Grand opera in America - no future?

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John F
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Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by John F » Mon Sep 24, 2018 2:45 pm

The Fat Lady Is Singing
Is American opera in terminal condition?
Terry Teachout
Sept. 17, 2018

Fifty years ago, New York was home to a pair of world-famous opera companies. Respectively headquartered kitty-corner from each other in the brand-new Lincoln Center campus, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera were jointly responsible for setting the tone for opera in America at a time when large-scale productions of the operatic classics could be seen only in a handful of other American cities.

At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”

Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.

A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.

And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1

Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.

In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.


As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.

Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.

In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.

Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.

That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.

The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.

As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.

The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.

Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”

Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”


D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”

If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.

While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.

The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.

It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.

https://www.commentarymagazine.com/arti ... y-singing/
John Francis

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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Sep 25, 2018 10:25 am

As John F knows better than any of us, City Opera went out of business because of poor management decisions. The argument about grand opera in the US has been going on for many years, dating back to the founding of the paltry funded National Council for the Arts, which Republicans still wish to see abolished even though many of them could fund the entire thing as a philanthropy, not that this should be up the private choice of the wealthy. Use taxpayer money to fund grand opera even partially? Horror! (David H. Koch does not count, because he is part of the cause of the demise of City Opera. He just wanted his name on a building at Lincoln Center.)

If it's any slight comfort, it is not a problem entirely unique to the United States. At a much lesser rate, European countries have been defunding important arts groups. There was once a unique and I was told wondrous company called the Frankfurt Ballet, which simply ceased to exist when Germany withdrew state funding. Most people have, and have always had, no taste.

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maestrob
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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by maestrob » Tue Sep 25, 2018 10:44 am

Opera companies and orchestras make only about 1/3 of their income from ticket sales on average. As long as rich donors are willing to subsidize Grand Opera, the MET will stay. Sadly, they are the last standing opera company in NY, and Gelb is cannibalizing his audience with all these live movie theatre presentations. As with sports, there should be a blackout of the MET broadcasts within at least a 200 mile radius.

John F
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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by John F » Tue Sep 25, 2018 3:15 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
Tue Sep 25, 2018 10:25 am
If it's any slight comfort, it is not a problem entirely unique to the United States. At a much lesser rate, European countries have been defunding important arts groups. There was once a unique and I was told wondrous company called the Frankfurt Ballet, which simply ceased to exist when Germany withdrew state funding. Most people have, and have always had, no taste.
After German reunification, the city of Berlin wanted to cut its expenses on the arts and proposed merging the city's three (!) opera companies into two. Massive objections caused them to drop it, so the State Opera, German Opera, and Comic Opera remain. The city did withdraw its subsidy for one of Berlin's five (!!) symphony orchestras but it managed to become self-supporting and remains in business. Elsewhere in Germany, the Southwest German Radio orchestra merged with the South German Radio orchestra, essentially to save money.

When Margaret Thatcher gutted the Arts Council's funding, it appeared likely that one of London's five (!!!) full=season symphony orchestras, two of them BBC organizations, would be reduced by one. The Philharmonia looked like the unlucky choice. But all five are still in business. Here in NYC we have only one full-season symphony orchestra, the product of a merger in 1928 of the New York Philharmonic and the New York Symphony. But then this is New York, not London or Berlin or Vienna or Paris or Moscow or...

Ballet Frankfurt was unknown to me. As far as I can make out, it came to prominence (like Germany's other major ballet companies) thanks to a major foreign choreographer, William Forsythe (formerly of the Stuttgart Ballet), was affiliated with the local opera company whose orchestra it used, and was originally included in the opera company's budget. But its fame depended on that of its leader, and when he withdrew following the government's proposal to cease funding the ballet company, it lost its raison d'etre. Whereupon many of Ballet Frankfurt's dancers joined the choreographer's newly created Forsyth Company, also based in Frankfurt, which gets support from the governments of Hesse (i.e. Frankfurt) and Saxony (i.e. Dresden). So there's a more or less happy ending there.
John Francis

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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by lennygoran » Tue Sep 25, 2018 7:31 pm

maestrob wrote:
Tue Sep 25, 2018 10:44 am
As with sports, there should be a blackout of the MET broadcasts within at least a 200 mile radius.
Brian that lets me out. Regards, Len

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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by Rach3 » Tue Sep 25, 2018 8:00 pm

John F wrote:
Tue Sep 25, 2018 3:15 pm
But then this is New York, not London or Berlin or Vienna or Paris or Moscow or...
Correct, the problem is not opera per se , but rather the failure to sufficiently value, and teach about, all the arts in a USA that views art appreciation,education, and support as antithetical to egalitarian " principles" , a society which measures success by bank account size rather than breadth and depth of understanding.

Now, off the soap box, and back to my cheap shiraz ( California ).

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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by John F » Wed Sep 26, 2018 3:05 am

Rach3 wrote:
Tue Sep 25, 2018 8:00 pm
the problem is not opera per se , but rather the failure to sufficiently value, and teach about, all the arts in a USA that views art appreciation,education, and support as antithetical to egalitarian " principles"
Many Americans, including me, received and needed no arts education in order to value the arts highly. How many in CMG are here because of what they were taught in elementary school? (Not a rhetorical question, I really want to know.) We absorbed it from our parents, relatives, friends, our particular social milieu; it was more like a cultural tradition than an academic subject. As I see it, the unavailability of arts education in many public schools is not a cause but an effect of indifference or hostility toward the arts in American culture and society. No wonder that when voters cut public education to save money, the arts programs are among the first to go.

I believe this American attitude goes back to the very beginning of European settlement in the New World, when the Puritans arrived in New England. When, soon afterward, they deposed the British king and installed their leader as the ruler, they closed all the theatres in Britain. With the restoration of the monarchy after only a generation, the theatres promptly opened again. But Puritan New England was a hotbed of revolution against England and the king, a revolution which of course succeeded and was never rolled back. I note that while Boston has a symphony orchestra and museums, it has never supported a major opera company for long.

The high point of American appreciation of classical music came in the 1930s and 1940s, when many Jews and others fled Europe and settled here, and not just connoisseurs but ordinary people knew who Toscanini was and listened to classical music broadcasts on the national radio networks. This tapered off in the 1950s as the children of those immigrants became Americanized and entered the market, and top-40 radio accordingly replaced high culture on the air. Nowadays, most immigration comes from the south, where there is no cultural tradition of appreciation of high art.

I have no data to support this; it comes from my observations and experience of life. Of course I believe it's true or I wouldn't have posted it here, but it may not be.
John Francis

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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by lennygoran » Wed Sep 26, 2018 5:18 am

John F wrote:
Wed Sep 26, 2018 3:05 am
How many in CMG are here because of what they were taught in elementary school? (Not a rhetorical question, I really want to know.) We absorbed it from our parents, relatives, friends, our particular social milieu
I knew nothing of opera and that goes for elementary, jr high and high school-even college. Regards, Len

PS-growing up in our tenement in Brooklyn my father played an LP he had of Rossini overtures over and over again. Regards, Len :lol:

maestrob
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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by maestrob » Wed Sep 26, 2018 10:53 am

Since you asked, JohnF.....

I remember that when I was 2 or 3 years old, I was fascinated by the classical music my parents played on our 78RPM console, and have been fascinated by music ever since. As a teenager, I discovered Mahler and Bruckner and opera, and it was off to the races. My high school French teacher organized a class trip to the MET (I grew up in the Philadelphia Main Line area) to see Faust in 1966 when I was 16, and thus I fell in love with grand opera. So, it was a combination of home environment (my mother was an amateur pianist who could play Chopin very well, and also taught me music theory as soon as I could learn it), and school involvements (I was one of two class soloists).

Society has changed drastically since then. Our culture has fragmented, and the central part that European classical music played in our lives has gone with the wind. I predict, though, that with all great art, classical music is fated to stay with us as a permanent fixture in world culture. Whether it will endure in America is for me an open question.

maestrob
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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by maestrob » Wed Sep 26, 2018 10:55 am

lennygoran wrote:
Tue Sep 25, 2018 7:31 pm
maestrob wrote:
Tue Sep 25, 2018 10:44 am
As with sports, there should be a blackout of the MET broadcasts within at least a 200 mile radius.
Brian that lets me out. Regards, Len
Yep. Sorry Len, but Tri-State area audiences have simply too many choices right now. Gelb is simply being too generous, IMHO.

John F
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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by John F » Wed Sep 26, 2018 11:14 am

Well, there you are, maestrob - no music education classes, the schoolteacher was on his own time outside of school hours. Similarly in my year at Leeds Grammar School (in England), there was no music education, but one of the teachers organized a club for the students to listen to records. I remember one of these was "Zeffiro torna" in the Nadia Boulanger album of Monteverdi madrigals.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyigIcK8bwk

Otherwise, the only music I heard was on the radio, usually the BBC Third Programme, and in concerts and operas my parents took me with them to see.

Classical music will never be silenced in America, but the future of high-level big-budget performing organizations is far from assured.
John Francis

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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by Lance » Thu Sep 27, 2018 12:41 pm

It wasn't because of any education I had early on in schools, all the way through high school, that prompted my interest even though I participated in band, orchestra, chorus, etc., but instead, growing up in a musical family where we were exposed to opera, NYP concerts on the radio, going to local concerts from the earliest ages, my siblings and me. We belonged to local music clubs and performed or sang on occasion. I, like my siblings, took piano, voice and trumpet lessons. I firmly believe that what you are exposed to in the arts as children makes a huge difference in the trajectory of one's life. Now, all these decadeslater, I am still involved in music to the greatest degree. I would be lost without it. With parents who promoted my interest in record collecting from an early age (they had a huge collection), and a mother who sang opera around the world and a father who performed and taught trumpet, taking his learning from the famous Ernest S. Williams College in Brooklyn, NY. All of that played a part in my own musical development. If anything, I should have worked harder but was on the lazy side! :(
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Re: Grand opera in America - no future?

Post by maestrob » Fri Sep 28, 2018 11:23 am

Good grief, Lance! With your Lifetime Achievement Award, radio program and piano tuning business still going strong, I would hardly call you a "lazy" man!

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