In Praise of Old Queens

Friday, June 06, 2014 - 05:00 PM

The cast of Opera Orchestra of New York's production of 'Roberto Devereux' (Mariella Devia in turquoise, Eve Queler in black) The cast of Opera Orchestra of New York's production of 'Roberto Devereux' (Mariella Devia in turquoise, Eve Queler in black) (Warner Classics)

After four consecutive articles of tough love directed toward my adored Metropolitan Opera, I am glad to cast my gaze on another venerable institution, the Opera Orchestra of New York. This innovative and resilient troupe was founded by Eve Queler, who is conductor laureate. Since 1972, Queler and OONY have given New Yorkers concert operas in a combination of unusual repertory, great artists and new young singers who often have their star-making breakthroughs on nights when OONY performs. Such was the case with tenor Michael Fabiano in 2013’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata.

Opera Orchestra has had famous brushes with financial death but manages to rise, phoenix-like, to sing another day. Its recent struggles to survive are what could only be described as operatic. OONY returned on June 5 to Carnegie Hall with 83-year-old Queler (who is rich in experience but no dowager) in full command of a performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, one of the “Three Queens” operas (along with Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda). These are among the summits of the bel canto repertory – Beverly Sills sang all three works at the New York City Opera – and you only do them when you have a great soprano on hand. The Met is in the midst of presenting these and I gather that Roberto Devereux is coming soon with Sondra Radvanovsky as the elderly Queen Elizabeth I. I just heard her perform this role in Toronto and she was stupendous.

For Opera Orchestra’s performance, Queler enlisted the 66-year old Italian soprano Mariella Devia to play the old queen. Devia is in a category of two, along with Slovak Edita Gruberová (16 months older) as the reigning European coloratura sopranos of pensionable age who inspire delirious ovations. They are products of an older style of instruction and singing and the acclaim comes not because they are still standing but because they know what they are doing. It is interesting that they essentially divide the continent, with Gruberová owning Germany, Austria and Switzerland while Devia has Italy, France and Spain.

Few New Yorkers have heard Gruberová in their home town. She only sang 23 performances at the Met: two Queen of the Nights (in Die Zauberflöte) and seven amazing Zerbinettas (in Ariadne auf Naxos) in the late 1970s and then, between 1988 and 1991, five Lucias, four Violettas and five Elviras in I Puritani. I will hear her this summer in Munich and will report back.

I had heard Mariella Devia often when I lived in Italy in the 1970s and knew how special she was. She made her Met debut in Rigoletto on December 18, 1979 with Sherrill Milnes and Neil Shicoff (who recently turned 65 singing Hofmann in Vienna). I was in graduate school and brought a few classmates to the Met who had never been to an opera and they quickly became converts. They did not know voices could do that (and without amplification!) and were deeply moved by the story. I believe a good performance of Rigoletto is unbeatable for introducing someone to opera.

Devia sang 71 opera performances at the Met and in parks concerts between her debut and 1994 and appeared in three galas (the last a Mozart gala in 2006). Of these, 28 were Gildas, 17 Lucias, 15 Konstanzes in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, 7 Nannettas in Falstaff (in a production that included the debut of 69-year old Giuseppe Taddei in the title role) and four Despinas in Così fan tutte. She has sung before with Opera Orchestra, beginning with Lakmé in 1981 and most recently in Adelia (2000) at the age of 52. But the huge role of Elizabeth I, at any age but certainly at 66, is a whole other thing.

Her return to New York stimulated great discussion in the fan community. I saw Columbia students (which is what I was when I heard Devia’s New York debut) arriving with eager anticipation to be in the presence of an artist they might only know from recordings and YouTube. Many regular operagoers of all ages might have never heard her and then there were those who did hear Devia at the Met and wanted to see if she still had the goods.

There was also a sector of the fan base–the Opera Queens–who have been a bit scarce lately at the Met and other New York opera companies and their presence at Carnegie Hall was most welcome and indicated the level of importance of the comebacks of Queler, OONY and Devia–it was not just all about Eve. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an Opera Queen was almost always a gay man (usually of a certain age) who was knowledgeable, passionate and opinionated about opera and singers. The energy they brought made it special to be in an audience with them. They cheered, they discussed, they reacted; they made opera attendance exciting. Young audience members would listen and learn as the Queens opined and, at times, disagreed.

One could feel the buzz before the performance as people clamored for tickets outside Carnegie Hall. Ticketholders spoke with eager anticipation about what was coming and some audience members, including Opera Queens, told stories of earlier Queler and Devia performances in New York. The audience gave welcoming ovations to the artists, cheered lustily after arias and listened closely to everything.

There was an Opera Queen seated behind me who quietly but palpably responded to the beauty of the music, the drama of the story, the gloriousness of Devia’s singing, the attractive sound of Stephen Costello in the title role, the handsomeness and gorgeous voice of Serbian bass Sava Vemic in the very brief role of Walter Raleigh, and the passionate singing and elegant red dress of French mezzo Géraldine Chauvet as Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham. The reactions of this gentleman were not intrusive but served to focus my attention on things I might not have noticed.

The night was a triumph for all, but none more than Mariella Devia. Her singing is why we go opera. As she unleashed her final note, the audience of 2,700 sprang to their feet as one, as if ejected from their seats James Bond-style. I have never seen that before in any performance, not even with Nilsson, Sutherland, Pavarotti or Domingo. It made me proud to be a New Yorker and happy that I was in that audience and able to tell the tale.

Here is an audio version of Devia singing the final scene and aria from Roberto Devereux in Marseille 2011. If you were unable to hear Devia at Carnegie Hall, or even if you were there, you might enjoy this audio recording of her in a full performance of this opera earlier this year in Florence. Viva la Regina!  


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Comments [7]


A triple crown winner for you, Fred: Donizetti queens, esteemed singing queens and Opera Queens. Long live them all.

Jun. 07 2014 08:57 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

From the time I moved to New York (1969) until I moved to New Mexico (1992) I was a loyal standee at the Met - upstairs where the acoustics are so much better. In my later years I even assisted my friend the redoubtable Helen Quinn in running the Saturday morning line. What was the least enjoyable aspect of sometimes loooong waits was the Standee Opera Queens, impecunious parallels to Fred's more (shall we say) financially well-off Opera Queens. Why, I even met some of them (the well-off ones, that is). And what did they all have in common? They were by and large insufferable in their righteous opinions, delivered with a haughtiness that brooked no opposition. "Really, Fred," he said with nose in the air, "is this what you consider the best critical analysis?"

Jun. 07 2014 06:38 PM

"'Opera Queens'… have long been recognized as major factors in the operagoing community."

Well, by one another at any rate. This article's credibility would be ever so much greater were it less obviously an inside job.

Jun. 07 2014 02:48 PM

@fildivoce: Due to an editing error, in an early version of this article left out Mariella Devia's name in the homepage "tease," which is what shows up in the Facebook feeds. It's been fixed but Facebook often reverts automatically to earlier uncorrected versions. Our apologies for the confusion and thanks to readers who called it to our attention.

Jun. 07 2014 07:34 AM

Re. "Opera Queens" -- true story. Many years ago, a friend and I were gifted a pair of tickets to "Siegfried" at the MET (interestingly enough, with Siegfried Jerusalem in the title role). This is a mammoth opera (4+? hours).

My friend and I lasted all the way through, dutifully stood during curtain calls, and decided to wend our way up the aisle during the "final," final curtain calls. As we did, Mr. Jerusalem appeared for what was (or was it?) his "final," final curtain call, and I said to my friend, "He was really good."

What can only be referred to as an "Opera Queen" was standing, applauding wildly, and said, "Oh, you must be KID-ding!"

C'est vrai!


Jun. 07 2014 01:31 AM

Mr. Plotkin, I beg to differ with three points you've made:

1. «… new young singers who often have their star-making breakthroughs on nights when OONY performs. Such was the case with tenor Michael Fabiano in 2013’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata.»

«Stardom» is in the eye of the beholder, but if one means the sort of career catapult that results from a surprise smash performance — à la Sutherland in the 1959 Covent Garden LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, à la Caballé in American Opera Society's 1965 LUCREZIA BORGIA, à la Sills in New York City Opera's 1966 GIULIO CESARE — then that sort of «stardom» doesn't exist anymore because that branch of the classical industry (in which the major recording companies played a huge influence) has withered away. Whether or not once considers Michael Fabiano a star, he had already been a well-known and very active singer before the 2013 OONY LOMBARDI.

2. «Devia sang 71 opera performances at the Met and in parks concerts between her debut and 1994 and appeared in three galas (the last a Mozart gala in 2006).»

Part of OONY's marketing campaign for the DEVEREUX was that it was to be Miss Devia's return to New York after 15 years. That 2006 Met Mozart gala was a broadcast-only event taken from the company's archives — otherwise other participants in the gala such as Ezio Pinza and Maestro Bruno Walter could not have appeared. (Miss Devia's contribution was taken from a 1991 broadcast of DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL.)

3. Please doublecheck the recent online posting (Facebook?) regarding this article, in which this article's photo is captioned «Edita Gruberovà [sic!] made a rare return to New York Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Blogger Fred Plotkin reports on the scene.»

Jun. 06 2014 08:27 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This performance was indeed one of the most highly anticipated and rapturously received of recent seasons.You do well to mention the contributions of "Opera Queens",who have long been recognized as major factors in the operagoing community.The writer of "Parterre Box",one of the leading and most strident voices of this community seems to have taken issue with some of your observations concerning the MET,suggesting in his typical clumsy,overstated way that your views are a century out of date.

Jun. 06 2014 07:21 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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