Thursday, July 26, 2007

Back in the Blue Ridge

After my trip to Chicago and a quick visit in Baltimore with friend and donors I am back in Virginia. Things are really starting up now. It is that difficult time before a production when things seem rather frightening. There are posters and postercards and press releases and meetings with designers and lighters and costumers. There are contracts and housing arrangements and travel reimbursements and finding a rehearsal space. It isn't the part of the job a love. This time it is all in preparation for "Ground" which opens our 2007-2008 season. Before that though I have to start staging "Messiah". Because it has never been done and is such an important work this is terrifying in itself. The looks I get when I tell people we are doing a staged "Messiah" confirm that it will be an uphill battle. I'm confident in the decision and the work though. The singers are fantastic and the orchestra will be minimal, but precise. I still have one act to stage and then catchings up on the first two acts that I staged in May.

Alas it is late now and I have to be up early in the morning!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Chicago in the original language

I'm in Chicago for a couple of days enjoying some time with friends and looking forward to a meeting tomorrow with Brian Dickie of the Chicago Opera Theater. This is a model company doing fantastic work, both early and later. If you are ever in Chicago check them out at the Harris Theater in Millenium Park.

I particularly enjoyed a slow walk around the Tribune Tower today. Building blocks of some of the worlds most and grand and most humble, but always provocative, buildings are on display here in the walls of the Tower. Pretty fascinating. I had to, of course, make a pilgramige to the Art Institute of Chicago today. They have a wonderful French 19th century collection, but I enjoyed looking at some beautiful Boticelli paintings, Brancusi sculptures, and the Chagals (though "Sunday on the Park" is always impressive). Today I took some extra time to visit the Asian art. It is a small, but moving collection.

Now...on a completely different subject. This is something I've been wanting to write about for a while. It is a subject worthy of a lot of discussion, but I will probably sound too preachy if I do anything, but touch on touch I will. I have become increasingly disappointed with companies that choose to translate operas into English. Why did this practice get started? I haven't written for a while to make sure my gut reaction to this practice is not for the wrong reasons. I realize I run the risk of sounding right off like a snob, but stay with me and you will see that exactly the opposite is the case.

First of all, opera translated shows a disrespect for the music (let alone the poor poet), and a general lack of understanding for the opera as a genre. There are periods of composition where a composer's connection with text was out of balance with his devotion of lyricism. There are indeed some mildly successful translations of Handel's Italian operas (particularly ENO's "Ariodante"). On the other hand there is quite a lot of rep that ABSOLUTELY cannot be translated without destroying the subtle relationship of text to music, without nullifying the genius of the composer. No where is this more true than in early Italian operas or French baroque operas. To translate Monteverdi shows the greatest egotism in the face of the music. Monteverdi did not respond to the poetry in a general sense, but composed each note in a response to each syllable of recitative. There is a sacred bond between the poetry and the line, and the most fundamental pacing of the music is based on the structures inherent in Italian verse (VERY different to English verse). The same is true for Lully, Rameau, Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Strauss. The list goes on. Ultimately any great composer approaches sung text this way. To translate may leave a lovely tune and even, with luck, convincing poetry, but it robs the audience of entrance into that magic land between the two where the composer inhabits. The sum is greater than the parts, and translating poetry cheapens the genius of the final work.

The response to this of course is that I'm being euridite, that translating opera into English is a way to open opera to a wider audience. This is simply untrue and ultimately leads to the further making of opera obsolete in today's society. Why? This is the dumbing down of opera, similar to the "symphony with a twist" approach to concert music. Dumbing down the work is not the same as revealing its relavence for a contemporary audience, and it certainly isn't the same as helping an audience appreciate the art. In the end the work isn't worth the experience no matter how "accessible" it is made, and the audience senses that it isn't worth investing in something that has to be dumbed down. Also, this approach is laziness. Instead of translating, time, talent, and creativity should be put into making the productions relevant without sacrificing the art. Often times, more often than not, these translated productions are at the best mediocre and, though the audience can more easily keep up with the language, the product itself is far from cathartic. Chances are that if a producer isn't sensitive enough to know that translation cheapens a work, he or she isn't sensitive enough to create a smart and moving production. If one can't make opera in the original language work for a contemporary audience, the answer isn't to trample the work. The answer is to go back to the drawing board, put one's heels in, and really learn the craft of stage direction and opera production - thinking outside of the box. If one isn't willing to do that, it would be better to get out of the kitchen and not dumb down great art.

These works are great for a reason. They carry across time, class, and even language. It is all in the manner of presentation. At AOT we perform in the original language and that is for one simple reason - the works are better when performed this way. At the same time we are committed to making opera relevant for wider 21st century audiences. We do this with innovative approaches and sincere passion for the art. We succeed in our goal. It works. This is testament to the quality of the art and the sheer madness of opera in translation (one only has to think back to last year's beautiful Met "Zauberflote" in a visually stunning production, but an absolutely ridiculous and offensive translation). We should have more faith in our audiences. If we have faith in them they will have faith in us. If we feel like we need to dumb the work down inorder that they might understand it, chances are they will catch on to us fast. Winning them back after this will be infinitely more challenging.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Always just a little longer...

Well...our two hour board meeting last evening turned into a four and a half hour affair. Long, but in all fairness it was a lot of fun and VERY productive. The benefit was a success and we made big plans for the next three seasons for thing in front and behind the scenes.

Today I had the most wonderful tour of the Asian collection at the Walter's Arts Museum by the head of the Friends of the Asian Collection. The Walters is such a jewel of a collection for members of this community and it has recently been made free. The Asian collection is particularly beautiful and, I gather, important. To have it explained and to be guided through it by someone that knows the collection and its context so well made for a remarkable experience. Afterwards we all had an engaging lunch together with two charming fox terriers...what is it about those dogs?

Tomorrow morning I leave at 7am for Chicago...yuck!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Earth Angel

Yesterday was a big day. I went to Philadelphia to see a man about an angel (how many times can one say that?). I was visiting with the folks at Pierre's Costumes, one of the most important costumers in the country, about constructing one of our costumes for "Messiah". This is something new for me. We do most of our costuming in house. In this instance and technical needs of the costume were beyond anything we could do. I can't go too into details without giving parts of the show, but it needs to do some wild things and it was certainly the most expensive costume we've ever had built. After that I had a wonderful chat with Tempesta di Mare artistic director who lives in south Philadelphia (this chat ended with a walk through the Italian market there...something I always enjoy).

I returned last night just in time for the AOT summer benefit that was held at the Elm in Baltimore colorful Hamden neighborhood. To-be-expected last minute surprises aside, it was a really wonderful time. The highlight of course were performances by soprano Bonnie McNaughton (particularly brilliant Greig songs!) and by pianist Roberto Vela (also our newest board member). There were friend new and old, wonderful food and drink, music and conversation. I think it was a definite success for AOT and we will try to do something similar in December.

Tonight is our Summer board meeting and I'm excited to get going on some of our newest projects. I will report dutifully tomorrow. As for today, I'm in going to enjoy some time with family.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Trouble in Tahiti

I forgot to mention, there is a production of Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" this weekend in Baltimore for Artscape. I won't be able to make it because I will already be headed to Chicago. It is a great little piece though that doesn't get done nearly enough. I don't know how the production will be, but it should be worth checking out. On the surface it can seem like a funny little portrayal of the American dream, but if one digs enough it is a poignant and sensitive picture of love and relationships as they mature and try to be one. It should definitely make a nice break from the heat at Artscape.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Back in B,more!

So long without much to write and then, sure enough, it all comes at once. Earlier in the summer I taught Indiana University's opera workshop with 22 young singers. That kept me busy, but after that activity didn't exactly grind to a halt, but at least reallocated itself. This is a slow time for AOT this year and the only activity lately has been visiting with the folks at Virginia Tech who have invited us to perform "Messiah" there on December 10th (we will be performing it at Georgetown December 7-9 and at the Baltimore Museum of Art December 21-23 through a collaboration with the Handel Choir of Baltimore). After the incomprehensible events there this past April, it is impossible not to let thoughts of the shooting enter into work on "Messiah", a piece that for AOT is about suffering, redemption, and forgiveness. They showed us the theater we will be performing in and it is a beautifully restored cinema.

I drove a large part of the day to arrive in Baltimore late this evening for our summer benefit which will be happening tomorrow night. If you haven't got you tickets yet there is still time (more information is available here). This is a perfect way to enjoy fantastic food and drink, a vibrant recital program, conversation with art lovers from around the area, kick off Artscape 2007, and help support one of the most innovative and exciting presenters of opera in America (remember the NY Times calls us "the future of opera"). I hope to see many of you there.

Also in Baltimore this weekend is a board meeting where we will welcome new members and brainstorm on the next three years of AOT (the length of our initial residency at Georgetown). There are lots of things in the works, including the creation of a ballet component to AOT, a choral component to AOT, additional performances by Ignoti Dei, and some really adventuresome programming. Usually I approach board meetings with a slightly nervous sickness, but I'm excited for this one. There is so much going on and we are developing a really wonderful group of committed volunteers.

Besides the board meeting I will also be using my time in the Baltimore/Washington area to meet with our costume designers in Philadelphia, our choreographer for an as-of-yet undisclosed project for next season, meet with our talented lighting designer (and so much more) Kel Millionie, and hopefully spend some off-time with friends in the area. Early Sunday morning I'm off to Chicago to meet with the folks at Chicago Opera Theater. This is a fantastic model company that program similar to us and does striking and important work. I'm looking forward to meeting their General Manager Brian Dickie.

And all that this weekend! Then it will slow down until August when the singers arrive to stage "Messiah". I'm excited about this group of singers, many of whom are the top American interpreters of this rep. It is a piece to stage only with great care and respect for the work, and I'm very cautious about it all. After that I'll be meeting with folks in New York about future plans for AOT and finally the first show of the 2007-2008 season will have arrived.

This is the work that needs to be done, and it is thrilling to be a part of so much creativity and talent. I hope to see many of you tomorrow evening, and don't forget to get you season tickets (available here).