Friday, May 02, 2008


SARAH CALDWELL, FIRST LADY OF OPERA by Daniel Kessler. Published June 30, 2008

Anyone wanting to know more about the art of stagecraft in opera should know these names. Google, Shmoogle or whatever but find their books and read: Stanislavsky, Wieland Wagner, Kroll Opera, Walter Felsenstein and Sarah Caldwell. They are all dead.

Today, I thrill to the work of Nic Muni, Stephen Wadsworth, Jack O'Brien, and Francesca Zambello. Peter Sellars is often fascinating but I don't always buy it. Sometimes its more about Peter than anything else (And lose the stupid haircut and the shmatte. It was cute in 1985 but most of us have moved on!)
All of them read scores. All go to the music and integrate music with text, and from this they prepare stagings.

A talented young friend who hopes for a career in opera reminded me yesterday of something I said at a rehearsal last year. I responded to another singer who said "Opera is a dying art." To which my friend quotes me as saying "Opera is primed for a revolution." I think we're in the midst of it now, a good one.

I grew up on Sarah Caldwell's productions of opera in the 1970s. Sarah died in 2006.. She had the cover of Time magazine (November 10, 1975) and was the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan. Sarah's genius was not for conducting, not so much for stage direction, though her ideas were witty, crowd pleasing and always bound to the music. They came from the score. She read the score. Sarah's genius was surviving as long as she did-the company was "in business" from 1959 to 1990, scoring last minute funds, often in bags of singles at the last minute to get the curtain up, and in assembling gifted people around her who could be relied upon to produce exciting opera.

The singers of course, Beverly Sills, Donald Gramm, John Alexander, Shirley Verrett, Jon Vickers, John Reardon, James McCracken among them.

Her comprimario artists were extraordinary. They were first class musicians and actors. Gimi Beni, James Billings, Richard Crist, Eunice Alberts, Jan Curtis and Ron Hedlund are a few who come to mind immediately. Her sets and costumes were designed with great taste and style by Helen Pond and Herbert Senn. These two never saw a performance space they couldn't conquer. For years, Sarah didn't have a theater. She produced opera in an indoor skating rink, the gym at Tuft's University, various porno houses scattered through Boston's combat zone, and a cyclorama building. The roof may have leaked and there was never a pit but the shows went on.

Was she the first to approach opera as theater? Did the revolution in opera begin with her? No, but she continued it. Sarah told me that HER great inspiration was the German director Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975). He was stuck in East Berlin for most of his career and his work was almost never seen in the West. In the 70s Sarah brought him to Boston for some lectures and he brought with him a number of his productions on film: LEONORE, BLUEBEARD and I think CARMEN.

All of these films have just been released on DVD. Go find them. Felsenstein had a state run theater with a limitless budget and cast good voices in very interesting bodies and developed strong stage personalities in his performers. I don't remember disliking his shows musically, and I remember wanting to see each film again, immediately. He would rehearse for months at a time, until he was satisfied. I'm not saying that's the way to do it. Sarah, for all her touted theatricality, was known to nod off during a 3 a.m. rehearsal. If you added up the amount of hours spent preparing Norma or Der Rosenkavalier in Boston I'll bet it would be less than any where else. Certainly less than East Berlin.

Now, Felstenstin never had a voice that I heard in his company of the Callas-Sutherland-Corelli-Price-Tebaldi category. These great stars didn't need Felsenstein and he didn't need them. The public didn't tire of these great voices, and if they threw in an onstage gesture once in a while, great. Their main accomplishments were vocal and musical. (And what voices!) Beverly Sills was a stage animal and a singing actress to her fingertips so I put her in her own category.

Sarah was the heir to Callas in my opinion. Same with Jon Vickers. So for Felsenstein the opera was less about voices, and I believe he put the drama before the music. Interestingly, as far as I know Felsenstein did little "singer's opera.' No bel canto: no Lucia, no Rigoletto, no Tosca.

Who before Felsenstein? Wieland Wagner was shaking it up at Bayreuth in his grandfather's opera house. With minimal sets-there was no money after WWII-Wieland Wagner used the music and the text to present the characters, just as Wagner with his talk of gesamtkunstwrk had intended.

I would love to have been in Berlin in the 1920s for the productions of the Kroll Opera. Otto Klemperer was in charge there. His productions were influenced by Gordon Craig, who was the first I know about to design abstract sets, using shapes, color and lights. Thus a tree was not always a tree, and audiences were expected to use their imaginations. They were given permission to enter into the drama with the music. It could be any kind of a tree you liked. And really, what does the music tell you? What do the rests tell you? The keys? And above all the texts. Now, very few opera libretti survive as great literature. But the words are what the composers strive to illuminate and illustrate with music. So for crying out loud, study your texts ! And the historical context in which the opera was written. There are clues everywhere that the music at the last will fill in for you. Meanwhile, go find Mr. Kessler's book about Sarah Caldwell. She was crazy, irresponsible, often brilliant and one never said "Never" to her. The paychecks bounced their way down the Charles river, but when she got the curtain up, it could be enthralling.

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