera in question. For me, it took four different productions before I connected with Madama Butterfly, an opera I now love "

It is my mantra that many times bad performances color ones reaction to an opera. At the Don Carlo I saw a good part of the audience left after the second act missing the scene of the Kings monologue and the Grand Inquisitor Among the people who left were the couple sitting next to me who stated what a boring opera don Carlo is and that it had no melody . Don Carlo is also one of my favorite operas and abounds with wonderful and glorious melodies

By the way I wonder what the production and who were the singers that finally got you to love BUTTERFLY,

Apr. 03 2013 09:23 PM
Cara De Silva from New York

A very perceptive commentary and so educative.I don't have time to say more. I must run. However, I will say this. You just get better and better.

Apr. 03 2013 07:32 PM
Robert St.Onge

Ever since I first heard a Met radio broadcast at age 12 (I am now 69) I have loved to sit back in silence,contemplating the beauty and majesty of the whole experience. On the day of the 'Don Carlo' broadcast I was railing and ranting (I won't quote) and actually cheered out loud when Maazel was not given a bow at the end. I felt nothing but admiration for the cast members,chorus and orchestra who had been subjected to such musical indignities and still managed to show respect for Verdi and his masterpiece and am looking forward to future presentations of this magnificent opera...sans Maazel!

Apr. 02 2013 01:34 PM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

Sound, like beauty, is in the ear of the beholder. I saw the earlier Met production of Otello and found Johann Botha, quite pleasent to listen to. The reveiwers however said he was "not in good health and wooden". Later hearing Josse Cura on the radio (twice) in the same role, I found him "not in good health", at times bearly autable and almost indistingushabe from the baritone. Reviewers on these proformances gave great credit to the tenor but it only made me long for the old studio recording of Bjerling and Merril in their Otello duet....

P.S. Normally I enjoy surtitles and find them helpful. However seeing the Met Parsifal on wide-screen made me want to turn them off. Parsifal, like Wagner the man, can only be taken at certain levels. While the music, singing and production were worthy, the words makes one turn in their seat. Such cloing, guilt ridden religiousity was just too much. Moreover, coming from a man like Wagner who never had a guilty bone in his body (this was afterall a married man who cheated on his mistress with his best friend's wife), I spent more time avoiding them and focusing on the glorious music.

Apr. 01 2013 12:02 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Very few conductors in today's world know how or have the desire to accompany and/or adjust tempi and in certain cases the key an artist sings in, as did master conductors like Erich Leinsdorf (in the former instance) with Lauritz Melchior when it came to tempo in "Tannhau"ser" at the Met and Toscanini with Lotte Lehmann in the "Abscheulicher..." aria from "Fidelio at a Salzburg Festival in the latter instance. Very few are coaches then third and second conductors in provincial houses before achieving the status of a world-class maestro. To avoid disappointment, stay home and listen to recordings. If you wish to take a chance, listen to Met, as well as other leading houses that offer broadcasts. If you're disappointed, you can always turn the radio off and remember who the offender(s) are.

Apr. 01 2013 10:24 AM

Several things resonate for me in this article. I have only been attending opera performances intensively since 2004. I love going to 2-3 performances of the same opera production so as to be able to soak in several of the many layers of an opera, from the performance of a particular singer, to the structure of the plot, etc. It's worth reading a libretto and getting a general idea of what's going on so as not to have to have my vision and attention interrupted. I began by going to see specific singers, then started noticing other things as well. I never, ever thought about the conductor until I encountered one at the Vienna Staatsoper a few years ago in two successive performances of the same opera -- drowning out the singers, mistiming the tempo, etc. Since then I've noticed conductors! And have thanked my lucky stars that so many of them are so wonderfully skilled.

Mar. 31 2013 02:43 PM
The Marschallin from Manhattan

That is the job description of "conductor": to set the pace, to gather the players together, to direct, ie. to "send in the right direction"...
It sounds like this particular one flunked!
As for the white shirts/black suits in Parsifal, they reminded me so strongly of the IBM men in the 70's, another "cult", that it distracted me badly...

Mar. 30 2013 04:54 PM
Madison from Manhattan

You're not the only one Fred. I heard quite a few others complaining about Maazel's conducting of Don Carlo!

As for the magnificently sung Parsifal, the scene with Gurnermanz ( the great Rene Pape) surrounded by his circle of knights all wearing white dress shirts, looks more like a commercial for Arrow shirts circa 1958 than knights at a medieval castle in the Pyrenees. Ditto the sports jacket worn by Amfortas. What's the point of all this nonsense?

Mar. 30 2013 01:04 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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