Friday, May 25, 2007

Old, New, Borrowed, Blue...

The world is a funny place. Out of strange coincidence I discovered recently that I am living in the same town, and have been for two years, as a pianist that I knew in gradeschool, whom I haven't seen for about ten years. We had a coffee this morning and it turns out that she might be just the right person to help AOT with one of its "secret" projects scheduled for the 2008-2009 season. Unfortunately I can't reveal it yet, but it will be something new for the company and I think new for the genre.

It also turns out that her boyfriend is a video artist whose work I am eager to see tomorrow evening and again Monday night. I struggle with my lack to adeptness at technology and have avoided using video despite my strong interest in its possibilities and implications for theater. Lately I have been especially interested in this form of expression and discovered a wonderful artist named Pipilotti Rist. I actually discovered her work while looking into Bill Viola who recently completed the "Tristan Project" with Peter Sellars and the LA Philharmonic. Though reviews have been decidely mixed, I applaud the effort and wish I could have seen it. Unlike Viola's work, of which there is lots of commentary, but not many examples online, Ms. Rist has a lot of clips available through Youtube (again the conversion of technology and art) and I am posting some here. I find them extremely joyful and beautiful.

This Monteverdi "L'Orfeo" closes this weekend, and though I hope to do it with AOT at some point I am ready for a break from it. Coaching an opera and producing it are two very different things indeed. One high point of the Bloomington Early Music Festival however was the concert of Bruce Dickey and a group called "Quarter Comma". It was a wonderfully selected program and Mr. Dickey's sensitivity for this music and sense of timing is sublime.

It seems like a slow time for AOT (nothing happening until our benefit in July), but actually the wheels are turning fast. It is frustrating that I can't share with you the details, but exciting things are coming!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Love of Three Articles

I have shamelessly been absent from the blogosphere. I must admit to drowning a bit in grant applications and the Bloomington Early Music Festival's production of Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo". This is the 400th anniversary year of its premier in Mantua. It is the earliest opera still widely performed so this is the year for numerous performances, like Glimmerglass' entire Orpheus season (and after all that Mozart some Monteverdi is nice). I'm also preparing to teach the summer opera workshop at Indiana University, so it is a busy time.

I will make amends with several links each illustrating a different facet of the ideas recently running around in my head and about which I've been too busy to write extensively. This first one has to do with the financial situation of arts organizations (in this case in San Francisco). It makes the head swirl to look at all these numbers, but it certainly is informative. I would be silly to think that we are in the clear because of this recent grant. We are still seeking lots of funding for the coming season and beyond. 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 are shaping up to be big and exciting if we can back them up financially...there's always that isn't there?

This second one is related to my recent comments on the MET simulcasts. Apparently they are doing well commercially, more than any one anticipated. The meeting of opera as a genre with creative use of new media is really exciting. I look forward to finding ways for AOT to be a part of this beyond just this blog, our Youtube videos, and hopefully upcoming Podcasts. I think this picture sums it all up!

And this third one is related to my more recent post of new or rather not so new opera. With a composition background and as an avant-guard director (whatever that means) I have to admit I have a bias for art that pushes the boundaries of exploration and isn't nailed referentially to works of the past. That said, the most interesting piece described here sounds like the Zorn, not surprisingly the piece the reviewer seems to dislike the most (citing its lack of narrative...ah yes, that old song).

I hope these links will provide interesting reading and buy me some measure of forgivness for not writing more. They are all reflections of the ideas running a muck at AOT lately - from the most practical of financial concerns to the artistic issues in creating "new" work, with the developmental collision of opera and technology snuggled nicely in the middle.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Shouldn't something be at least a little new to be considered new?

Here is a great article that explains exactly what is wrong with "new" opera, particularly in American today. It gets to the heart of what the problem is with so many of these recent large-scale productions...Sohpie's Choice...The Great Gatsby...Dead Man Walking...Street Car Named Desire...Our Town...A Wedding...Little Women...anyone see a pattern?

It has made me start brainstorming on a real coup de théâtre for the company in'll just have to stay tuned to find out more!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Here's to the MET (did I really just write that?)

Gosh its an exciting time for opera. It seems the flurry of creativity that has propelled European houses has finally struck here in the States as well. Still wheeling from our recent grant award, I have spent all day working on other grant applications...hoping for a streak of luck. Still, I took a moment out to read this review of Mark Morris' "Orfeo" at the MET from the New Yorker.

The fact that Gelb and Mortier are now going to be competing for not only Morris, but other enfants terribles of the opera and theater world is very exciting and will produce great work for both companies. We can only hope that this fever for more relevancy in opera will spread outside of New York and to houses around the country. What is even more exciting is that this review was done from inside a cineplex and not at the opera house. I make no bones about the fact that I don't tend to like MET productions, in fact they represent almost everything I don't like about opera and very little of what I do. I certainly hope that Gelb will take a cue from the Frenchman across the plaza, but I also fear he will face an uphill battle with the old-guard of the MET. That said, I'm thrilled that his idea of broadcasting the MET into movie theaters around the country is a success. Much has been written about the possibility that this will hurt local companies. This is ridiculous. What it will do is challenge those company to raise their own creative bars. It won't be enough anymore to program Boheme and know the house will fill itself. No! Companies now will have to really explore their programing and their work inorder to create unique productions that audiences can't find at the cineplex, and that is very exciting. People will never give up the thrill of live performance and we shouldn't be afraid to rethink the wheel. Something even better might just be out there, one thought away.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Good News!

Here is a special treat for those of you that read this blog. We aren't prepared to make an official announcement, but AOT has been awarded a very generous and large grant (our first!) which will ensure the production of David et Jonathas both in Washington DC and in New York, probably at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in May of 2008. This a big step for us and I couldn't be more proud of the company, its board, and its artists at this point. We still have a lot of work to do, and a lot of money to raise, but it feels very good to know we are on our way.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


A long day of continuo rehearsals for the Monterverdi "L'Orfeo" that I'm coaching for the Bloomington Early Music Festival. Today is our first rehearsals with the full continuo team and I hand control over to music director Corey Jameson. I'm still in the pit though, so I will have about twelve hours of rehearsal today...not much time for AOT or blogging unfortunately. More to come tomorrow hopefully.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Postmodern Staging

Today I am working on AOT's annual report so not a lot of opportunity to write a new blog. Instead I am posting the essay I promised on the nature of opera stage direction in the 21st century. I wrote this for inclusion in AOT's playbill for its 2005 workshop of Charpentier's "David et Jonathas". The company is revisiting this work next spring both in Washington DC and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Perhaps I should revisit this essay as well, but for now please know that I am posting it without reworking. Let me know your thoughts...(I fear it might be a bit controversial).
In my beginning is my end and in my end is my beginning
Postmodern Staging for Postmodern Music
“Prometheus Unbound”

The first title of this essay is taken from Guillaume de Machaut's 14th century cannonic puzzle-piece. The essay has absolutely nothing to do with it. It does, however, have to do with the paradoxes inherent in the concept of “period”, “authentic”, or “historic” performance practice – that indeed there at some point ceases to be “early” and “modern”, “beginning” or “end” - and is only present.

Commentators on the “authentic” performance phenomenon have developed two explanations for its inception and its aesthetic. The respective most vocal proponents of each are two of the most important musicologists of the twentieth century. Peter Burkholder writes extensively on the notion of “authentic” performance practice being born out of a music-as-museum-piece ideology. Richard Taruskin propelled himself into infamy with the controversial proposition that “early” music is actually a quintessential example of post World War II modernism.

On some level, music performance following romanticism became about discovering the composers “intent” – how the music was “meant” to be performed. The “authentic” performance movement is simply the extremity of this idea, but even modern audiences for performances of Wagner or Stravinsky assume a certain amount of fidelity to the composer's, or at least the transcriber's, intention. This intention-centric view stands in opposition to the long held performer-centric view. It makes music in performance a museum piece – closer to a finished painting rather than a living expression. In the “early” music movement we see the phenomenon of urtext and the idea that an authoritative, or that dirtier word “authentic”, version of a piece can exist. For Burkholder, the performer's task becomes striping away the excesses of “tradition”, the dirt from off the painting as the popular metaphor goes, until the performer dictates only what is on the page of the autograph. Finally, the optimal aesthetic of “early” music is realized – whether seen as pure or cold, clean or empty, focused on pattern or devoid of expression.

Richard Taruskin does not reject that the music-as-museum-piece mentality exists, but focuses on his perceived failure of the “early”music movement to realize “original intention”, and yet haste to claim it has. Taruskin's view is that the movement has collected dots of historic information and bond them together with a connective tissue based on its own subjective aesthetic. Thus it has created the sound of “early” music. He then looks at this aesthetic – clean, streamline, intellectual over emotional, reserved over expressive – and points out the obvious parallels to the high modernist aesthetic. He also notes the twentieth-century take over of academia by modernists in both composition and musicology – the former rejecting emotional expressivity in new works, and the latter rejecting non-urtext elements of expression in old works. He does not argue with the artistic merit of “early” music performances. Rather, he maintains that all competent performers use directive dots (historical or traditional), but then connect them with a personal musical aesthetic. To not allow the performers “self'” into the performance would not only be unmusical, but disingenuous. Richard Taruskin simply wants the “early” music movement to admit that, though their dots are based on scholarship, the lines connecting them in performance are not historical and really quite modern.

The success of “authentic” performances has spawned a resurgence in early opera productions. Opera, in its duality of music and movement, requires a more refined aesthetic decision from producers. In the case of the “early” music movement, opera has been accompanied with “period” staging – that is an attempt to recreate the original look of these works. After having considered Burkholder and Taruskin, this phenomenon begs the question “why?”. Clearly it perpetuates Burkholder's position as it makes directors and designers into curators for these “museum pieces”. The entire museum concept is expanded to include ever greater aspects of the production (while one rarely sees concert performers with powered wigs and tights). At first glance it might appear that Taruskin's modern aesthetic has been absent in these productions. On the contrary, in the puritanical fidelity to “what we know”, a fidelity that smothers creativity, modernism rears its head here as well. The spirit of period staging, at least so far as it has been realized, is a continuation of the post WWII avoidance of emotional expression and strict adherence of rules.

Since the flames that Richard Taruskin fanned in the mid-eighties burned at their hottest, a wind of change has cooled the battle regarding musical performance. While Taruskin stubbornly refuses to recognize the existence of historic facts in performance practice, “early” musicians have begun to recognize the validity of many of his points. For every extant source saying “it” was done this way, there is another source saying “it” was done that way. Treatises decrying certain performance practices substantiate the existence of those very practices. “Early” musicians have begun to recognize geographical and socio-economic exceptions to rules that had been considered fundamental. Minkowski uses chord clusters and portamentos. Christie has singers absconding with orchestra members' instruments and banging on his own harpsichord. Jacobs has added every imaginable early Italian instrument to historically minimal Venetian opera orchestras. “Early” musicians have begun to embrace just how much they do not know. Creativity and subjectivity have creped into “early” performance – and it is all the better for it. Though claims of “authenticity” still sell tickets, it is the energy and ingenuity of performers that has the final word. Hopefully this signals a move away from the “original intention” obsession At the very least, “early” music, following the general aesthetic paradigm shift of our time, has become postmodern.

Beyond its modernist impetus, “period” staging is an illusion. It does not exist. Taruskin's metaphor of connecting the dots is well taken in regards to “historic” staging where there are practically no dots to connect. We know very little about how opera looked in the baroque. What we know comes from iconography and a very small number of treatises. Iconography is useless for recreation. It offers us freeze frames of how performers may have looked at specific moments, but tells us nothing of how those moments were connected in movement. Gesture is kinetic, and any audience member of a “period” production has witnessed the robotic affect of utilizing iconography. At the same time, the scarce treatises available are relative to time, place, and a host of other factors. While there is some information on gesture in 18th century France, there is practically nothing on Italian gesture of the preceding century. “Period” directors have tried to apply the little knowledge that can be harvested to all baroque opera – a universalism that is all the more preposterous when one considers the cultural fragmentation of 17th and 18th century Europe. Scholars know a great deal about baroque scenography, and yet have very rarely realized its zeitgeist – that is the visceral mechanism orchestrating set changes and effects. In regards to costumes the sources are at best contradictory. Rarely do period productions use historic modes of lighting and usually the spaces performed in are completely inappropriate. We are no closer to experiencing what a production looked like in 1700 than we are to knowing what a castrato sounded like. Period staging may have come out of a performance-as-museum mentality, but it is little more than a ploy to fill seats. The emperor has no clothes.

Of course whether or not the emperor is dressed is not really important. Rather, is he a good emperor? Imagine a performance that recreates every production aspect of a baroque opera – the warm flickering candlelight, miraculously painted panels switching instantly with mechanical pulleys, definitively authentic costumes, small intimate space, carefully orchestrated seamless gestures. Even if this scenario were possible we would not have recreated an “authentic” opera experience. The one thing we are incapable of ever recreating is the mind of the original audience. To suggest that period productions get at the original meaning of a work is to suggest that such meaning is not tied up in, nor even connected to, the audience's experience of that piece. The collective consciousness of a 21st century audience is infinitely different from that of a baroque audience – pre-industry, pre-Cartesian, pre-enlightenment, pre-socialism, pre-nuclear, pre-holocaust, etc. We, as humans, are forever altered by our own story. The hypothetical “period” opera is nothing more than a historical curiosity. At best it gives, with its gestures that no longer carry comprehensible meaning, an experience completely different than that had by a baroque mind. At worst, it is rendered emotionally irrelevant.

It is time for the “early” music movement to embrace postmodern staging (and it should be noted that this is increasingly common in European houses – Minkowski's Platée, or Christie's Les Boréades and Ulisse). Of course, that cannot widely take place until “early” musicians admit that what they do is actually on the cutting edge of postmodernism. Where as western art music following WWII retreated to pattern-art, typically viewed as intellectual university or museum music – now we must crawl out of the bomb shelters and create performances of real expressive power. The core of a baroque work, what it it really about, is not inaccessible to today's audiences, but directors seeking to communicate that original meaning must speak in terms that postmodern audiences will understand. Gesture, for instance, can still communicate meaning – but it is not the same gesture. Dance can create the same emotional reaction – but it will not be the same dance. We must speak in the language of our day. Those interested in “recreation” have gotten lost in the details and have failed to recognize that what needs recreating is the emotional response in a mind and not the gestures upon a stage. What is more, with the fall of intention-centric mentality, a new being is formed: the director as creator. This authentically – and and I use that word with, dare I say it, intention – postmodern being discovers his own meaning in these works. He uses this material to tell his own story. He is no longer translator, but author. Prometheus is unbound and made Zeus.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Ya gotta have

Amidst a flurry of grant applications, I have found time today to begin serious creative work on Messiah. Now I'm taking a short break to share some impressions of the experience with you.

First of all it is hard work. Messiah is precious to untold numbers of people and it is with great sensitivity to them and respect to the work that I have started to map out the creative aspects of the production. It is a complicated process with LOTS of issues - not the least of which is deciding which Messiah we are going to perform. Something any producer of Messiah, concert or staged, must confront is that there is no definitive version of the work. For many of the arias and choruses there exist up to five versions all by Handel. This is encouraging for someone trying to stage what is widely, to say the least, considered a purely concerted work. The freedom exists to easily and accurately create a version of Messiah that fits the need of the production. The flip side of this is that it takes a lot of energy, more than it would for a concert version that can base its decisions primarily on the forces available. The dramatic construct must be pretty much in place in order to decide which versions (and even which cuts) need to be taken. Finally I have pretty much solidified the nature of AOT's Messiah.

This double-sided coin of great freedom and the need for great creative energy is quickly becoming a theme with Messiah. For instance, as a "creating" director (versus an "interpreting" director - I wrote an essay on this a while back and perhaps will revisit it and post it on here soon) I have an equation I try to keep in the back of my mind: the greater the intention of universality with a work, the greater the need for abstraction in the production of that work. AOT's Messiah is intended as something deeply universal (I can't in fact imagine a more universal piece...famous last words), and thereby needs a great deal of abstraction in the staging. This might also come from a need to show respect and not trivialize the work, but in any event it means fantastic freedom. Fantastic right?

Well, part of what makes Messiah so wonderful and so easily made universal - and what has made it so popular - is that Jennings selected the texts in such a way that it is rather abstract to start with. There is almost nothing, short of the brief nativity scene, that is taken from the Gospels. The work is extremely malleable to interpretation. But, as with having myriad versions to choose from, this freedom requires exhaustive creative input. There is no when or where here, the who is almost completely abstracted as well. This lends itself to the profoundest of cathartic experiences, but requires so much more from all the artists, and the audience as well, to get that reward.

Messiah, with little doubt, will be the bravest production AOT has yet created. It is with all sincerity that the company embarks on what can only be described as exploration. Hopefully on the other side is a work of great poignancy and timelessness. Just as Messiah is a work about faith (believing in what seems unlikely and impossible and frightening because of a little tiny voice somewhere inside) this endeavor too is a leap of faith and it makes me very proud of this company.

Please, someone out there let me know you read these...