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