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Monday, March 27, 2006

SARAH CALDWELL


It never occurred to me that Sarah Caldwell would die and I doubt it occurred to her either.

Die she did, last week at her home in Maine, age 82.

Sarah was the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera (1975).
She was the founder and artistic director of the Opera Company of  Boston (1958-1990).
She had no theatre to call her own. She staged operas in hockey rinks, in a cyclorama building in a seedy part of Boston, she staged operas in an outdoor flower market, and later made do with an abandoned movie house with sticky floors and you don't want to know the rest.

Out of nothing, on a stage no more than thirty feet deep, with half the floorboards missing, Sarah staged-brilliantly-and conducted-poorly-the American stage premiere of Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens-an operatic retelling of the Trojan War deemed unperformable because of its length and scenic demands by Berlioz himself. Sarah did the whole thing, complete with Trojan horse. I was a teen aged chorister and one of several who popped out of the horse's rear end to cry 'Italie! Italie' and hurl myself onto a nest of Athenian maidens. Two of them had been classroom teachers in Lexington, Mass.,  so it got a little awkward. Sarah's production of War and Peace had you honest to God believing yourself in the grandest ballroom in St. Petersburg or the most desolate steppe in all Russia. Napoleon himself-the wonderful late Donald Gramm-strutted across the creaking stage, two cannon from the local army base museum following him. Sarah's producing of Don Quichotte came complete with windmill, which Don Quixote himself, a wonderful 7 foot basso called Noel Tyl, rode fearlessly.

Sarah gave the American premiere of Verdi's five act french version of Don Carlos, complete with-lamentable-ballet-and you weren't in a theater on the edge of Boston's combat zone, you were in Imperial Spain five hundred years ago, a dangerous place ruled by an unforgiving church.

How did she do all this? As to assembling the actual productions I don't know.
She only rehearsed at night, leaving off at around 6 a.m. She lived on coffee, donuts and burgers and had the 300 lb girth to show for it.

Her stage directions were simple and clear. Her rehearsal techniques were a disaster and her administrative gifts non existent. Boston Edison shut the power off before more than one opening night, but on would go the lights and somehow, magic happened. It really was a miracle.

Sarah never understood the word NO. Lack of funds, hurt feelings, ethics, whatever were little part of her. She would have found a way to stage 'strategic planning' to Berio or Shostakovitch but she'd make no other sense of such concepts. She was the show, hers was the vision and even today there are bodies for miles. But at least she HAD a vision, and everything she did as an artist came exactly from the score.
I'm glad I no longer have to work for her. I'm sorry the company self destructed and closed in 1990.
When it was great it was great.

Sarah 's up moving around the clouds in heaven and probably dodging her creditors, God bless her.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

OPERA COMPANY X COLLAPSES

This is a rant.
I know you know I seldom rant. (Don't start).
But I want to get some sort of conversation going with top artists and
administrators about this:

Opera X was in its twenty fifth season, serving a community of just over 1 million, with three performances each of four operas per year. The venue had recently been changed from a centrally located 1920s movie house riot with no stage to a 1950s university campus municipal auditorium with no charm but at elast some sort of backstage.

Front of house there is no ambience.
Think 1956 high school auditorium. The campus neighborhood of bars, pizza places and tatoo parlors with or without pain offer little to the opera's rather well heeled core audience.

Strong marketing and development have never-except for a fabulous marketing director long departed-been in place. In recent years the comanpy was run by an administrator who chanelled Diaghilev, only Diaghilev didn't answer back. Lots of expensive trips, lots of money spent, lots of panache, nothing translated to quality of product on stage.

The company is now in the toilet. Maanger has left with a lot of nice trips and perks on the company tit which has gone down a number of cup sizes.
Now this is a football oriented community. If it doesn't fart and wear cleats
most people aren't inertested. OTOH, the community supports a fine full time sypmhony, wonderful theatre and ballet, fine schools of music and the arts and a 24/7 all classical radio network. There's a thriving gay community-good news for arts administrators of every stripe and if you haven't figured THAT out yet, go to your room.

What went wrong? The promise of operatic sophistication resulted in a move to a hall the audience hated. There was a fine production of Aida and a good Hansel and Gretel.
Threepenny Opera was done in by a horrible production, simulated fellatio and the F word crowed at every opportunity including on the projected titles. The core audience walked out and the young people on a campus of 50,000 stayed away because noone knew or cared how to market to them.

The board is made up of nice people who don't know Bellini from Blowjobs.
A production of Floyd's "Susannah" was discouraged because "We don't want that modern music". Board memebers liked the IDEA of supporting opera without understnading what opera is, or only if they could consider the product a decoration to their own social lives.. Most of them are generous, smart and charming. They bought into the argument that if you throw money at it, it will thrive. Look at your public schools. Levies are voted in all the time. Are your kids being better educated? Money has little to do with creative progrmaiming and opera production. Aside from paying the best people to do the work. Creativity and ingenuity coupled with financial need and lots of hard work can produce fantastic opera. I was raised by Sarah Caldwell. There was no one so fiscally impossible and so creative. Remind me to tell y'all about Prokofiev's War and Peace on a twenty foot stage that made the Kirov look like Ted Mack's amateur Hour.

But now, in this electronic age is the time to use music and drama, to use stories, as tools to reach people, to make them think about this crazy world, to offer them a look at sensitivity, beauty teach all of us the perils of violence and greed (The RING anyone?), let us laugh at ourselves, get a look at how people lived two centuries ago and prove that then and now we all laugh and cry at the same things (women, men, sex and money) La boheme, Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Aida, Carmelites, all of their messages resonate today. And they all offer bloody good tunes.

How to revive an opera company.

1. The current board moves to Florida and stays here.

2. The new board is formed because the need to prudce opera is in their blood, and they understand WHY they are doing it and what it will do for the community

3. Insist on toal creativvity. Encourage risk.

4. Cheap affects deos not equla creativity. The public ssees thorugh them and is turned off. Lose the sex acts and cursing.

5. MARKETING MARKETING MARKETING...Knowing how to SELL and understand completelty what the product is and WHY

6. Board meembers and paid staff not buying into this should stay home and watch Larry King Live.

7. Be preapred to talk to anyone who will listen of the importance of what the comany is trying to do. Speak in context of struggles, worldview, joys, sorrows, fun. And learn how to tell a dirty joke.

8. Insist on complete fidelity to the score and text. Mozart and Verdi don't need help.

End of rant.
Arts administrators need to motivate funding sources and beguile the public.
Humor and passion are important.
Passivity is not.

CP

still bummed about Anna Moffo.....

Monday, March 13, 2006

HOW NOT TO STAGE AN OPERA

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO AT THE MET or
WHO THE HELL SPIKED THE AMYL NITRATE!

I try to be as tolerant as the next guy and I realize I'm sitting here in Ohio and nobody is beating down the doors asking me to take over the veil of tears that is opera,but Jeez Louise when Leonora is dressed like Scralett O'Hara's first communion with seventy pounds of shmatte shlepping around when she is suposed to be eloping in secret and its SPAIN for chrissakes and presumably above 80 degrees F and then the tenor Licitra who is a nice young kid with a good voice comes strolling on like he's looking for a place to pee...you know you are in trouble.

The sets were large, brown, ugly and claustrophic.
And dear God, don't run the English titles...Io muioio! Giustio cielio! and all that shit doesn't translate. The audience Saturday afternoon was trying not to giggle and failing. Up in the box with Father Lee I stifled a belch from the prime rib lunch and death by chocolate and thought, why are all these people screaming. I especially loved Don Carlo or whoever the hell it was lurching around and taking his godammed time to die, thank you very much. What was he gonna do? Moon the audience? It would probably have been a better show, not that you would have seen anyone's golden globes because it was dark, dark, dark and dark! No sun in this Spain. It looked more like Manchester, New Hampshire. The ticket they gave me cost $320 that's WITHOUT lunch but you do get a semi private loo at least. And the whole thing was like watching the Marx Brothers. There was nothing moving or magisterial about it at all...singers wandered in and out like waiting for the bus. Nobody looked at any one else. It was Oh fuck WHERE is the next note going to come from. Even Ramey, who still has the vocal presence should let me cherish my memories!

Like I said kids, ain't nobody asking me. FORZA is the bad luck opera. Leonard Warren died in the midst of it. My buddy Albert Innaurato wrote hysterically of a Forza production at La Scala in 1997..look for it in Opera News, LA SCALA TEMPLE OF DOOM 1997...check the archives at the Opera News web site. Close your eyes and listen to Tebaldi and Del Monaco or Price and Beronzi and use the $320 for choclate or zoloft.

ANNA MOFFO

I don't usually weep for deceased opera singers but the death of Anna Moffo reminds me that nobody stays young forever.
Moffo will be remembered primarily I suspect as a very beautfiul woman, which indeed she was. Her death last week at age 73 came thirty years after the short lived prime of her voice. Her career began in Italy in the mid fifties, and there were still some good performances to be heard until around 1975. After that it was chancy at best and horrible at worst. Those of you born after 1975 would not have heard her at her best, but her many recordings still offer a lot of pleasure.

Traviata-Violetta was her signature role
La rondine
Madama Buttefly
Luisa Miller
Villa-Lobos, Canteloube, Rachmaninoff with Stokowski
Rigoletto
Marriage of Figaro
Falstaff

these recordings and many more are all available and have been catalogue favorites for forty years. There's a reason for that. She had a lovely voice with a lot of warm, sort of dark rose colored overtones. She was a terrific actress. She sang WITH the music, using text and notes to create character. (The old fashioned way!)
She meant what she sang.

Anna Moffo was born in Wayne, PA . She trained at Curtis, and made her mark first in
Italy. Her earliest recordings were with Karajan, Callas, Giulini, Schwarzkopf and Colin Davis. There are also a number of beautiful opera films with her: Lucia di Lammermoor, Daughter of the Regiment and Madama Butterfly among them. She had a brief "nudie" phase in Italain cinema in the early sixties, but by the mid seveties, though her voice was suffering she settled down to a long and happy marriage with RCA Chairman Robert Sarnoff. He died in 1997.

My own favorites would be the Rondine with the famous "Sogno di doretta" and the even more beautiful "Ore dolce e divine", Luisa Miller (Verdi) and Butterfly. I last saw her on stage as Violetta, in Providence RI in the late 70s and there were still some good notes left. I last saw her in person at Carnegie Hall last year, she was in the audience. I went up to say hello to her and got a hug, diamonds and all.

The collpase of her voice has never really been explained. She "owned" it and blamed it on exhaustion and too much work and she may have been right. But when it was good, it was splendid. Go find her recoridngs and films in the library. Enjoy, and say a prayer for her. In the era of Callas, Tebaldi, Milanov, Price, Corelli, Merrill and Siepi, Anna was a class act.

CROSSOVER: THE OTHER "WHITE MEAT?"

Opera magazines put Andrea Bocelli on the cover and reprimand complaining readers. The Metropolitan does a glitzy produciton of "The Merry Widow" an operetta they denied Joan Sutherland with two admired singers and casts it with young cuties when the stars depart. Peter Gelb, the new GM of the Metropolitan Opera makes no secret of his insistence on "singers who look the part" not singers who SOUND the part. The Columbus Symphony back in 2000 engages Charlotte Church for a benefit. I complain to the board. I call it musical kiddie porn on air and am reamed out for weeks. "She sold out the house in three hours" I'm told. I could go on and on. So could you.
Classical radio rejoices in musical sound bites, copy readers and visuals that look like the Halloween candy dispalys in a Wal Mart.

The point is that no one in a ticket buying data base for a classical concert for the past two years in the "target audience". Classical presenters, opera, symphony, dance, theater, radio have seen the future and its the people who used to kvell over a pre pubnescent Charlotte Church or a violinist in a wet T shirt or a baritone hunkmeister. Like titles in the theater twenty years ago, this trend is here to stay. Marketing Directors and Executive Directors who don't know Beethoven from Bocelli are making the important decisions around programming geared to the increasing dumbing down of the public. Cocnert halls and opera houses are now amplified. My fear is that clarinets, horns and violins will become irrelevant in the age of synthesizers and digital sound. This mechanization deadens the souls of people who deserve to hear a live performance, who deserve to know that all of arts are live and growing over time.

The potential new younger audience is large and it is time to tap into their energy. Bridging the gaps between people used to elcetronically processed sound, to video imagery, to "sound enhancement" towards people who can listen to voice and feel for the great stories is the new challenge. The schools, a point of entry for so many of us, drop music right and left. We are not primed to appreciate anything not offering immediate return. Old farts like me should still be tolerant of those who come to opera via Charlotte or Michael or Andrea. We don't have to buy it. But we should welcome and encourage those who do.

Friday, March 03, 2006

RICHARD TUCKER AND RENATA TEBALDI in 1970

I have a lot of broadcasts of Tucker and Tebaldi together; thrilling performances of Manon Lescaut, Andrea Chenier and Tosca among them.






I've been listening to a La boheme, broadcast from the Met in April, 1970.
This was towards the end of Tebaldi's career-she was done by 1973.
Tucker was always in prime voice. When he bothered to sing and not bellow he was wonderful. I remember hearing this broadcast as a kid. I taped it on a battery operated reel to reel tape recorder off of a transistor radio. The old tapes are probably still in my uncle's basement in Arlington, Mass.
And you know what kills me? Two days after this broadcast Tebaldi sang Mimi in Boston with my favorite tenor: Carlo Bergonzi. I could have gone. Good seats were $5!

Tebaldi finds a lot of Act III rough sledding by 1970-and she was younger than I am now-but for sometimes the years fall away and you can hear a lot of the old velvet. There are plenty of broadcasts of Tebaldi in her absolute prime (1950s) and this is not one of them, but this late performance I find very moving. I sometimes find Tucker hard to take, though his vocie never fails him for a second. What I love is how he really listens to Teblaldi and molds his singing to her so musically. I wish all young singers would listen to this and pay attention.

Tebaldi and Tucker may never have looked like starving Bohemians but together in 1970 they ARE music.

Richard tucker 1913-1974
Renata Tebaldi 1922-2004

It's nice to think of them both in heaven, sap that I am.