On Sunday, a new opera company will make its début in Boston: Odyssey Opera, founded by conductor Gil Rose. Their first offering is ambitious: a concert performance of the Wagner rarity Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes, a five-act grand opéra composed between 1838 and 1840 and based on the life of Cola di Rienzi, the 14th-century Roman patriot who sought to unify Italy but, after many triumphs and adversities, was killed by a mob.
The Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt, who has won praise in Europe as Calaf, Otello, and Siegmund, will make his North American début in the title role under Rose’s baton. According to Rose, Rienzi has never been performed before in Boston, and it will be given festival-style, with a dinner break between Acts II and III.
Though Boston is one of America's great musical capitals, it is by reputation "not an opera town." Rose chatted with Operavore about this challenge between rehearsals.
Opera and the Athens of America seem to have a fraught relationship. The Opera Company of Boston, Opera Boston and other fine groups have failed to last. Why do you think this is so?
I'm often asked about this issue, and I think it is an urban legend. There’s lots of opera in Boston. What we don’t have is an established company with its own house and a budget in the tens of millions like, say, San Francisco.
That said, I don’t remember companies like San Francisco or Washington mounting productions as interesting as the ones done here by Sarah Caldwell, Peter Sellars or Opera Boston. I see our opera scene as akin to “guerrilla warfare”: early-music opera, small groups, and other groups creating and commissioning new operas.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which you lead, presents opera in concert: for example, Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, coming up in November. Boston Baroque and the Boston Symphony Orchestra do so as well, plus there are Boston Lyric Opera, smaller groups, and HD cinema transmissions. In light of what you said, could part of the problem be a surfeit of opera in Boston? Are you concerned about audiences "cannibalizing" each another?
Well, lots of opera is a good problem for the community to have—and a tough one if you’re running an opera company. I don’t believe in a zero-sum game, and I think these things can actually feed each other. Each organization has to pursue its own agenda.
In terms of fundraising, is opera a hard sell in Boston? Has Odyssey Opera made use of crowd financing or other novel approaches?
In my experience it’s easier to raise money for opera than for new music: that’s rough footing. We’ve not used crowd funding so far: this is a launch with a few backers. Once we’re off the ground we’ll be looking at all sorts of ways to raise money. We want to accomplish something big and bold before we ask people to invest. (Right: tenor Kristian Benedikt)
Wagner himself (as quoted by Cosima) came to see Rienzi as “repugnant.” Why, besides the bicentennial, have you decided to perform it? And what do you see as its most important similarities to, and differences from, Wagner’s canonical operas?
There are more differences than similarities. In rehearsal I’ve sometimes found myself thinking, “What Verdi opera is this?” Rienzi is Italianate in style with a French structure. At the same time, in the harmonies, you can already hear The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. It’s a fantastic piece of music-theatre chock-full of great music, in contrast to Meyerbeer’s operas, which have great music but also many slow portions.
Why, then, has Rienzi never established a foothold in the repertory?
I think one problem is all the moving parts, the pageantry, the offstage brass bands.
Below: Listen to a 1930 performance of "Allmächt'ger Vater, blick herab" from Rienzi, sung by Max Lorenz:
What about Hitler’s obsession with Rienzi? (He reportedly had the autograph score in his bunker when he died.)
To my mind Hitler’s interest in Rienzi is not part of the piece but something laid on top of it. If Rienzi was used as propaganda by heinous people, that’s something from this side of events, not from that side. Wagner was an anti-Semite; he wore gloves to conduct Mendelssohn’s music and wrote terrible things about Jewish composers. But not all of his artistic decisions need be seen through that prism.
What’s next for Odyssey Opera? What can audiences expect to see and hear?
The plan in the immediate future is to see how things look after Rienzi and to keep moving, building up our staff, board, and constituency. Ideally, every September I’d like to do something like Rienzi: a large concert opera that nobody in Boston could stage. Then we’d turn to staged operas but on a more intimate scale and in a festival format: three or four titles presented over the course of several weeks in May or June, representing a cross-section of styles, from early music to contemporary.
Odyssey Opera performs Wagner’s Rienzi at Boston’s Jordan Hall on Sunday, September 15, at 3 pm. Tickets and information at OdysseyOpera.org or 617.585.1260.
Below is a promotional video Odyssey Opera released this week: