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january 2007

The World of New Opera
Interview
with
Charles
Downey

by Karren Alenier

ctdowneycr

Dr. Charles T. Downey is a musicologist, an occasional university professor, and a private high school teacher of music and art. He earned a Bachelor of Music in Piano from Michigan State University. He received an M.A. and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America, with research specialization in medieval music and French Baroque ballet and opera. He sings professionally with the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. While he writes prolifically on many subjects and areas of concern, his specialties are French culture, opera, and early and modern music.

Since June 2003, Downey has been moderating Ionarts, an online journal for classical music, culture, and the fine arts in the Washington, DC area. Traffic to this arts blog is currently between 8,000 to 10,000 visitors per week with a substantial following that read the entries daily, including many professional musicians, critics, and cultural commentators. Although the prime focus, led by Downey's co-contributor Jens F. Laurson,  is on classical music, Ionarts also publishes reviews of art and film by other contributing writers.

In this interview, Downey discusses an international landscape of contemporary opera. Questions concerning Peter Gelb, the new general director of the Metropolitan Opera who is focused on bringing in people who have never been to an opera before, raises such concerns that Gelb may be commissioning work in a category that Downey terms "opera lite." Like many blog writers, Downey does not hold back and so his informative discussion here is laden with passion and punch.

Do you see any trends occurring in the world of new opera? (i.e. subject matter, experimentation, where new operas might be premiering, etc.)

The most adventurous European companies may be scaling back a degree or two in how far they go with new operas. After shocking the bourgeoisie at the Salzburg Festival, Gérard Mortier, as head of the Paris Opera, premiered Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater and challenging, sometimes infuriating, productions of older operas. He has angered some audience members there and will be replaced in 2009 by a more conservative director, Nicolas Joel. In London, Covent Garden has been set back with some critical failures in new opera this season: Dominique Le Gendre's Bird of Night was a disaster, but Stuart MacRae's The Assassin Tree fared better. Last year, it was Lorin Maazel's 1984 that made the Royal Opera look foolish. Will Covent Garden change direction toward a more conservative approach, doing fewer new operas as a result?

At the same time, Santa Fe Opera is pressing ahead with American premieres, with Thomas Adès' The Tempest last summer, Golijov's Ainadamar the summer before that, Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul this summer, and Adriana Mater next summer. This is a wise course, allowing Santa Fe to get the benefit of producing new operas—drawing most of the national critics to New Mexico every August—without taking the ultimate risk of mounting an unknown opera. This is good since, after a leadership shuffle, Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera appear to be in a temporary rebuilding period as far as new opera is concerned, although David Gockley has commissioned Mark Adamo to do a new Dracula for San Francisco. The city that has become surprisingly adventurous for opera is Los Angeles. I am sorry to have missed the premiere of Gerald Barry's The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit with the L.A. Philharmonic.  In The Washington Post, Tim Page has complained that Los Angeles Opera gets the better end of the stick over Washington, when it comes to what Plácido Domingo is doing in both places.

What I do hope will not continue as a trend is the creation of operas that are not really operas. English National Opera's premiere of Gaddafi this fall is the prime example, but Jerry Springer and Nancy and Tonya are in the same vein. I admire operas that are based on modern stories, like Nixon in China, Death of Klinghoffer, and many of the excellent operas of Michael Nyman, but to go for the crassest stories is a mistake. The critics savaged Gaddafi: unfortunately some people still think that this sort of crossover work is the only way to rejuvenate opera.

What aspect of what Peter Gelb is doing to bring in new audience to the Met and opera in general do you think will be most effective? Should he be doing something more than what he is currently doing?

I sincerely hope that the Metropolitan Opera will rediscover its heritage as the premiere company in the United States for commissioning and premiering new opera. The house that brought us Merry Mount, Amelia Goes to the Ball, Vanessa, Antony and Cleopatra, and many others in its heyday became more and more conservative over the years. Premieres have been scarce in recent years—The Ghosts of Versailles, An American Tragedy, and a few others—so it would be good for the Met to commission and premiere more.

It remains to be seen whether Gelb's strategy will work. He may lose audience by moving away from traditions that have become so encrusted in recent decades, the same sets and productions and catering to star singers over innovation. He may not gain anything by putting more broadcasts on Sirius Radio and simulcasting in movie theaters (for which I regretfully predict the audience will be pathetically small). The new regime has already gotten people talking, and that is a good thing, even if some of the talk is negative. The only thing I might hope for the Met to do is to bring new operas from farther afield. In particular, I am thinking of the most vital operatic cultures in the world today, in Scandinavia, especially in Finland and Denmark. Tan Dun's The Last Emperor this year is a good start, but I think we need to pay more attention to Helsinki and Copenhagen.

Any thoughts on the opera commissions that the Met has announced, some of which will be a co-commission with Lincoln Center

Gelb moved quickly to commission a new opera from Osvaldo Golijov, planned for 2010-2011. I enjoyed Ainadamar, and I have generally high hopes for what Golijov will produce next. However, this was hardly a daring commission, given that Golijov is so popular in New York (if considerably less so outside the U.S.). I hope that Golijov will move beyond merely turning over the orchestra to a band of folk percussionists and make something that is more of a sublimation of the popular influences that are so important in his work.

The program of joint commissions with Lincoln Center Theater smacks of "opera lite," a kind of crossover project akin to that disastrous Gaddafi. Will huge crowds from Broadway shows actually just start going to operas at the Met? If they do, will opera's existing audiences want to see the operas Broadway audiences would like? Some participants in the program are very popular figures, like Wynton Marsalis, Tony Kushner, Rufus Wainwright, and Adam Guettel, but there is no reason to think that any of those musicians will make an opera worth hearing.  I found Guettel's Light in the Piazza terribly pedestrian. Let the music theater people make music theater. At the same time, I am glad that the Met might stage new works by Jake Heggie or Rachel Portman, who were also announced to be part of the initiative. Both have composed good operas with sounds mostly easy on the ears, and it's about time for the Met to get around to paying attention to them. I'm less sure about Scott Wheeler, whose Democracy here in Washington left me underwhelmed.

The other thing Gelb is planning is something that all American companies, not only the Met, should be doing: reviving successful new operas. Too many new operas, no matter how good, never live past their first production. The Met will give Doctor Atomic, which I look forward to seeing, since I missed the premiere in San Francisco, and finally another revival of Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles, an opera that has really grown on me in recent years. Here in Washington, we had Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice this season, and I hope there will be more. Corigliano has been lobbying for a production of Ghosts here for a long time.

If you could see any new operas, what would you choose to see and why?

Let's start with what I will definitely see. If I can make it to New York, I would like to see The Last Emperor, and if not, I will definitely see the cinematic simulcast on January 13. This summer I will try to do the summer opera festival rounds again, taking in the world premiere of David Carlson's Anna Karenina at Opera Theater of St. Louis in June, the American premiere of Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul in Santa Fe in July, and the world premiere of Guo Wenjing's Poet Li Bai at Central City Opera, also in July. If possible, I will go to Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Fusion Festival in April, for Philip Glass's Sound of a Voice (2003) and Mathew Rosenblum's RedDust.

If you are offering me some travel money, I would go to Paris for the world premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino's Da gelo a gelo in May and the Savonlinna Festival in Finland for the world premiere of Olli Kortekangas' Daddy's Girl this summer, where they are also reviving from 2005
Leonid Desyatnikov's The Children of Rosenthal. I might want to go to Wolfgang Rihm's Das Gehege, which is being paired with Salome in Munich next month.

Looking at the offerings for the spring season, I have been most impressed by the schedule at Théâtre de la Monnaie / De Munt, in Brussels. They are doing some fascinating modern updates of Baroque operas, which is a particular fascination of mine, The Rake's Progress, the world premiere of Benoît Mernier's first opera, L'Éveil du printemps, and Luc Brewaeys' adaptation of Luigi Pirandello's L'uomo dal fiore in bocca. When you look at that season, the Met still looks positively provincial.

What do you think about using film directors as directors of opera? Did you see the WNO or Met production of Madama Butterfly?

Some film directors make terrible opera directors, but others create exciting, cinematic productions. This season in Washington, I found William Friedkin's Bluebeard [Duke Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók]/Gianni Schicchi [by Giacomo Puccini] trite, although that was partly because it is an inappropriate double-bill, in my opinion. Mariusz Trelinski, on the other hand, does bring the best of what film has to offer to his productions. I admired both the revival of his Butterfly this season and Andrea Chénier two years ago. Opera has always been largely, and sometimes principally, about spectacle and visual entertainment, and films are the expensive spectacles of our time. I did not see Anthony Minghella's Butterfly at the Met, but what I read about it sounded exciting. Some movie/TV directors have done great work in opera (Luchino Visconti, Julie Taymor, Robert Altman, Zhang Yimou) and others have been not so good (Friedkin, Garry Marshall, Baz Luhrman). I am also fascinated by the use of film in new productions of opera, like the incorporation of Bill Viola's videos in that now infamous production of Tristan.

Are there any new opera critics that you think we, as opera buffs, should be reading? Alex Ross is about to release a book based on his blog The Rest Is Noise. He certainly is one of my favorites. Do you know about his book?

I have heard snippets from Alex's book, which is going to be important. He is a supremely talented writer, and I love that he has been badly bitten by the blogging bug. He was meant to write a blog. Other good opera-related blogs are written by opera singers (Anne-Carolyn Bird), directors of opera companies (Brian Dickie in Chicago, Kim Witman at Wolf Trap), and opera fans of all stripes (La Cieca, Wellsung, Maury d'Annato, An Unamplified Voice, Prima la Musica). A great source for regular news updates, from newspapers and blogs, is Today's Opera News, and USOperaweb is an excellent resource on American opera. During the recent flap over Roberto Alagna's meltdown at La Scala, a great new blog about opera surfaced: Opera Chic, written by a blogger and opera fan based in Milan.

7. Could you comment on how blogging is changing the face of opera criticism?

Blogging is doing to opera criticism what it is doing to all traditional media, giving a platform to a plurality of voices. It connects people who are crazy about the same obscure things. In Scott Spiegelberg's recent survey of the most popular classical music blogs, there were enough blogs devoted solely to opera to merit a separate category. Opera blogging is becoming an identifiable phenomenon. There are people who write in all kinds of styles, many of them not possible in traditional media. Whether it counts as opera criticism, I cannot say, but it is often irreverent and fun.

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About This Article

©2007 Karren Alenier
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren Alenier is a poet, writer
and a regular contributor to Scene4 Magazine.
Check the Archives for more of her articles.

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Scene4 Magazine-Special Issue-View of the Arts 2007

january 2007

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