2 Opera Books With Mad in the Title

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lennygoran
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2 Opera Books With Mad in the Title

Post by lennygoran » Wed Nov 28, 2018 6:06 am

Book Review|How ‘A Mad Love’ of Opera Has Played Out From 17th-Century Mantua to 21st-Century New York

Nonfiction
How ‘A Mad Love’ of Opera Has Played Out From 17th-Century Mantua to 21st-Century New York


By Edward Sorel

Nov. 28, 2018

A MAD LOVE
An Introduction to Opera
By Vivien Schweitzer
271 pp. Basic Books. $27.

MAD SCENES AND EXIT ARIAS
The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America
By Heidi Waleson
288 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $30.

How not surprising to find two new books on opera using the word “mad” in their titles. The passion that some have for opera does seem like madness. Here’s Lord Chesterfield in a letter to his son in 1752: “Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half-guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and my ears.” Vivien Schweitzer is also under opera’s spell, and in her delicious history, “Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera,” she regales us with all you need to know about “musical tragedy,” which is what opera was called before the word was coined.

Schweitzer, a pianist and former music critic for The New York Times, begins in 1607 in the Ducal Palace of Mantua, where aristocrats assemble to hear the premiere of “Orpheus,” by Claudio Monteverdi. He was not the first to join music, poetry and song to tell a story, but he did create the aria — a song solo in which a character tells us of his or her innermost feelings. Since women were prohibited from appearing onstage with men in the Papal States (probably owing to St. Paul’s edict that women remain silent in church), castrati found in opera a role for themselves outside church choirs. Acting women’s roles, they could sing women’s arias.

As opera spread across Europe it remained an exclusive entertainment, performed in palaces and private salons, where the rich flaunted their wealth and artistic sensibilities. (In the United States, where there is little public money for the arts, high society still subsidizes it.) Venice was one of the first cities to turn this elite art form into a popular one. It became home to dozens of theaters, and the first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano. When opera reached France, dance was added, and Louis XIV often took part in the extravagant ballets. About this time, baroque instruments — the harpsichord and the viola da gamba among them — evolved into instruments that had more oomph, and more expressive possibilities.

Operatic traditions also changed. Schweitzer points out that in the 18th century Mozart gave the boring nice-guy roles to the tenor and the macho arias to the baritone, but in the next century Rossini, Donizetti and others always gave the dashing romantic lead to the tenor and the role of villain to the baritone. (This caused George Bernard Shaw to define opera as “when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.”)

Opera audiences also changed. No longer guests in palaces, opera fans became as raucous as baseball fans, fiercely loyal to the local talent. Many operas that have become favorites had disastrous premieres owing to local prejudices. Bellini’s “Norma” opened to boos, some probably from a claque that supported a rival composer. So did Rossini’s “The Barber of Saville.” The worst rowdies nowadays (called loggionisti) can be found in the cheap seats at La Scala in Milan. Many singers apparently refuse to perform there for that reason. When Daniel Barenboim opened La Scala’s 2013 season with Wagner’s “Lohengrin” instead of with a Verdi opera, the press howled that it was an insult to Italy.


Verdi and Wagner, Schweitzer reminds us, “both born in 1813, have been pitted against each other in posterity like boxers vying for a trophy of aesthetic dominance.” On the bicentennial of their birth, the Royal Opera sponsored a debate in London on the relative merits of each composer. While there are persuasive arguments to be made for each, Verdi is clearly more favored today; “La Traviata” was the most performed opera worldwide in the past five years. Wagner‘s “The Flying Dutchman” came in 24th in a list of the 25 most popular operas. Schweitzer has a perfectly sensible explanation for this: Wagner’s operas are about gods, myths and fantastical creatures, while the stories that Verdi tells are about human relationships.

When Schweitzer turns to contemporary opera, she welcomes not only what one critic called the “needle-stuck-in-the-groove quality” of Philip Glass’s minimalist music but also the bizarre productions of well-loved operas from the past. Two that she admires are Francesca Zambello’s version of “Das Rheingold,” set in California during the Gold Rush, and a French production of “La Bohème” staged in a spaceship and featuring the lovers in spacesuits. And Schweitzer has little sympathy for those who can’t suspend disbelief long enough to accept a stout soprano for the teenager Salome, or a middle-aged man for an ardent young lover. She reminds us of a passage in Tchaikovsky’s diary in which he wrote that he had “never encountered anything more false and foolish than the effort to get truth into opera. In opera everything is based upon the not-true.”



“Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America,” by Heidi Waleson, is an intricate whodunit that seeks to find out who murdered the New York City Opera. The company was born in the middle of World War II, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Newbold Morris, the president of the City Council, realized that the Mecca Temple, a bizarre Moorish structure in Midtown Manhattan, now belonged to the city because its owner, the Shriners, couldn’t pay its taxes. Here was a chance to turn the dilapidated temple into a home for music, dance and theater. With pledges from philanthropists, theater producers, union leaders and artists, a private, nonprofit corporation was formed, the City Center of Music and Drama. As long as the group charged low prices the general public could afford, the Mecca Temple was theirs for $1 per year in rent.

But low ticket prices for opera, that astonishingly expensive art form, guaranteed that each production would operate at a loss. These, the board of directors believed, would be offset by revenue from plays and other less expensive attractions. In its first season, thanks to a profitable visit from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and Leopold Stokowski offering his services gratis to conduct the New York City Symphony (yes, there briefly was such a thing), the City Center actually turned a small profit.

It hung on for the next 20 years, counting each penny, overcoming crisis after crisis, yet still producing operas of great vitality, with superb young singers like Frances Bible, Beverly Sills and Brenda Lewis, who sang leading roles for as little as $75 a performance. Sills, who made her debut in 1955 as Rosalinda in “Die Fledermaus,” wore dresses at that performance made by her mother. Performers often had to supply their own costumes.

Things changed once Lincoln Center was constructed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It would contain a building for the New York Philharmonic, another for the Metropolitan Opera and a third, paid for by the State of New York, to be reserved for the ballet and opera companies of the City Center. Rudolf Bing, head of the Met Opera, was not eager to have a cheap-ticket City Opera next door, and wanted to dictate the company’s repertoire. He wasn’t the only one angling for power. Both William Schuman, president of Lincoln Center, and Morton Baum, who represented City Center, wanted control over the New York State Theater. Baum won, but Julius Rudel, who ran the City Opera, was far from happy. He didn’t like being so close to the Met, where his shoestring productions would be compared with the opulent ones next door.

Rudel also worried that being at Lincoln Center would bankrupt City Opera. At Lincoln Center it would have to pay for a share of both the theater and the entire complex. Add to that the cost of a bigger orchestra and chorus and more stagehands. Worse yet, the New York State Theater had been built for the New York City Ballet, and its architect, Philip Johnson, had been instructed to somehow muffle the noise of the dancers’ feet. He designed walls that threw sound back to the stage, rather than out to the audience. The sound at the State Theater would never be quite right, yet Rudel had no choice but to move. If he didn’t, Waleson writes, the National Company of Met Opera, which toured with young, untried singers, would move into the elegant new State Theater, and then who would travel down to the old Mecca Temple to see the City Opera?

The move was made in 1966. In spite of a brilliant opening presentation of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” starring the bass baritone Norman Treigle and the coloratura soprano Beverly Sills — “one of those legendary events of opera history,” Waleson says — it wasn’t long before operating an opera company for the nonrich, right next door to the opera house of the superrich, became a mission impossible.

In describing the unraveling of this noble civic enterprise, Waleson, the opera critic of The Wall Street Journal for 25 years, gives us a vivid description of each death-defying crisis and a sharp portrait of the ever-changing cast of would-be saviors who somehow always failed in their mission. One board chairwoman came from Goldman Sachs, where she had specialized in collateralized debt obligations. She used a similar high-risk strategy at City Opera. That ploy finally killed “the people’s opera.” It went bankrupt in 2013.

In her closing eulogy for City Opera, Waleson salutes those who are “tweaking the 400-year-old art form so that it can survive and thrive for another century. It will be up to them to capture the imagination of the next generation of opera lovers with the artistic verve and adventurous spirit that exemplified the old City Opera at its finest.”


https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/book ... ic-reviews

John F
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Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Re: 2 Opera Books With Mad in the Title

Post by John F » Wed Nov 28, 2018 8:19 am

Edward Sorel wrote:“La Traviata” was the most performed opera worldwide in the past five years. Wagner‘s “The Flying Dutchman” came in 24th in a list of the 25 most popular operas. Schweitzer has a perfectly sensible explanation for this: Wagner’s operas are about gods, myths and fantastical creatures, while the stories that Verdi tells are about human relationships.
If that were the reason, then "Die Meistersinger" would be Wagner's most popular opera. No, the real reason is that Wagner's operas are far more difficult for the performers and audiences. They're longer, more demanding on the singers especially the lead soprano and tenor, and require a first-class orchestra; none of these are the case with most Verdi operas. Therefore they are more expensive to cast and produce. A company like Kentucky Opera can do "La Traviata" or "Rigoletto" with no extra effort - in fact they're doing "Rigoletto" this season - but they haven't done any Wagner in years, if ever.
Edward Sorel wrote:One board chairwoman came from Goldman Sachs, where she had specialized in collateralized debt obligations. She used a similar high-risk strategy at City Opera. That ploy finally killed “the people’s opera.” It went bankrupt in 2013.
This is a new one on me. Chairperson Susan L. Baker and the City Opera board have a lot to answer for, hiring a completely unsuitable artistic director who never directed a season and shutting down for a year would do in a stronger company than they were, but if Baker was also undermining City Opera's finances as it says, the company never stood a chance.
John Francis

lennygoran
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Joined: Tue Mar 27, 2007 9:28 pm
Location: new york city

Re: 2 Opera Books With Mad in the Title

Post by lennygoran » Wed Nov 28, 2018 9:47 am

John F wrote:
Wed Nov 28, 2018 8:19 am
the company never stood a chance.
John thanks for your thoughts on this-also the current NYCO and it's awful schedule for this season have me plenty depressed as well. Regards, Len :(

maestrob
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Re: 2 Opera Books With Mad in the Title

Post by maestrob » Wed Nov 28, 2018 10:40 am

The review mentions Beverly Sills, but doesn't say a word about Placido Domingo, who got his start at NYCO. NYCO was a great training ground for young singers: I placed more than 10 singers there from my competition. The MET may survive due to contributions, but they've lost a great training ground for young singers throughout the city. During the past 10 years, we've lost Amato Opera, the New York Grand Opera, Brooklyn Opera, DiCapo Opera, and Eve Queler and, of course, NYCO in Lincoln Center. Nobody's replaced them.

It used to be that young classical singers would migrate to NYC and find work in churches and synagogues where they could earn a living and pay for lessons while auditioning for work and competitions. Now that whole structure has collapsed because NY is just hideously expensive to live in and opera companies can no longer afford the theatre rents (Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall costs north of $50,000 a night to rent the last I heard!). When I began my competition, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall cost me $1500 to rent: now it's $6,000 or more!

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