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New Opera: Then the Hammer Explained

New opera is always an adventure with risk. Sometimes the critic best serves a new piece by staying silent. This situation happened for the Dresser recently when she traveled to New York City to see a new opera by a composer whose work she had experienced before and, while the first opera was not particularly her favorite cuppa, it showed well. Not so for the second.

At Santa Fe Opera, The Letter by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Terry Teachout premiered Saturday, July 25, 2009. The Dresser has been keen to see it, but other trips and commitments have gotten in the way. By Monday, July 27, not so enthusiastic reviews of The Letter started to surface. Here's what Teachout had to say in his AboutLastNight blog on July 28, 2009:

"Needless to say, not everybody liked The Letter as much as the first-nighters who cheered us to the echo. My old colleagues at the Washington Post, for instance, published a scorched-earth pan on Monday, the thrust of which was that Paul and I should take up another line of work. I can't say I enjoyed reading it, but I believe I can stand the heat. I ought to be able to: after all, I've been dishing it out for most of my professional life!"

The Dresser notes: so far, no word from The New York Times, the major arbiter of what is worthwhile in the world of classical music. And maybe there won't be a Times review.


Recently, the Dresser attended two operatic productions of the Capital Fringe Festival. On July 18, 2009, she saw the Opera Alterna production of Magnum Opus by Michael Oberhauser and on July 19, by composer Douglas Boyce based on a libretto drawn from Federico Garcia Lorca by Jodi Kanter. Neither opera took the top of the Dresser's head off, but each had some commendable aspects.

First, one should understand a bit about the sponsoring group and festival. A nonprofit group named Capital Fringe supports the Capital Fringe Festival. The festival began in the summer of 2005 in Washington, DC. It takes its lead from the Fringe movement that began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947. The idea is to promote and support artists who may not have other outlets. Capital Fringe encourages artists to self-produce in their annual July festival of the performing arts. So, in fact, Fringe offerings are often workshops as opposed to premieres. Artists can enjoy the opportunity to try out their new works in usually less than adequate theatrical venues but without fear of being slammed by the critics.

That said, both Magnum Opus and The Girl Who Waters the Basil were not artists flying solo. Opus was produced by the DC-based Opera Alterna that has ties to Catholic University (as does the composer who wrote this opera for his CUA master's degree) and Girl was mounted with the help of a grant by George Washington University (the composer is a professor there). Opus was enjoying its second production (according to Anne Midgette's review in the Washington Post, Oberhauser premiered Opus in February 2009 at Catholic University) and Girl, its first, but from the program notes, one could ascertain that Girl was being workshopped.

Both operas deal with sexual attraction--young man pursuing young woman. In Opus, the story revolves around a singer named Claire who is married to a blocked playwright named Robert but she is being pursued by a composer named John. The framework of the Opus story is a modern-day telling of the love triangle between Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. In The Girl Who Waters the Basil, a prince falls in love with a peasant girl who spurns him after he initially disguises himself as a peddler and trades grapes for her kisses. When she refuses to see him, he becomes so love sick that he cannot leave his bed.

Musically, both operas are tonal. Opus takes it lead from the music of the real life Robert Schumann and at times, Oberhauser's music seems more derivative than original. Opus2.jpg
Robert (Tad Czyzewski) being seduced by the Greek Muse Melpomene (Daniele Lorio). Photo by Nickie Brock

Nevertheless, Oberhauser has created some beautiful ensembles like "We will whisper to you," an exchange between Robert (sung by Tad Czyzewski) and Schumann's muses Melpomene (sung by Daniele Lorio) and Polyhymnia (sung by Tricia Lepofsky). Boyce's music for Girl exhibits more dissonance and vocal demands than Opus but also tends toward numbing repetition.

What made Girl particularly impressive was the talent that came together for this 40-minute "pocket opera" that was initiated in mid March of this year. Playing the prince was tenor Robert Baker, who has sung more than 300 performances with Washington National Opera. In the role of the Shoemaker: world-class soloist baritone James Shaffran (over 40 appearances with Washington National Opera) and in the role of the Shoemaker's daughter: coloratura soprano Rebecca Ocampo. While opera, particularly in the old world tradition, has tended to put the best singers on stage instead of the most visually appropriate, the Dresser found that it was hard to pretend that Robert Baker was suppose to be a young man. The Dresser kept thinking that Cory Davis who played the prince's page looked more age appropriate to be wooing the girl watering the basil.girlwhowaters.jpg
(L to R) Rebecca Ocampo (Irene), Robert Baker (The Prince), and Cory Davis (The Page) in The Girl Who Water the Basil and the Inquisitive Prince, 2009, Capital Fringe Festival (photo by Douglas Boyce)


It's no secret that the Dresser (a.k.a. the Steiny Road Poet) admired Michael Oberhauser's student compositions and agreed to help him write a libretto for what turned out to be Magnum Opus. However in the end, the composer decided to write the libretto himself and consequently took a hit for that in Midgette's review. Was Opus, despite its premiere (the Dresser suspects this was the master's degree production and should that production be called a premiere?), ready for a prime time review in a major newspaper?

Think about it this way, music critic Anne Midgette of the Washington Post reviewed and panned The Letter. Santa Fe Opera is known for presenting exciting new operatic work. It has staged over 40 American premieres and commissioned nine new works. The last time Santa Fe Opera commissioned an opera was Bright Sheng's Madame Mao. Santa Fe Opera premiered it in 2003 and most major newspapers were there to cover this premiere. Granted, the newspaper industry is now sliding into the black hole of the Internet and no one is sure how journalists will get paid to cover major events, but Paul Moravec is no newbie composer. Although he had not written opera prior to The Letter, he has had lots of New York Times coverage -- he is, after all, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music, along with such other composers as Steven Reich (2009), David Lang (2008), Ornette Coleman (2007), John Adams (2003) and should the Dresser say very few composers win a Pulitzer for opera?

What the Dresser is poking her critical finger at is what happens if the creators and producers of a new work invite the critics and they come? Well, if you are a big opera company, a premiere is not complete without critical reviews and if you are a small company, it's ok if everyone is absolutely sure that the work is ready and nothing more can or will be done to improve it. The consequence is that sometimes creators get pigeonholed and can never escape that first review. So in the case of Michael Oberhauser, it is time for him to let go of Magnum Opus and move on to write his second opera with an experienced librettist. Douglas Boyce, on the other hand, needs to further develop his pocket opera and see where it can take him. The Dresser has absolutely no advice for Paul Moravec. In fact, she would still like to see and hear The Letter and decide for herself how she would rate it. In the case of the New York City opera premiere that she refuses to review, she knows you can have an audience stand up and shout bravo while the critic cringes in her seat, hoping no one notices she is there.

Wayne Miller in his poem "The Book of Props" from his book by the same title published by Milkweed Editions seems to have captured what critics do and how this intermingles with the human condition that is all about finding love and connection. So now the Dresser will put down her hammer and remove the nails pursed between her lips.


Then the hammer explained
the arm's strange gestures,

and the hanging frames
hinted at walls that served

as frames. The glasses
left out on the brownstone

stoop caught light
as we passed by, and so

we gave them great
significance. Later,

in the unfamiliar dark
of a stranger's house,

I found the stairwell
by running my fingers

along the edge of a table.
Out back, people

were smoking, drinking
from painted bottles

as they pumped wood
into the chimenea.

O the songs they sang--
as still the fountain

poured water-sounds
out into the dark street

and the bay lured travelers
to pause on its midnight

ferry. All the saints
kept wringing themselves

through the contortions
of their names. Even

as the undertaker
undressed his childhood

sweetheart in preparation,
even as the trenches

grew into monuments,
then the monuments

into disrepair,--we knew
about the body

and the soul that fills it
with its own idea.

But what of the bed of nails,
the net of red marks

the audience admires?
What of the old man

lying there, counting
sheep in comradeship

with the shepherd? Now
the cup is held aloft,

and now the blood
comes pouring? Please--

come along to the garden,
we'll sniff the flowers,

let the birds chirp us
into romance. I'll put

a dandelion in your hair.
And when the cars

slip past like sharks,
we'll mock their glowing

ground effects; and when
the pistol is waved

in the air, we'll watch
the shimmering

of the runners' shoes.
How we longed to be

those lovers in the cab's
back seat, unmindful

of the driver thumbing
his matchbook--.

--Those poor lovers
drifting sexward in a river

of lights: now even
their kiss has become

another object pressed
between them.

Wayne Miller 

from The Book of Props

Copyright © 2009 Wayne Miller


Comments (4)

Maxine Kern:

Dear Dresser,
Thank you for the gift of perspective in your commentary on opera review and in poetry.

Gray Jacobik:

So great questions, Karren . . .
and that's a terrific poem by Wayne Miller (I wonder if he's the son, or a relation of the late poet Jim Wayne Miller?). Gonna go get the book--thanks for the find.

The Dresser:

The Dresser is pleased to be getting on- and offline comments about this essay. Thanks to those weighing in.

The Dresser is still following the reactions to The Letter and sees that LA Times has published as of July 30 a piece entitled "The Letter' at Santa Fe Opera: What did the critics think?" and has included a list of those who have reviewed the new opera. Follow the URL below to see that short list and no there is no review from the NY Times.


Also Charles Downey of Ionarts reports in his blog today that he will see the opera next week.

Very interesting update this time! I enjoyed it. Some of the ideas
you put down here reminded me of an interview by the composer Tom Johnson, who was also the chief classical music critic at the Village Voice for many years (when reviews were actually printed in the Voice). This is something that Johnson said about being a criticwhich struck me:

Tom Johnson: "I made just a few rules for myself. One was that I
would, as much as possible, avoid writing negative reviews because it was much more interesting to find something good to write about. If there was something good happening, that was much more important to tell people about something good that was happening than to just tell you, “Don’t go and see this other terrible thing.” Just raking somebody over the coals for some sadistic pleasure, that seemed not very good. So, the Village Voice understood this. It wasn’t always easy to find something good. Sometimes I would go to five or six concerts in a week hoping to find one that I could say something really positive about. There are an awful lot of concerts I didn’t write about. That was my negative judgment: If I didn’t like it, you didn’t read about it. I think it was helpful, because as I remember sometimes a composer did a concert that really wasn’t together, and the group didn’t play together, and he wasn’t sure, it was too long, you know. But, I went and we talked sometimes afterwards. If he asked my opinion, I’d say. But usually they knew already [laughs] that it hadn’t been a very good concert. It was not necessary to mention because a year later, wow. You know, the same group, they got it together, and the piece is together, and they know what they’re doing now. It’s twice as long. They added electronic drums, which was beautiful. They did this and that. So then I write the article. Right? This is time to write the article, not when the piece is just in formation."

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