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How an Underground Queer Zine Became the Best Blog in Opera
Parterre Box started 25 years ago, smuggled into bathrooms at Lincoln Center. Now it is an essential, respected voice in the opera world.
By Joshua Barone
Dec. 13, 2018
James Jorden was a frustrated, often out-of-work stage director in New York in the early 1990s when a casual hookup gave him the idea for Parterre Box, now the most essential blog in opera.
“I went to his place and we got high,” Mr. Jorden recalled recently. “And when we took a break, we were talking about what we did with our lives.” The guy told Mr. Jorden about a friend of his, an architect who began writing about architecture because he wasn’t getting any commissions. Perhaps, he suggested, Mr. Jorden could do the same with opera.
Thus was born the irreverent, passionate Parterre Box, which began as that most unlikely of media properties: a queer opera zine. The first issue was published 25 years ago this month and distributed in bathroom stalls at the Metropolitan Opera. Now its writers are credentialed press at the Met.
Mr. Jorden couldn’t have predicted that on the night of that hookup, or soon after, when he merely thought of the punk zines he had seen around the East Village. There was, it goes without saying, never one for opera fans.
Not long after, he said, he found himself “goofing around” at home with a short story, some photographs cut from magazines, and a glue stick. He put together a four-page zine and printed it at a copy shop. Maria Callas was on the cover — she’s also tattooed on Mr. Jorden’s back, as Medea — and inside were snippets of parody news about divas like Renata Scotto. Other bits imagined an opera about the Long Island teenage temptress Amy Fisher called “Cavalleria Suburbiana” (this was the ’90s, after all) and made catty comments about “overstudied” singing that bored Mr. Jorden.
Scott Levine, an artist manager and the first person to write a fan letter to Parterre Box, recalled that it “was able to enjoy the more ridiculous aspects of the art form and not let that get in the way of the more sublime.” And it was, he added, “a really nice alternative to the strait-laced Opera News and the very sort of academic opera and music magazines that were available.”
Parterre Box found its readership haphazardly. Mr. Jorden would leave copies at the now-closed Tower Records near Lincoln Center, and scatter them in the stalls of the men’s rooms at the Met. He started stuffing them into the schedules and brochures stocked in the Met’s lobby, which aroused the company’s ire.
One night, placing copies just before a performance of “Salome,” Mr. Jorden was caught, security guards took his ticket, and he was told to leave. Apparently there had been a de facto warrant out for him at the Met, and in those days he wasn’t hard to find. All the guards had to do was look for the 40-year-old in cutoff jeans, army boots and a leather jacket with no shirt.
His ejection was a succès de scandale that added to Parterre Box’s growing presence in New York. The zine was, said Richard Lynn, a longtime contributor, very much in tune with the city and the moment.
“It was a very activist time in the gay community, in terms of fighting back against AIDS,” he said. “And I view Parterre Box as part of that bigger cultural trend. It wasn’t afraid to be in your face or confrontational or angry. I felt it was therapeutic.”
That gay men have historically been attracted to an art form as over-the-top and fervent as opera, Mr. Jorden said, is a function of the closet — of having needed to hold back their feelings. But there was nothing restrained about Parterre Box. It had the quippy, sometimes savage humor of gays gossiping during intermissions. Yet it was also authoritative, with a voice that could come only from profound knowledge, and love.
With the online version of Parterre Box, which began in 1996, came the golden age of La Cieca, Mr. Jorden’s draggy gossip persona, named for a character in “La Gioconda.” While ostensibly on the clock at office temp jobs, Mr. Jorden would often be updating the website with scoops. The site’s rabid commenters — sometimes hilarious, sometimes vicious — became the bane of many a diva and impresario. (Renée Fleming was a frequent target.)
This eventually meant the demise of Parterre Box in print. But the website flourished, as did a podcast. A coup came in 2009, when the soprano Hildegard Behrens died unexpectedly in Tokyo. A member of the Parterre Box community was there and able to help break the news seven hours before The Associated Press, and a full day before The New York Times.
This was the period when Parterre Box began to settle in as a widely read and respected member of the opera media ecosystem. (Mr. Jorden has become more widely read and respected in his own right as the critic of The New York Post, then The New York Observer.) The blog is still pungent, but less bitchy. It has six regular critics in New York, and many more sending dispatches from around the world. At the Met, which long shunned Parterre Box, it now has press seats, just like any other major news outlet.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, wrote in an email that his house and the zine have “a symbiotic relationship.”
“If not for the Met, Parterre would have an existential problem,” he added. “There would be nothing to complain about. And if not for Parterre, some of our most outspoken fans would be without an outlet to vent.”
These days, Mr. Jorden is looking for younger writers, and perhaps even a younger editor who could eventually take over. Not quite yet, though.
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“When I start thinking about this stuff, I’m really invigorated,” Mr. Jorden said. “A lot of 64-year-old guys don’t have something to be passionate about, but I have something to be in love with. I have something to fill my days.”
Here are five milestones in Parterre Box’s 25-year history.
“I put it out on Dec. 3, 1993, saying this was Maria Callas’s 70th birthday,” Mr. Jorden recalled. “And it wasn’t.” Callas was actually born on Dec. 2, though she preferred to celebrate on Dec. 4. “So now I’m stuck with the anniversary of Parterre on Dec. 3, which is nothing.”
Once he printed the debut issue, Mr. Jorden took copies to the Met, where he tried handing it out. That, he said, was a “horrible failure.” Then he thought about the bathroom.
“Obviously, the men’s room at the Met is going to have a really high concentration of gay men who are interested in opera,” he said. So at a performance he left some during the first intermission; by the second, they were gone.
An interview with Deborah Voigt
In the mid-90s, Mr. Jorden was going to a gym near the Met. One day, a man in the locker room introduced himself as part of the soprano Deborah Voigt’s publicity team. He offered an interview with her to Parterre Box.
“He said,” Mr. Jorden remembered, “‘You’d be surprised the things Debbie is willing to do. She’s fearless.’”
So Mr. Jorden, then a fringe member of the opera world, found himself at Ms. Voigt’s apartment. “She was wearing a silk blouse and jeans, very ‘diva at home,’” he said. “She gave me coffee, and we talked and talked and talked.”
This, he said, was a major breakthrough. Only a year earlier, Mr. Jorden had been kicked out of the Met; now he was publishing a long interview with one of its leading sopranos.
Renée Fleming is booed at La Scala
When the superstar soprano Renée Fleming sang Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, she was booed in the middle of her final aria. The performance aired on Italian radio, but wasn’t heard anywhere else.
Ms. Fleming’s performance, which was shared on Parterre Box’s website.
A Parterre Box reader, however, recorded the broadcast on cassette tape and mailed it to Mr. Jorden, who then ripped it as a digital file and put it on his website to accompany what became Parterre Box’s first major online news story.
‘Unnatural Acts of Opera’
Mr. Jorden was a podcast pioneer, putting out “Unnatural Acts of Opera” long before the medium took off. He made about 200 episodes over four years. It was the first time the world heard the voice of La Cieca, which Mr. Jorden described as “part Mary Boland from ‘The Women’ and part Regina Resnik.”
Eventually he came up with the idea of airing “Mercury Theater”-like radio plays called “Apocryphal Opera Anecdote Theater of the Air,” in which he would act out famous stories from opera history. But running a podcast takes a lot of time, especially with a day job and website to run. Mr. Jorden wound down production after a boyfriend complained, “Can’t we just go to a movie tonight?”
On opening night of the Met’s 2015-16 season, Parterre Box was a credentialed member of the media, with press tickets for the critic Christopher Corwin to review the new production of Verdi’s “Otello.”
This step, the apotheosis of Parterre Box’s road to legitimacy, was about a year in the making, Mr. Jorden said. The blog had been recognized elsewhere, but the Met remained a white whale. Sam Neuman, the company’s press director at the time, took the steps that eventually led to what Mr. Jorden called “a total game changer. It felt like being an adult.”
Mr. Gelb was less sentimental: “Parterre’s readership is sufficient to warrant press tickets.”
Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. @joshbarone • Facebook
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts ... rsary.html
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