Friday, October 31, 2014

LOC Don Giovanni - or "Robert Falls Does it Again"

Let's talk about Don Giovanni - specifically the recently closed Robert Falls production of the opera that played at Lyric in Chicago. The media and their advertising hyped a cutting edge production with an amazing ending. Really? We can talk about the ending now without ruining it for others. Robert Falls seems to like to do something off the wall at the end of his productions - I saw his "Measure for Measure" a couple years ago and the ending was absurd and kind of ruined an otherwise terrific production (see below for a review). In DG I thought he seemed out of his element. The production was ok - but not terrific and not cutting-edge and not revelatory. Yet another DG set in quasi-modern times. But the ending - here is a list of the cutting edge innovations he introduced to the finale (at least the ones I remember):
1. a female super was tied up in the corner - huh?
2. The off stage band was played through a radio - not all that unique except they actually ran the sound through some kind of PA and distorted the sound - which I absolutely hated!
3. Donna Elvira doesn't knock
4. Donna Elvira takes out a revolver and shoots DG in the arm - huh?
5. The gun shot produces fake blood on his white shirt but otherwise has no effect - he does not even favor the arm as if it is hurt for the rest of the scene.
6. The Stone Guest does not knock
7. DG is on a long table of which one end rises in the air and then the whole thing sinks into the stage - kind of like the Titanic sinking the the Atlantic - this was pretty cool actually - could have used more smoke and red lights.
Then of course most of the audience thought it was over and there was so much hubbub in the audience one could not see or hear the finale with the other principals.
In short - Just like "Measure for Measure" I found Robert Falls finale of DG terribly defective and definitely wanting. Had he simply followed the staging instructions provided by Lorenzo Da Ponte it would have been more effective. Those of you who saw this production - care to weigh in?

I have to say - the Lyric Opera of Chicago patrons who sit on the main floor orchestra level are about THE rudest theater goers I have ever experienced in my 60 years of attending opera and theater.  I simply could not believe the low level of rudeness and disrespect shown - not only the other audience members like me, but to the cast.  I thought the production was - ok adequate (until the end) but the singing was consistently glorious and the orchestra was terrific.  There is no excuse for the wandering around, the talking, unwrapping papers, rustling belongings, texting, email, cell phone use - you name it.  And then to get up to leave en masse - it was like they all thought the opera was over - really?  Are you all that ignorant? Why not wait and see if the conductor stops conducting? I have changed my seats for Tannhauser - I will never sit on the main floor again.  And I should add the rudeness was not limited to inside the theater during the opera.  The incredible rudeness continued during the intermission.  Amazing!  LOC management - you have a problem on your hands - all of these wealthy patrons you have been nurturing do not know how to act like adults when the come to the opera.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

“A Requiem for Mike Brown”

Last Saturday evening, October 4, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and chorus had taken the stage for the 2nd half of the concert, tuned and Markus Stenz, the guest conductor for the concert and soloists had entered, ready to perform the incredible “Requiem” by Johannes Brahms.  Just as the conductor began to step onto the podium, chanting broke out in the form of singing, and banners calling for justice for Mike Brown and the recognition of issues of systematic racism were unfurled.  Leaflets were dropped – “A Requiem for Mike Brown.”  This continued for a little while.  Eventually the protestors left the hall and the concert continued and the Brahms was performed.
It has been interesting, and also discouraging, to read the various accounts of this event – from both sides.  First though, let me say that I am supportive of the protestors.  I support their call for justice, and their passion for calling attention to institutionalized racism that is so incredibly pervasive that it sometimes boggles the mind.  The militarization of the police is also very troubling.  And when you add those two things together you have a lethal mix.  Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and so many others are victims of this mix of racism and resorting to violence as an initial response.  How many children need to be killed before we take a serious look at the issues of racism and pervasive violence in our society? Violence begets violence – and violence solves nothing it just makes everything worse. This protest drew attention to these things in a way that was appropriate.
Even so, I have to say I think the protest ended too quickly and in the process a wonderful opportunity was missed.  It is disappointing that the protestors left the hall after the protest.  How much better it would have been if they had simply sat down and experienced the Brahms in honor and in memory of Mike Brown and all of the others who have been victims of racism.  The protest gave us faces for this requiem.  How disappointing than they didn’t see it through.  The incredible music and beautiful biblical text of this work is such a profound statement of healing and love.  What more appropriate piece is there? 
Brahms composed the work between 1865 and 1868 in response to loosing people in his life who were very dear to him.  He purposefully chose not to use the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass (set in Requiems by Mozart and Verdi).  Instead he chose a series of Scripture texts that he felt reflected his own feelings and that he found comforting and profound.  He set these texts – in German – in hopes that others would find this work both approachable and comforting.  I have always found this work to be a very powerful and moving experience. Indeed, Brahms himself is quoted as wanting to change the title from “A German Requiem” to “A Human Requiem.”
There is another reason I found their leaving before the performance a disappointment that has been reinforced by some of the published commentary on social media.  And this is that leaving before the performance further reinforces the divisions in our society.  The Us vs. Them dichotomy.  The US who believes in justice and works for these issues as opposed to THEM – those wealthy entitled rich white folks who attend the symphony; Or – the US who are civilized and like to be entertained at the symphony vs. THEM, those outsiders and troublemakers who interrupt my evening outing.  These are two sides of the same coin.  But I think both attitudes are myopic and are simply not in touch with reality.
Now, I certainly understand that there is the impression that the arts – especially the performing arts, classical music, chamber music, orchestras and operas – are for the wealthy and the entitled.  This is partly due to the fact that the performing arts require a lot of financial resources.  It is expensive to produce opera and maintain a great orchestra.  And in our day of declining government support a lot of the money comes from wealthy men and women.  This is a two-edged sword.  The capital is desperately needed and without it orchestras and opera companies could not continue.  But it does give the impression of elitism, which is not aided by the attitudes of some of these wealthy donors who seem to glory in this elitism and send their contributions with a large dose of expectation that they get to call at least some of the shots.  This attitude of entitlement is, in my view, one of the most dangerous challenges to the performing arts.  Wealthy, entitled men and women who have no qualifications other than their money dictating artistic values and issues.  We see this playing out in Atlanta right now, and I have seen it over and over again in lots of other arts organizations from Peoria to Minneapolis.
“But I come to the opera/to the symphony to be entertained!”  Then you have come to the wrong place.  Entertainment is only one dimension of great art.  It will and must also connect you to something deep inside of you – it will and must push you to recognize the deeply human dimension of your life – your emotions, your losses, your joys, you sorrows – it is all there.  And in the process it will also connect you to other human beings of all races and economic classes.  This is what art is for and this is why the wealthy and powerful down through history have tried to control and suppress great art.  It is dangerous.  It is dangerous for folks to begin to get in touch with their own humanity and begin to see themselves in community with others.  But it is also powerful and liberating.
For those with means – your support of the arts is both an obligation and an opportunity.  It is a gift to the communities in which you live.  What a great opportunity for you to be able to support this work which will touch so many people, for the performing arts belong to all the people.  The St. Louis Symphony belongs to all the people of St. Louis – not just the donors, but to all the people – including the people of Ferguson!  And this music can transform and deepen our commitment to each other and to the work of justice.  This is why I want the protestors to come back to the symphony.  It is their symphony too.  That Brahms performance is for them and for Mike Brown and for all of us.
For… “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  Isaiah 35:10 – Part II, Brahms “German Requiem.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Capriccio at LOC or "The Wonderful Soprano and the Obnoxious Audience"

   I have been looking forward to this trip for a while.  I had not been able to attend Lyric Opera of Chicago for several years and first up - "Capriccio" by Richard Strauss starring René Fleming.  And this production and performance was every bit as wonderful as I expected.  Fleming was ravishing in every way.  She inhabited the role of the Countess and sang gloriously.  But she wasn't alone, the entire cast was terrific.  What a treat to get to hear Anne Sofie von Otter, Bo Skovus, William Burden, Audun Iversen and Peter Rose.  For me one of the absolute highlights of the opera was the brief scene with the poor prompter, Monsieur Taupe - wonderful performed by Keith Jameson.  And the orchestra was wonderful as well, special mention should go to principal horn Jonathan Boen who had lots to do and who performed beautifully.  The same should be said for the principal strings who also had plenty of solos in this curious opera.
   Before the opera I arrived early and attended the lecture and I am glad I did.  The dramaturge who spoke did an excellent job discussing a variety dimensions of this work.  I found the discussion of the context of the composition to be the most interesting.  It does give one pause to consider that here in the midst of this terrible war (WW2), while thousands are being killed in battle, the Jews are being rounded up and murdered in concentration camps here is Strauss composing this curious piece which debates whether the words or music are more important in art, and the setting is terribly anachronistic.  The lecturer made the comment that in many ways this opera and his work for the Reich show how out of touch he was.  The first performance in Munich occurred in 1942 and it was performed without an intermission so that the audience could return home in the dark before a bombing raid.  And yet the performance was sold out.  People must have been so desperate for a little beauty in the midst of all of the horror that they took an incredible risk to experience this work.
    The work takes place in a country manor of a count (Skovus) and countess (Fleming) who are entertaining a group of artists - a composer, Flamand (Burden), a poet, Olivier (Iverson) and a stage director/impressario, LaRoche (Rose).  This director is planning an extravagant birthday celebration for the countess and has brought all kinds of other artists with him, including a leading actress, Clairon (Von Otter), some dancers, singers and the prompter.  The burning question is which is more important - the music or the words; which comes first - the music or the words (Prima la musica, a phrase which nods at the inspiration for the work, an opera by Salieri the title of which begins with those words).  To add to the complication the composer and the poet are in love with the countess and the countess needs to decide between them.  In between all of the discussion and conversation we have performances of a sextet, a trio sonata, a poem is read and then set to music, the dancers dance, the singers sing.  It is all good fun.  Then everyone leaves to go to Paris except the countess who remains to ponder the events of the day and how she wants it all to end - leading to her glorious final scene.  Oh, and the prompter gets left behind because he keeps falling asleep!
   The libretto was actually written by the conductor Clemens Kraus with help from Strauss.  BUt the idea came from Stefan Zweig, who as a Jew had realized that he was not safe and took refuge in London eventually emigrating to Brazil, where tormented by the reality of the 1000's of Jews  murdered in nazi death camps he took his own life.  This opera, so light and frilly and beautiful and ravishing, nevertheless has this amazing dark outline, which I think needs to be always kept in mind.
  The production was appropriately lavish - the sets, costumes.  Strauss and Clemens had set the opera in the 1770's, but this production (which I think is the same production that has been mounted at the Met) sets the action in the 1920's.  It is effective and works well, except that all of the discussion of current musical trends - Gluck, et al - is of course no longer current.  But it doesn't matter.  The plot, such as it is, seems to me to be incidental to the incredibly beautiful music and visual effect.  It seems that with this production, at least, the winner of the debate is LaRoche with the music coming in 2nd place.
   I can't end this reflection without commenting on the incredibly rude behavior of the audience.  All around me, but especially in the row in front of me (row NN to be exact - I was in OO) people spent the opera talking, rustling papers, searching through their purses and using their phones for checking their messages and texting.  In the process they would drop things and make loud noises.  It was really unbelievable.  Can't you turn that stupid thing off for a couple hours?  Can't you be respectful to those around you?  The worst and most obnoxiously rude behavior of the evening was how many people felt that that they had to leave before the end.  So during Rene's final glorious scene, he singing was incredible, the orchestra was wonderfully beautiful, but there was a steady exit of people throughout the auditorium.  And I am not talking about just a handful - I am talking about lots of people - maybe a couple hundred left.  Everyone in row NN left before the end - and they left in the most noisy and obnoxious way possible.  Then then would push through the doors which would shut with a bang.  So, they managed to ruin that last scene for everyone else - so to you jerks this is what I have to say - next time - stay home - watch the opera on Met Player or something!  If you cannot allow yourself to be transported and at least to have a modicum of respect for others around you - stay home!  Oh, and BTW - these were not young people.  Everyone in row NN was between the ages of 50 and 80.  In fact, I didn't see any young people leave at all.  All older folks who should know better. Back in the old days when I sat way up in the 3rd balcony I never experienced this - maybe it is all the wealthy, older folks who feel entitled who act like neanderthals - I don't know.  But I have never experienced anything quite like it before.
   Even so, it was a magical evening at the opera.  Hats off to the wonderful people at Lyric Opera for all of the great hard work they do.
Publicity picture from Lyric of Rene in the last scene of "Capriccio."