Monday, April 30, 2007

He left no survivors.

It has been a very busy month of planning the coming seasons, finalizing contracts, playing in several recitals, and serving as repetiteur for the Bloomington Early Music Festival's production of the Monteverdi "L'Orfeo". This was all put into perspective today as I learned for the first time that Colin Graham passed away on the 6th of this month. I'm not sure how I missed this and I'm sad and embarrassed that I did. The man was a giant, and all we who aspire to produce opera in the new millennium owe his brilliance a great debt.

I was introduced to his work while an adolescent composer. I was visiting the home of John Corgliano and Mark Adamo, and John was still in the afterglow of the premier of "The Ghosts of Versailles" at the Met. I memorized this production, every aspect of it. It wasn't until years later, as I turned from creating music to creating productions, that I flipped the video cassette (remember those?) over and saw the name Colin Graham. This is sort of a back-door way to learn about the man who is responsible to the creation and proliferation of many of the 20th century's great operas.

I never met him personally and I will spare you the gush. His bio, more insightful than anything I could say, can be found here. One thing that struck me however was how this description ended with the words "He left no survivors". How could this be true when myself, and so many others, who never had the opportunity to meet or work with him, let alone those that did, are so touched by his work and moved by his passing? Regardless of how ephemeral, Mr. Graham left us, and by "us" I mean the largest sense of the word, something very great indeed. Artists around the world are his heirs.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Is he for real?

Just a short Wagner quote from the Times article on producing Tristan (despite the cynicism of this blog's title I actually think it is a rather beautiful sentiment).

“I am afraid the opera will be banned,” he continued, “unless a poor performance turns it all into a joke. Only mediocre performances can save me! Really good ones would drive people mad.”

Arrogance, honesty...both?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

No dessert until you eat your veggies

The Soap Box

One of the blogs that I read on a regular basis (and to which there is a link below) talked today about the meeting of opera production and current "hype" technologies (youtube, blogs, podcasts). This struck a certain ressonance with me during these recent days of creating a blog and trying to post video clips of some AOT shows.

Opera has increasingly realized the need to reach out to younger audiences both for expansion and sustainability. Besides "sexed" up marketing that reflects the visual language of the multi-pleX generation, this has recently included the use of online journals with fancy features like online polls, interactive performance information, and online video of performances (LA Opera for instance has truly wonderful clips on their website).

Too often opera underestimates their audience. It is not enough for the marketing tools to be relevant for a wider (I'm uncomfortable with the term "younger" which marginalizes a huge set of potential audience members) audience. The product itself must also be meaningful. What I mean is that sexed-up glossy ads only make the sexed up glossy ads more relevant. The product itself, the opera production, is too often its same obtuse self. This approach may trick some to attend the opera once, but certainly doesn't create a sustained relationship with these newcomers, and potentially alienates them further from the genre.

This leads to the question all creators of art face now more than ever: what is relevance? Two points come to mind here. The first is what I see as a common approach among directors and producers of opera to reach new audiences. It is almost clichĂ© now to update productions - to set Figaro in 1920s, to set Cesare in Victoria's empire, to set La Boheme in 1940's Paris. I would wager that the percentage of these productions which are meaningful is about the same as with traditional productions. This is because updating alone doesn't lead to relevance (works like the Sellar's Da Ponte triology are few and far between). It isn't where and when we set the work, but how we set it that leads to its meaning. Clever marketing doesn't fix the problem that too many houses have of thinking completely in-the-box with the actual art. This isn't true across the board, and one can see some truly terrific productions (many from ChatalĂȘt or Paris National) that really rethink the nature of production, making performance pieces which are deeply meaningful.

Secondly, THE ART IS RELEVANT. Great art is intrinsically meaningful across the eternal timescape, just as Shakespeare's verse loses nothing of its power today, just as Cervantes continues to break the heart. Opera does not need to be made relevant, rather its relevance needs to be revealed to contemporary audiences. This is a question of the means of communication and has absolutely nothing to do with the work itself. Our challenge in producing theater (and I insist on thinking of opera as theater) is to continually re-examine how we use the power of great art made kinetic to initiate catharsis.

Ultimately the bottomline is this (and it is this that we try to keep in our fore-thought at AOT):

~Create art which is meaningful for the Living
~Discern the essence of the work and be true to that spirit
~Represent the art honestly and unapologetically

And for your sweet-tooth...

You can find in a post from earlier today the trailer of AOT's DVD of "Acis + Galatea". Maybe a little too excited by the possibilities of posting clips here, I now post these clips from our 2006 performance piece "Ground". Unfortunately the video quality isn't terrific, but the music is. This production will open our 2007-2008 season and we plan to make a real DVD of it then. Stay tuned!

A + G Trailer

It is going to be a busy day of numerous recitals to attend and even some to play in. I will write a little later on the fusion of opera production and technology, but for now I have succeeded in posting the new trailer for AOT's production of Handel's "Acis + Galatea". This isn't the final version, but I'm happy with how it turned out.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Goodnight Sweet Slava

Later today perhaps I will write more about what the work of the company has been these past few days. For now I just want to share the emotion I felt upon waking up to learn the cellist and conductor Mistislav Rostropovich has died. It isn't sadness for this man that ultimately led a very full life, but rather for what we have lost in his passing. It might surprise some to known I so admired this man, but my love of Bach - and by extension "early" music (a term which I hate, and which seems so innapropriate at times like these) - was through his recording of the cello suites made when he was 70. These are profoundly personal and deeply affecting performances. As he decribes his first feeling upon beginning to study the cello, it was his voice. My deep respect for Rostropovich, and the humility I feel when talking about him, comes more from who he was as a man. He was music as it should be, personified - strong, corageous, filled with humor and depth, good, and always aspiring towards right.

No image depicts this possibility in music more than this photo of Rostropovich playing Bach as the Berlin wall crumbles behind him.

We as a community have lost, in the presence of inevitability, something great and should take a moment to remember.

Here is a link to the Times article. And here is a clip of the prelude from the first Bach cello suite in C. (it auto plays only for today)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Do I dare to eat a peach?

Well, as predicted the ideality of a first blog was soon to pass. Yesterday and today, and the days of the foreseeable for the matter, have been full of practicalities (balanced by a bit of creativity).

I have been hard at work searching out and preparing several grant applications for the coming season. Even though private donations make up the largest part of our budget (and we are always in need of support), grants are an important avenue for support to explore. Though we haven't sent out an official press release yet, many of you know the 2007 -2008 will mark AOT's first season as the company in residence at Georgetown University. While there we will perform a three show season in the brand new Gonda Theater of the Davis Center for the Performing Arts. This is extremely exciting for the company and allows us for the first time to have a home season in addition to our touring productions. The possibilities surrounding this new relationship with Georgetown are myriad, and to mark the significance we have created a season of diverse works - old, new, and in-between. We will open in September with our multimedia production "Ground" (originally created in 2006). In December we will present a staged Messiah (more on that later). The season will close with a full production of Charpentier's "David et Jonathas". We workshopped this remarkable opera in 2005 with our young artist program. The reception was so powerful that we knew it was an important piece that needed to be brought back. This is the first professional staging in the United States.

Gonda Theater at Georgetown University

Each of these successive productions is larger than the last, and more involved. The reverse side of this exciting new home and full season, is that we have a lot of money to raise and resources to uncover. From the title Artistic Director, the former word comes more naturally to me. The latter is something I am growing into and learning about along the way. I must admit I do find it fascinating. It is difficult, but in some way inspiring as well. What keeps it from being a drudgery is no doubt how much I believe in the work of AOT. We are creating something quite new and quite special. With each step the company takes we are sculpting a new way of thinking about and presenting opera - AOT is creating a future for opera. That is important, so important that it emboldens. A passion for the art and for witnessing the affect the art can have on a diverse audience is an extremely energizing force.

Still, it is important to balance strategizing fundraising and company growth with the artistic side of the equation. I have taken time out these last couple days to start work on Messiah. I don't want to give too much away, and I'm sure I will risk doing just that in later posts as the production gets closer and the "work" gets into full swing. For now I will say that Handel's absolutely BRILLIANT score, to gush a bit, drives this production and the creative process. Constantly being true to the implied rhetoric of the music is going to be very important, and it is treacherous ground to stage a piece beloved by so many people. Still, there is such power for healing in the words and music, power outside of narrative or specifics or religious barriers, that the potential exists for a very moving piece. Okay...thats all for now.

I have also been finishing contracts for the artists of this season and even planning out the 2008 - 2009 season. I won't give that away for a some time yet, but the next two years are going to see some truly inspired art making from AOT as we introduce new works and new artists, and bring back favorites from the last several years. As our touring season continues to grow I also look forward to widening our audience around the country and around the world.

On top of that, we are enjoying a visit from counter-tenor Peter Thoresen, who played a raucous Satarino in our 2004 "La Calisto".

Sunday, April 22, 2007


An Auspicious Beginning

Here is the first entry into my blog as Artistic Director of the American Opera Theater (fondly known as AOT). I can just see the facial reactions to the title of this blog. (squints and eye-rolls expressing confusion to laughter to disgust and everything in-between). I thought a good place to start this blog - intended to be a notebook of the happenings at AOT as well as a diary of personal musings on music, theater, and opera from the perspective of AOT's artistic leadership - would be an explanation of its title: YUGEN. Besides its rather slavic-gastrological or southern-slang sound, the word "yugen" is a Japanese word used by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1364) to judge aesthetic value in the Noh theater tradition. It is described in the book "THE NOH DRAMA - Ten Plays from the Japanese":

"The significance of the action, the beauty of the verse, the excellence of the music, are purposely designed to 'open the ear' of the mind...awaken the emotions of the spectator and 'open his eyes' to that supreme form of beauty denoted by the word 'yugen', which is the ultimate goal and the essential element of all aesthetic expression, be it dramatic or lyrical. The term 'yugen' has no exact equivilant in English; literally it means 'obscure and dark,' but, as used by Zeami, it carries the connotation of half-revealed or suggested beauty, at once elusive and meaningful, tinged with wistful sadness".

Though the whole idea, and the language that articulates it, is striking and beautiful, it was the last part that caught my attention. 700 years after its adaptation for this purpose, the word "yugen" describes precisely and succinctly both what the fundamental element lying behind the work of AOT, and what I aspire towards personally in music, theater, and where the two meet. "Half-revealed...suggested beauty, at once elusive and meaningful" is an ultimate description of the nature of great art, and the irony of discussing it here will soon be painfully clear, if it isn't already.

This is that art, or at least what is essential in art, is beyond the scope of not only language, but also logic. This is true of the music of Bach, the frescos of Giotto, the verse of Cummings, the buildings of Gaudi, the movement of Graham. Analysis, thought, disection, ultimately fall short of description and understanding. Finally the encounter between art and environment is purely sensory and can only be felt (enter the irony of writing about it here).

AOT works with magnification and exploration of this aspect of art - the liberating concept that what is often intrinsically true in music and dance can also be true in theater (or, for those out there that draw a distinction, "opera"). In other words, that something can be created only because it is beautiful, and deny both narrative and linear construct; that it can, beyond not requiring explanation, exist completely beyond the powers of explanation, even and especially for the creator.

And this is frightening. It is frightening for the critic, scholar, and analyst because it at-the-very-least questions the merits and power of their work. It is frightening for the audience-member because it requires such absolute trust in the artist. And for that artist, it is frightening because of the immensity it implies. Speaking for all three perhaps Blaise Pascal put it best: "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me".

The fact is, freedom is quite literally awesome (meaning inspiring awe...meaning an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.)

This is the janus-face of being human, the greater the sacrifice the greater the reward. This is true of of art just as it is of liberty, just as it is of freewill (and I'll avoid the obvious political or theological discussion that could here insue). Or, at the risk of seeming trivial, I'll quote the title of too many a post-modern self-help book: "letting go is hard to do".

With each new work or revisitation of an old work AOT explores the value of letting go of narrative and lineality in exchange for wonder and possibility. This is a process, a question of degrees, and varies from work to work. Still, it is at the core of what we do.

Of course, most entries will likely be more practical in nature than this one. They will no doubt describe what we are working on and how we are working on it. At times they will be updates and at times they may even be requests. They will also sometimes be commentary. Hopefully, like our performances, they will be a whole, entertaining and inspiring. I feel this is a place to begin.