Monday, March 10, 2014

800 Words: Gerard Mortier and the Plight of Opera In Our Time


With the possible partial exception of chamber music, classical music as completely autocratic an artform as exists. Composers dictate to instrumentalists, solo instrumentalists dictate to conductors, conductors dictate to orchestras and choruses, section leaders dictate to rank-and-file members, rank-and-file members dictate to their students, who then grow up to take their place in the same hierarchy, or to leave the field altogether.

But there is a dictator even above the composer, and that dictator is money - whoever can provide the money, whoever can locate the money, whoever can charm or bully the money out of those who already have money. The human imagination is limitless, but reality has very precise limits on what we can make, and those limits are determined by what we can spend. In some artforms, we call them producers, in others, we call them artistic administrators. Either way, they are the true dictators of the arts - they may not be immortal creators, but only a Medici can make a Michelangelo possible.

The Peter Principle dictates that most people are vastly unqualified for the jobs they occupy. And it’s a fairly practical rule of thumb that most artistic administrators are vastly, vastly underqualified to fill the positions they have, and some even use the power they amass simply for their own personal gain. Just think of Hollywood. Even in today’s corrupted, hollow American film culture, which has debased the world’s most powerful cultural institution into a morass of computer effects, explosions, and dumb romantic comedies, there are still a few great film producers like Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin and Tim Bevan and Irwin Winkler - moneymen of foresight and vision whose main goal is to provide the public with great art. If these businessmen lose a little bit of money on the bottom line, it doesn’t matter, because they have a faithful, even if relatively small, audience of people who want to see a better product than most of the crap Hollywood churns out. And even if they occasionally make startling errors in judgement, it’s better to have people like them in the positions of ultimate power than it is to have other, more selfish, types of people.

Through the centuries, the world of politics has become more democratic, but the world of business, and especially the world of art, remains a dictatorship. Human expression may be freer in our century than ever before, but the possibilities of human expression is still a slave to whoever controls the profit margins - be it in the world of artistic expression, or be it in the world of living wages.

Without the Medicis or Pope Julius, there’s no Michelangelo, without Razumovsky and Lobkowitz, there’s no Beethoven, without Irwin Winkler and Roger Corman, there’s no Martin Scorsese. And imagine what further glories might have resulted if Mozart, or Van Gogh, or Kafka, or Orson Welles, found a faithful benefactor whose support could have nursed them through the more fallow periods. But nevertheless, are there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of film operatives whose main interest is in exploiting the art of film for their own personal benefit. The evidence that they exist is that there isn’t more great work.

(The Player… the ultimate movie on this phenomenon)


Twice in the last two months, I’ve run into a friend-of-a-friend in my favorite Baltimore bar - an interesting person certainly. She’s an art historian at the Maryland Institute College of Art who grew up in Brussels, her American father being a vocal coach at La Monnaie and then at the Dresden Semperoper when she was older. She literally grew up in Gerard Mortier’s La Monnaie. I kept trying to pry her about the experience of growing up in the opera world, a dream childhood for the kid I was, but it was an experience she was clearly loathe to talk about.

The first time I met her was right as I’d begun to direct Figaro. The second time was the night before the second performance. Certainly, my attitude to the project and the possibilities of doing great things with opera in general had soured enormously in the elapsing time. There were all sorts of things in my staging that weren’t working theatrically in that production, I knew it, the cast knew it, the producer certainly did. But I felt extremely defensive about it - at least I was trying to create something different and new in an artform that has no future and only a past from which it can’t escape and most of whose audiences always yawn with indifference. Just a little more tolerance from a few of them might have made all the difference and let us arrive at something which would have made everybody happy - myself included - because the audience might have sat with something other than respectful silence. The staging certainly felt better on the second night - at least the audience laughed sometimes. But even on the much more successful second night, there were periods when I could feel the audience’s energy draining, its patience wearing thin. Their patience might have worn still thinner had I gotten carte-blanche to retool things in the unorthodox way I saw fit, but then again, it might not have… Opera as it’s generally practiced, at least in America, is just a snobbified version of music theater. In both worlds, too many singers (though hardly all… not even the majority…) are more interested in their own territory than in the combined effect of the production, and intellectual curiosity seems next to nil. It is a playground for narcissism, and its performers are so enamored of their own voices that they don’t notice the audience slipping away. The majority of opera’s audience has long since slipped away, but the audience of music theater (or lack thereof) is beginning to catch up. In the 1950’s, musical theater was the cultural lingua franca of our country. Everybody knew the same songs, the same lyrics, the same tunes. Today, the only thing Broadway is well known for is the technological sophistication of its scenery - and most of its performers are too self-enamored to notice. Good product is still being made, but at an ever-decreasing rate.

And perhaps my frustration had opened her up a bit. Though I’ve never met her father, I don’t doubt that he had many experiences like mine, though on a much larger scale.  As our mutual friend - another MICA professor - sat with us, we had to explain to him the realities of opera in Europe, a world he could barely believe exists. There is absolutely the same hidebound opera traditionalism in Europe that there is in America. But among European audiences, there is an extreme bifurcation.  She explained to him the ‘cocaine and sodomy’ rule of European opera. It often seems an unwritten rule that every European production contains them both - as though the presence of either can shock a 21st century audience.

There is a surprisingly large contingent of European opera lovers who believe in opera as a revived contemporary artform. They flock to every production with a new conception, and every directorial divergence is celebrated as a milestone in the development of a new conception of opera. They honor every composer who composes within the framework of their particular dogma - no matter the quality of how well they compose within that framework, and they treat those performers who play outside the framework of which they approve with truly vicious contempt.

It’s all rather amusing, but they inspire no fear or dislike in me in the way more traditional opera crowds do.  At least they still have intellectual curiosity, misguided as they’ve pointed it, and at least they clearly love the artform enough to care about its future. They live in a dream world, but at least it’s a dream world of today, and not the dreamworld of a bygone era.  

I’m more than aware of the weird contortions of my opinions on opera. Here I was, an avowed opera traditionalist who once wrote a long post on this blog called “Keep Opera Dumb!”, who decamped to the extremes of ‘regietheater’ the moment I got my hands on an opera stage. I understand why these extremists feel the way they do - it’s the desperate move which anyone of an intellectual bent would feel the urge to make in a field such as this one, starved of attention and affection.  Today’s public has no organic connection to this music, so in lieu of that, we have to make artificial connections. Operatic ‘regietheater’ is already a compromise - combining the music of yesterday with the theatrical techniques of today - but I did my best to create a compromise within that compromise. A thoroughly untraditional traditional staging of the type that can now be seen regularly at the  Metropolitan Opera during the Peter Gelb era (albeit millions of dollars less expensive). No matter how reformed the staging seems, it’s still always thoroughly grounded in tradition, and as a result, you can now see even the kind of nudity and graphic sex at the Met that scandalizes my grandmother’s generation. But even so, the updates always seem to make sense, and the failures are still failures because they hew too close to the tradition, not because they divorce themselves from it. I doubt these developments will do anything more than give opera a short-term bump in interest - but at least the European fanatics have the courage of their convictions, and it will keep their vision of the artform alive a little longer than we will ours.

We never hear about the banal exploiters who keep the arts mediocre because they thrive in a world in which the destruction of their activities attract no publicity. But we always hear, very loudly, about the reforming demagogues who promise us a glorious new world, because their very advancement depends on publicity. Inevitably, these supposed revolutionaries are just reactionaries in red clothing. It’s a refreshing change, but the world they promise never sounds that exciting, and the world they provide is only slightly preferable to a world in which people strive for nothing more than mediocrity.

Classical music has long had Pierre Boulez to fill this role, though who knows for how much longer, but opera had Gerard Mortier, who died two days ago. He was the self-proclaimed prophetic impresario of opera’s new dawn, and spent truly breathtaking amounts of public funding in order to achieve his vision of what opera should be. But where was his Beethoven? Where was his Michelangelo?

He was a controversial figure, and not without his merits - would that so many artistic administrators insisted on intellectual competence from their forces. He was, without a doubt, the most influential operatic producer of the age. Thanks to him, so many voices of the ‘modernist’ school - composers, directors, conductors, even singers… - have their place in the opera world. But he was also a fanatic and a shyster whose methods brought down one of American culture’s greatest institutions. What Mortier never understood was that his great new operatic world looks a lot more like the old one than any of his most fervent admirers were willing to admit. The fare he provided was fundamentally the same operas, with the same types of voices, and the same instrumentation. When he brought his ersatz revolution to the harsh realities of New York, the only place he ever operated without Europe’s unsustainable social safety net, the harsh realities crashed in on him. He promised a new golden age at the New York City Opera, and young idiots like me thought about to moving to New York just so we could be around it. The end result was that by trying to bring a new world into action, he absolutely destroyed the old one (and make no mistake, Gerard Mortier destroyed the City Opera) without putting a single thing in its place.

The New York City Opera was ‘The People’s Opera.’ Charging far less for nights at the opera, taking risks on young singers, more innovative productions, and new composers which the Metropolitan Opera wouldn’t dare in the heydays of Edward Johnson and Rudolf Bing. But like so many once-great American institutions, it had become mediocre for at least twenty years when Mortier took it over. But like all those once great American institutions, there was no reason why it couldn’t stay mediocre for another twenty years until a more practical manager came along to provide a greater result. Like so much of America, its temporary decline was inevitable, but it was expedited by bad, perhaps even corrupt management - which allowed one of the Koch Brothers to donate a all the money it took to rennovate its building and slap his name on it, but seemed unable to make the Koches cough up a cent to help with artistic management.

But the City Opera didn’t need to die. Only Mortier's kind of fanatical mindset could have killed it. He cancelled a year of production so that more money could be raised for ‘next year’s productions’ which were far grander in scale and had appeal to only 'special interest' people like me could. His plan meant paying the orchestra, paying the stagehands, paying for the maintenance, with absolutely no money coming in that was not from solicited contributions. It was, for all intents and purposes, a hostage crisis in which an extremist starves his prisoner to death unless his demands are met. And when it became clear that his demands wouldn't be met, Mortier absconded to the Teatro Real in Madrid rather than help the City Opera get out of the mess he created himself. It demonstrated, conclusively, that Mortier’s methods were tantamount to cultural extortion. It was all the problems of the European social system writ small and brought to America. It makes one almost starry-eyed for the good old days when mediocrity and corruption ruled this country.

Mortier and his ilk stake their claim of reform on two different planks, both of which can be refuted in a matter of seconds. One is the de facto ban on populist opera composers like Verdi and his Italian predecessors in the Bel Canto tradition, and most of his successors in the Verismo movement - as though the nostalgic pleasures of Italian opera are any more un-progressive to the vast majority of the Modern Era’s ears than operas from the rest of Opera History. The only other difference on which they can stake their ‘revolutionary’ claims is in the theatrical settings - fundamentally using minimally bare and functional stages as though that’s been shocking at any point since the 50’s, onstage sex as though it’s been shocking at any point since the 60’s, and high-tech stage violence as though that’s shocking at any point since the 70’s. Like Boulez, Mortier proclaimed yesterday’s revolution for tomorrow. The museum is showing the same exhibits, they’ve just repainted the walls.

There is an absolutely huge disconnect in today’s ‘director-driven’ opera between the modernity of the staging and the ever-increasing intensity of the search for ‘authenticity’ and the ‘composer’s intention’ which happens in the pit. No matter how supposedly ‘weird’ the staging, the music is the same from performance to performance, while the theatrical setting is always changing. The result is that the musical performances will win no converts - it will tell people everything about what you already know. If people were not well-disposed to opera previously, they will be disposed no better after it’s completion. And while these new theatrical concepts will prove revelatory to some and make a few converts (with all a ‘convert’s fanaticism), it will strike most people at best as a lot of effort exerted for too little good result. No matter how hard the attempts of all those who wish to see opera thrive, it is  at best a secondary artform in our time, and is likely to be a secondary artform of many times to come.

I am all for the re-imagining of texts to fit a different context.  But if so many directors insist upon re-imagining stage action, why shouldn't more conductors insist on re-imagining scores?  Mahler and Stokowski would re-orchestrate and change tempo/dynamic markings to fit the parameters of their times with extreme liberality, so why don't conductors re-arrange scores for our own time? Why shouldn’t we hear Handel done by rock bands or Strauss refitted by DJ’s for turntables. If that idea reads like a lame or pathetic stab at contemporariness, then let me ask, is it any lamer or more pathetic than most of the ‘modernist’ stagings we see in opera? If it fits the production and the conception is sound, why shouldn't we reimagine Figaro with electronic instruments or Tristan with pre-recorded over-dubs?  Many performers always maintain that each performance demands its own rules which can only be determined at the moment of performance, but what a performer decides that the rules of this particular performance contradict the score in more fundamental ways than one's choice of tempo or dynamics or the historical period of the instruments’ make?  Should we condemn the performer for tampering so blatantly with the composer’s conception, or should we praise him or her for shedding such new light?

Opera, as it’s currently taught in schools and publicized to theatergoers, is as close to dead as an artform can possibly be. The great theater of the twentieth century which combines music with theater is musical theater, in which lyrics finally take their place on the grand stage as equally important, perhaps moreso, than the music itself. The grand tradition of opera as a dominant artform basically died in the 1920’s with Strauss, Puccini, Berg, and (retrospectively) Janacek. Britten and Adams have given us noble efforts to revive a moribund tradition, and Shostakovich would have too had Lady Macb-th of Mtsensk not been censored by Stalin. Many would say that Prokofiev and Hans Werner Henze have as well, or Philip Glass and Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Michael Tippett and Bohuslav Martinu. But theirs are operas fundamentally made with the ideas of former times, with the instruments of former times, and the vocal techniques of former times.The operas of all of these composers, even Britten sadly, seem commentaries on what has already taken place. To justify the massive funding which grand opera requires, these are operas which would need the same massive popular appeal of Mozart and Verdi if they want to have lives of their own, and the fact that they have no demonstrable popular appeal without the propagation of state funding, or as a token modern production to set against the steady diet of Aida, La Boheme, and Carmen, demonstrates their ineffability. Were any of these composers, even Britten, played as often as Rossini or Puccini, they would never sell more than a hundred tickets in a single performance. One day, the performance venues which cater to their tastes will be shut down, and the audiences which like such minority fare will shout bloody murder. Perhaps murder it is, but it will not prevent their doom.

Perhaps a future era will come when such ‘minority tastes’, uncorrupted by popular voices, will become what is popular and healthy. And just as Mahler has attained a posthumous, thriving life in the concert hall, and Janacek seems now to be attaining in the opera house, perhaps so too will their successors - who await a generation that understands them in a manner that people like me clearly don’t. But such an era, which has rid itself of the producer’s autocracy, will probably have too many of its own concerns and expressions of to take anything more than a cursory interest in the minority tastes of an era long gone. With a few exceptions, like Britten and Adams, I highly doubt that these opera composers have not already seen the height of their popularity. The traditional environs of classical music still have a little life left in them, even as their audiences grow ever older. No one could have predicted Mahler’s resurgence in the mid-20th century, nobody could have predicted that the early music movement would have revived interest in Handel’s operas so greatly. Perhaps the winds of change will bring a newer opera composer of eminence to heights of popularity of which he could only dream as he was writing and premiering his work. If it’s going to be anyone, it will probably be Britten or Adams, but no one can say for sure who it might be, or whether there will be any composer at all who will ever be so revived again.

And that’s sad, because a lot of good opera was written in the three later quarters of the 20th century, even if there wasn’t enough… I even believe that a few of them may have a future if opera itself has a future - Peter Grimes of course and The Turn of the Screw, perhaps Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China, Lady Macb-th of Mtsensk, maybe a number of Prokofiev or Philip Glass operas might survive if most people’s aesthetic priorities are different from mine (and they generally are). But no one can deny, this is hardly a golden period to set against the 19th century’s remarkable flowering. Once the Great Depression hit the world, it wasn’t just the money which dried up, it was the gilded commercial class which sponsored opera as we know it - and which gave the more populist, working classes some joy to add to the squalor with which their masters kept them.

(Was a greater song written in the 20th century?)

Of course, there were other operas from the period immediately after Strauss, Berg, Janacek, and Puccini, which you could measure against them to show that opera emphatically had not died - The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, The Eternal Rode, Street Scene, Porgy and Bess, Strike Up The Band, Funny Face, Show Girl, Girl Crazy, Of Thee I Sing. Because after the age of Strauss, Berg, Janacek, and Puccini came the age of Gershwin and Weill. It was a new kind of opera - lighter, more portable, less expensive. The instrumentation was far less sophisticated, the singers’ voices could be much lighter, and the stage could be miked electronically. And because singers could project so easily, singers of untraditional voice-types could be used, and the lyrics which were sung could be projected far more easily - and therefore could be written with far greater complexity. With Gershwin and Weill, opera ceased to be opera as it was ever before understood. The Age of Opera was dead, and a new tradition and era, the ‘Age of the Musical’ was born - Show Boat, Cradle Will Rock, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, Pal Joey, On Your Toes, Paris, Fifty Million Frenchmen, Gay Divorce, Kiss Me Kate, Panama Hattie, Let’s Face It, Something for the Boys, Mexican Hayride,  Anything Goes, Can-Can, Silk Stockings, Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, Kismet, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, No Strings, Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, The King and I, Cabaret, Chicago, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, The Man of La Mancha, Camelot, Once Upon a Mattress, She Loves Me, The Wiz, Hair, Damn Yankees, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, Milk and Honey, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Sweet Charity, Mame, 1776, Godspell, Grease, Pippin, Annie, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Evita, 42nd Street, Nine, Dreamgirls, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, La Cage aux Folles, Little Shop of Horrors, Chess, Cats, Les Miserables, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Once On This Island, Tommy, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Randy Newman’s Faust, Rent, Urinetown, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Wicked, Spamelot, The Light on the Piazza, Elton John's Aida, Jersey Boys, In the Heights, Billy Eliot, The Book of Mormon, Once, On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide,  West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion - none of these including strictly movie musicals of both Disney animation or the great live action movie musicals of the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studios, and all of these leading up to and drawing down from the work of Stephen Sondheim, a theatrical creator of a power unseen since Mozart and Shakespeare, whose work is so cosmically imaginative in that not a single creator of any type of theater in our time has come even close to his achievement.

You don’t have to like all of these shows (god knows I don’t…) or even most of them. And furthermore, as Broadway musicals have grown more successful, they’ve grown as expensive and decadent as grand opera at its most Turandot-like, money-strewn musical theater for a second Gilded Age. Like the operas of Donizetti and Bellini, the early musicals were written with practical questions of economy in mind. In a sense, perhaps their quality suffered as a result, but because of those early efforts, they made later, greater, efforts possible, when more money was available to stage something more risky.

Unlike opera, this is clearly a living tradition in which people never have to worry about its long term survival. It is a ‘majority taste.’ And even if not a single great musical is ever written again, it can survive on its reviving its current repertoire for at least the 90 years which opera has thus far survived as a’ minority taste.’ In the world of music theater, people worry about the dumbing down of the artform, in the world of opera, people worry about its very existence. Unlike every opera composer since Puccini, there is no way you can get through life in the Western World completely untouched by musical theater, even if you hate it.

There is no denying it, this is a musical and theatrical tradition to set alongside opera - the opera of our time, a record of our age, and the fact that ‘opera’ is no longer the term used for music theater simply shows how apart the world has grown from the necessity of opera as we’ve ever understood it. However debased music theater seems in comparison to a generation or two ago, it still shows that it’s a living artform, more affected by contemporary concerns than with the baggage of history. History is still being made in music theater, and that is why it is the opera of our time.  

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