Friday, September 6, 2013

A Personal Note from BLO's General & Artistic Director

Reflections from Esther Nelson
General & Artistic Director,
Esther Nelson

Lloyd Schwartz’s recent Opera News editorial entitled “The Boston Conundrum" (see below for complete text of said article) compels me to tell readers that opera is, in fact, alive and well in Boston.

Despite the lack of a purposed performance space for opera, Bostonians have supported the art form for decades, and I am proud of our loyal patrons who have enabled BLO’s growth into New England’s largest opera company over 37 seasons. I’m also proud of Boston's enthusiasm for opera, evidenced in the community’s support for opera in all forms—amateur groups, smaller ensembles, and fully professional companies—which is why Boston continues to be the place where fledgling opera companies like Odyssey Opera choose to be born. This vibrant, collaborative community is not polarized as Mr. Schwartz suggests.

Most critics do not share Mr. Schwartz’s opinions of BLO’s work. The Boston Globe described BLO’s Opera Annex productions  as “part of the national dialogue” because of their role as entry points for new opera audiences, drawing crowds that comprise musical insiders, young hipsters and out-of-town press, clad in everything from Sunday best to jeans and a t-shirt. The New York Times observed that BLO “presents only a handful of productions a year but clearly intends them to catch the interest of operagoers around the country.”

Our local music critics understand that the challenge of running an opera company demands both artistic and business sense, with Boston Globe music critic Jeremy Eichler calling BLO’s efforts “a significant step toward modernization as a company without creating the perception of drastic change that might frighten traditional subscribers away.” The city’s collaborative spirit is made manifest in partnership programs with the Museum of Fine Arts, Handel and Haydn Society, Boston Public Library, Boston Children’s Museum and Zoo New England, all who join BLO’s efforts to take opera deeper into the community fabric for all to experience.

Boston is home to internationally renowned conservatory, college and university opera programs and I am proud of the immense talent that both trains and lives in and around Boston. The city is a hotbed of emerging artists, and the opera community provides a platform from which these future stars can, and do, launch international careers. The artists of the community, professional or emerging, are afforded opportunities among all opera companies in town. Each of us, regardless of our size or history, are here to support the art and the artists.

I agree with Mr. Schwartz that opera companies should have artistic leadership at the executive table, and BLO is fortunate to have Music Director David Angus and Artistic Advisor John Conklin, both internationally respected artists. However, most successful artists like David and John actively pursue their artistic careers rather than manage the business complexities of larger institutions.

The city’s richness in opera is rooted in its people—their support and their optimism—for this vital living art form. It turns out that what Mr. Schwartz calls a “conundrum” is actually an embarrassment of riches that has kept Boston’s love affair with opera vibrant and strong; a romance that endures.

"The Boston Conundrum" (As seen in the September issue of Opera News Magazine)
Critic LLOYD SCHWARTZ looks at the state of opera in the Massachusetts capital.

Though Boston has from time to time been a major international opera center, those periods never lasted. The celebrated Boston Opera Company, which had many of the world's greatest singers on its roster and a major conductor (Felix Weingartner), lasted only six years (1909–15). Its jewel of an opera house went unused for decades and was torn down in 1958. Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston had a better run, thirty-two years, before its last gasp in 1990 (with a world premiere — the late Robert DiDomenica's Balcony). Peter Sellars staged some of his most exciting and innovative productions in and around Boston, but when he tried to form an opera company, Boston Opera Theater, it collapsed after one production, despite spectacular reviews and sold-out houses for his celebrated Nozze di Figaro set in Trump Tower. Currently, Boston is still reeling from the sudden demise in 2011, in mid-season, of Opera Boston, which for eight years attracted the most serious and curious opera-lovers; the company was just about to produce the first Boston staging of Michael Tippett's dreamy allegory The Midsummer Marriage.

It's a mystery why such visionary companies have failed, while Boston Lyric Opera, which has a checkered history of misguided productions, slouches toward its thirty-eighth year. There are lots of theories. Boston, people say, with its world-class and well-endowed symphony orchestra and art museum, is simply not an opera town; except for supporting the Metropolitan Opera tours, its "Society" movers and shakers have had little interest in opera. Is opera too sexy for Puritanical Boston? Or too expensive for Brahmin penny-pinchers? Or too risky for corporate support? Opera is the most collaborative art form — some element or other is more likely to go wrong in an opera than in a symphony. Boston is musically conservative; the vast majority of BSO audiences prefer Brahms to Bartók. In 1986, Caldwell gave Boston its first Janácˇek opera, The Makropulos Case, starring Anja Silja, with glamorous black-and-white costumes designed by couturier Alfred Fiandaca. It was a dazzling production of a gripping work. It got rave reviews and a lot of publicity. But it didn't fill the house.

Some people blame Boston's lack of a proper venue for opera. Caldwell bought and renovated an old vaudeville house and called it the Opera House, but it was more adequate for the audience than for the participants. BLO uses the cramped, acoustically challenged Shubert Theatre, designed for plays and out-of-town musical-comedy tryouts. Audiences are uncomfortable, but they still come to undistinguished productions of La Bohème and Tosca. Perhaps artistic temperament doesn't jibe with the need to run a tight ship. What made Caldwell's and Sellars's productions memorable, even great, was their intense focus on the stage. Caldwell was notorious for her last-minute revising. In the deepest way, these two artists weren't interested in money. A student of Boris Goldovsky and a disciple of Walter Felsenstein, Caldwell believed in opera as drama. Though she often ran over budget, her budgets were remarkably low. Unfortunately, she also wanted to conduct, and that was often a distraction from her theatrical imagination. Yet her innate musicality meant that she was almost invariably serving the music.

For several decades, Caldwell built an audience that would follow her to gymnasiums and flower markets and movie theaters, to see not only Bohème and Traviata but the first American performance of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. Her unforgettable opening tableau, with Donald Gramm and Richard Lewis as the two brothers standing back-to-back in a pool of light, was an indelible image that illuminated the central theme of this recalcitrant opera better than anything else I've ever seen or read. She directed American premieres of Prokofiev's War and Peace, Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie, Boris Godunov with Mussorgsky's original orchestration, Verdi's original French version of Don Carlos, and such challenging contemporary works as Luigi Nono's Intolleranza, Peter Maxwell Davies's Taverner and Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Soldaten.

There were, inevitably, missteps in her handling of budgets, which alienated donors. Ditto her handling of artists. Joan Sutherland sang several of her most important roles in Boston, but when the prima donna discovered that Caldwell had sold tickets for the dress rehearsal of Traviata without telling her, that became Sutherland's last Caldwell production. Was Caldwell just not paying attention when she had the townswomen in Fidelio greet their long-imprisoned husbands with babies in their arms? Productions became less and less inspired, and her financial woes increased.

One possible path to salvation for Caldwell was her brief association with Sellars, the last stage director to make a significant mark in Boston. Sellars started doing opera while he was still a Harvard undergraduate. His four-hour-long Ring cycle, at the Loeb Drama Center (soon home to the American Repertory Theater) had more memorable images per minute than most complete Rings. Between 1980, when he directed his first Don Giovanni, in New Hampshire, with witty Edwardian sets and costumes by Edward Gorey, and 1987, when Caldwell included Sellars's masterpiece, Handel's Giulio Cesare, in the Opera Company's subscription season, Sellars had been collaborating with Emmanuel Music director Craig Smith on their now famous Handel and Mozart productions, which dug deeper into the works than most productions do, and always with a profound musicality. Their Mozart wasn't prissy; their Handel wasn't stodgy. Orlando — set at Cape Canaveral and on Mars — was part of Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theater season and had more performances than Handel's original.

Sellars and Smith were also gathering a stock company of inspired singing actors — including Susan Larson, Lorraine Hunt (not yet Lieberson), Jeffrey Gall, James Maddalena and Sanford Sylvan — who "got" and embodied what their directors were up to. Not every critic approved, but these were productions everyone had to see. Wanted to see.

But Caldwell and Sellars were not an ideal match. There were charges and countercharges of condescension and insubordination. Neither had ever had a rival. A plan to have Sellars codirect the Opera Company came to nothing. In 1990, Sellars and Smith inaugurated a new company, Boston Opera Theater, with Le Nozze di Figaro set in Trump Tower. Had so many ticket-buyers ever lined up for any opera in Boston? But because it was staged at Boston's legendary Colonial Theatre, a union house (in which the stage crew got paid even when there was no performance), BOT lost a fortune and went bust.

One response to Caldwell's hegemony was the sprouting up of small splinter groups. Boston's current leading company, Boston Lyric Opera, began in 1977 as the consolidation of some of these, several of which, such as Associate Artists Opera and the New England Chamber Opera Group, were quite ambitious. But BLO remains a promising enterprise that rarely fulfills its promise. For one thing, it's been mainly managers, not practicing artists, who have been in charge. Janice Mancini Del Sesto, BLO's general director between 1992 and 2007, was originally a singer, but her greater talent seemed to be as an arts "organizer." Her predecessors included John Balme, a conductor with little evident instinct for how opera works onstage, Anne Ewers and Justin Moss. In its three decades, despite the presence of talented individuals such as its music director of sixteen years, Stephen Lord, BLO has demonstrated no consistent ambition apart from "let's put on an opera" and is admired less for its productions than for its fundraising.

The company's occasional good ideas rarely led to any follow-through. In 1990, around the time that Caldwell's OCB folded, Moss began a program to revive an American opera every season. There were solid, unimaginative productions of Blitzstein's Regina and Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, then two operas for which "revival" was merely a euphemism — Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights and Stephen Paulus's Postman Always Rings Twice. In 1992, at the close of Moss's tenure, BLO cosponsored a workshop of an opera in progress by Robert Aldridge with a libretto by Herschel Garfein based on Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry. There was a public performance of excerpts, with Lorraine Hunt hair-raising as the evangelist Sharon Falconer, and two years later another workshop performance. BLO promised a full production but dropped both this project (Del Sesto said the decision was "financial rather than artistic") and its American opera commitment, though occasional American operas have turned up in later seasons. At least Hunt returned in several major roles — Berlioz's Béatrice, Handel's Xerxes and her only complete Carmen.

Perhaps Del Sesto's best idea was "Carmen on the Common" — two free public stagings of Bizet's popular masterpiece on Boston Common in 2002, with an appealing young cast. More than 100,000 people attended. Aida was to have been next. But Del Sesto, for once, couldn't raise the necessary funding, and the whole idea was abandoned.

What BLO has consistently lacked is the creativity to make something special out of limited resources. Some productions were borrowed; some used scenery from one company and costumes from another; many were significantly cut (Carmen withouta "Chansonbohème"!). Productions veered between the conventional and the cockamamie.

Esther Nelson, who succeeded Del Sesto in 2008 and serves as the company's general and artistic director, initiated a program known as "Opera Annex," which presents one non-standard work per season in an unusual venue. BLO's finest moment was last year's production of Peter Maxwell Davies's chilling ghost-story The Lighthouse, at the JFK Library on Boston Harbor. Director Tim Albery turned the awkward auditorium into an abandoned island surrounded by buoys, with aisles covered in guano-painted tarps. At the climax, the glaring light of a real lighthouse just outside the library was spine-chilling. After three decades, finally — a real gesamtkunstwerk.

Other efforts have not been so successful. A 2010 "Opera Annex" revival of The Turn of the Screw at an armory had a huge closed-circuit TV screen showing what was "happening" offstage — draining its mystery. This season, the cast of Così Fan Tutte had to learn an unsingable 1890 English translation ("Cease not, remorseless love!"), compounding rather than eliminating the need for supertitles; and The Flying Dutchman, copying a concept from Bayreuth, had two younger, silent Sentas wandering about, confusing the action and ignoring the music. During the sea-swept overture, in which Wagner depicts the Dutchman's ship crashing through the waves, the director gave us a young Senta wiping the blood around her mother's corpse.

Years earlier, some key members of the BLO board, fed up with the repertoire and low standards, jumped ship to support the Boston Academy of Music, founded by tenor Richard Conrad in 1980. Conrad had both a clear vision and a vivid theatrical imagination. On limited budgets, BAM produced both grand and light opera — from Donizetti's rare Linda di Chamounix, with soprano Elizabeth Parcells, to an even rarer staging of the Kurt Weill–Ira Gershwin Lady in the Dark, with Delores Ziegler doing a star turn. But in 2002, after twenty-two years, Conrad was ousted by his own board, which was evidently tired and fearful of supporting an essentially one-man operation. BAM morphed into Opera Boston.

Still performing at the tiny Majestic, an elegantly restored 1903 opera and vaudeville house, Opera Boston, under the direction of Carole Charnow, became the go-to company for opera-lovers tired of Tosca. Opera Boston's repertory was an impressive mix of obscurer classics (Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, Gluck's Alceste, Rossini's Tancredi, Verdi's Luisa Miller) and daring modern works, including an inspired production of Shostakovich's savagely satiric The Nose, before the Met got to it. The company's Opera Unlimited series of even newer operas was mainly the inspiration of Opera Boston's music director, Gil Rose, an opera conductor who actually embraces new music. (He also leads "BMOP" — the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.) Rose included such exciting pieces as Thomas Adès's dark sexual melodrama Powder Her Face and John Harbison's haunting setting of Yeats's one-act ritual play Full Moon in March.

Opera Boston's biggest coup was the Boston premiere in 2004 of John Adams's Nixon in China, which it got to do, according to Richard Dyer — the distinguished former classical-music critic of the Boston Globe (who was briefly employed by Opera Boston after his retirement) — "because Jan Del Sesto refused to accept Stephen Lord's plan to do it at the Lyric." This created the Opera Boston image and the widespread opinion that Opera Boston was the artistically adventurous company, though Dyer points out that this is an oversimplification in both directions: "The unforeseen benefit of having two companies was that each of them became better because of the presence of the other." In 2010, Opera Boston gave the world premiere of Zhou Long's Madame White Snake. Neither Cerise Lim Jacobs's libretto (part Chinese folk-speak, part contemporary psychobabble) nor Zhou Long's colorfully orchestrated mixture of ancient Chinese and modern orchestral sounds escaped banality, but it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Then came the unthinkable. In 2011, shortly before Opera Boston's scheduled Midsummer Marriage and less than a year into the tenure of its new general director, Lesley Koenig, the trustees shut it down. The company had no endowment (not for want of trying on Charnow's part) and was losing money. Randolph Fuller, president emeritus, had been supporting Opera Boston since its inception, providing as much as twenty percent of its annual operating budget in some seasons. The accumulated deficit, according to the final auditor's total, was more than $1 million. The board was in shock. So was the community. (Boston mayor Thomas Menino wanted to know why the company didn't appeal to him for help.) Fuller then put up the money for a memorable concert version of the Tippett, with Rose conducting BMOP, which Opera Boston subscribers could attend free of charge. But as Dyer asks, "Why could one imagine that Boston could support two opera companies when in fact it has never adequately supported one?"

Recently, there was potentially good news: Gil Rose has announced the  formation of a new company — Odyssey Opera of Boston. The idea is not to compete with BLO (which, he says, may have been one source of Opera Boston's downfall). Every fall, Odyssey means to do a concert version of a grand opera too big to stage in Boston. Its first, this month, will be no less than Wagner's early epic Rienzi, with the powerhouse Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt in his American debut. Then, in late spring, there would be three or four fully staged chamber-scale operas. (Under consideration are works by Haydn, Bizet, Adolphe Adam, Martinů and Philip Glass.) Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Early Music Festival and ART will have their occasional high-end offerings, and a handful of small chamber groups (Intermezzo, Guerilla Opera, Opera Hub, Boston Opera Collaborative, Commonwealth Lyric Theatre) will continue to put on some of the liveliest, most innovative productions in town.

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