Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Big Apple

Im entering my third day in New York, and this will be a day of rest. Yesterday I had a terrific coffee with the director of the Institute for Living Judasim which is coproducing our New York performances of David et Jonathas. Then I got a tour through the spaces at BAM. The Harvey Theater is a masterpiece. For those of you who haven't been there, it was reclaimed for theater in the 80s originally for a Peter Brook production (and it has his footprint all over it). In a masterstroke they left the interior bare, meaning exposed walls, no attempt at renovation. Instead they installed arena style seating and made it into an almost ancient temple to theater. Really something. The other space is the Opera House. It is gorgeous of course and the acoustics are so good that filling the space is music doesn't frighten me...filling it will people on the other hand, now that is frightening. It is something for us to consider more. I am hoping for the Harvey, but we will know soon if we have to go the the OH. Thoughts anyone?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

And onto....

We had our workshop performance of Messiah yesterday and I'm very pleased with both the performers and with the feedback from the audience. This was a scary endeavor for me, and as the work crystallized this week it only became more so. This work goes in the direction of something rather new, certainly unconventional, and for which I have been aiming for some time. Getting so attached would make a less than positive reaction from our test audience something hard to swallow. Also, because it is a sincere attempt to use Handel's work for make something meaningful while still being respectful of the brilliance of the score (and texts), it would have hurt a great deal had the audience found the performance gratuitous.

I made sure to invite folks that I thought would be honest and some that I knew would be tough sells. I think it worked. The audience had to imagine a visual language that will be an important component, as it is in all AOT productions (lights, but also in this case a whole chorus), but I think they responded to the work and didn't find it too obtuse. Clayton Koonce of Operatically Inclined summed up his thoughts eloquently on his blog post for yesterday. Our wonderful bass David Newman also wrote about his unique experience staging this piece that he has sung so many times. We made a video of the rehearsal to revisit as performance time gets closer, and also took lots of photos which I hope to post soon. It has been a long week of very intense rehearsals. I must say it is nice not to have to go into production week at the end and to have this break.

That isn't really going to happen however. I leave tomorrow to visit friends in NY (Joe Gladstone who is a terrfic, really the ideal, stage-manager and his talented wife Lydia who is an actress). While there I have meetings with the folks at BAM, the DIA Foundation, The Institute for Living Judaism, and the 7th Regiment Armory which is the new hot space in NY, very cool. Then it is back to Baltimore to start getting "Ground" together for performances next week. Have I mentioned that you should all buy your tickets?

Lots of exciting things happening...don't miss any of it!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

For Unto Us

Rehearsals for Messiah are almost over. Today is the last day and we will perform a workshop performance of the work for our board and some guests. I feel these performers having given completely of their talents and worked so wonderfully to create this piece from scratch. It has been a great experience to be involved in something that is almost like creating a new play or musical. Of course, we are more hesitant before we make cuts to Handel's score (though there are some) and we don't add any new numbers (even though Handel probably would have), but none of us, and the singers even more so, knew what this was going to be about or be like in performance. It has been a week of very organic work and the piece really has grown on its own terms. I didn't quite realize how little I understood of what it would become even. I am anxious to hear the thoughts of the small audience today. It is a piece that will require a lot of the audience - active understanding I call it. This isn't passive opera. After today I will have photos. We are also making a video and perhaps eventually I can post clips on here.

In other news I had a great meeting yesterday with the tech people at Georgetown to talk about the move in process for Ground. They are very nice and flexible over there and it is a perfect sized space for us with every technical capability for which we could hope. The also told me, though I refuse to ask how many, that we have sold some tickets and even season passes. BUY YOUR GROUND TICKETS NOW AND PLEASE TELL EVERYONE ELSE TO AS WELL. Ground, being an unknown work and our first show of the season is a tough sell. It is worth every penny and more though. A very unique and extremely moving show. It is also great for folks without a lot of opera experience so bring all your friends and family. You won't regret it!


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On its Feets...all ten of them

Messiah is all staged and the cast has really impressed me with their openess and willingness to adapt to a new take on this work. They have really taken to this style of staging, which is unconventional at the least, and I'm very pleased with the result that is starting to take shape. Today we even had strangers asking to sit in on the rehearsal. The challenge with staging something this quickly is that it becomes easier for the staging to disappear from the memory. The next several days will be dedicated to getting it really natural and organic to the performers. Saturday morning we will have a private workshop performance of the piece. There isn't any other new to report on...that keeps me pretty constantly busy. I hope to blog some soon on Ground.

Over the Hump

Part II is under our belts...well, all except that little unknown final chorus. We will do that this morning. Yesterday was the toughest part (the reason for no blog entry), but it got onto its feet wonderfully. Today we will finish the entire work and start fixing problem spots in preperation for several days of runs. I hope to have some photos up soon!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Part The First

Comfort Ye - His Yoke is Easy is blocked...and I'm very pleased with things as well as anxious to see how the rest will turn out. Tomorrow is a crucial day. That second part is long and dramatically taxing. Wish me luck.


Last evening we started staging - beginning with "Comfort Ye" and "Ev'ry Valley". It think it went extremely well. Today as we get into choruses...that will be the tell-tale sign. This is an adventure for us all.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Day 2

I am writing blog land during the dinner break on day two of Messiah rehearsals. Thus far today has only been for musical rehearsals (and a lunch I made for the solists). Most of the solists haven't sung the choruses in many years, if ever, and in our production they are singing some of the choruses by themselves and some with the larger chorus. So today was for going over the choruses and it wasn't without its bumps. I'm sure once we get into staging these ensemble pieces will really become three dimensional.

This gets to a larger issue which has been arising. The soloists have been rehearsing their recitatives and arias with me and have been coming in sounding fantastic...too fantastic. The diction is perfect, and colors are rich, the rhythm is precise. Thats just the problem. Since it is a dramatic story, now staged, I want a sound the is more personal, less perfect. That begs the question "why do we sing opera one way and oratorio another". At least in Handel I have to say that I don't think this distinction makes sense. Certainly is "Messiah" should be more dramatic the same would go for the less overtly religious oratorios. Clearly I'm simplifying, but Handel turned to opera for largely financial reason, not because his aesthetic changed. Thought the writing in Messiah is different than a lot of the operatic writing, the same cannot be said for other oratorios. I just can't accept that Handel imagine his singers, mostly the same he had hired for opera, would change their performance practice to perform these works unstaged. Hmm...

Bed time.

First day of Messiah musical rehearsals down and the full cast arrives tomorrow. I'm pooped. More to come soon.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Heather Mac Donald is a Moron

More to come later on this subject, but if you want a preview picture of why right wing politics is antithetical to the arts google this woman - she exemplifies ignorant backwards thinking which fosters, at best, remediation in the arts. Read the whole bundle of self-indulgent garbage here.

When I wrote the above title earlier today, I must admit I assumed that upon rereading her article for the unscrupulous City Journal, I would reconsider the strength of the title I have appropriated to her. In reality I now find it to be a quite polite description of this woman who clearly has little artistic sensitivity, journalistic integrity, understanding of the past, or vision for the future.

Why am I so incensed by her dribble? This is a good question. I could stomach the neo-con creation of a war based on lies and the absolutely ludicrous assertion that a) America's brand of "democracy" is possible in the near future in Iraq and that b) that "democracy" would magically spread throughout the middle-east. I could stomach the neo-con's ignorant claims that abstinence only programs reduce sex and that not offering protection for STDs would reduce the number of said diseases. I could stomach the neo-con's defense of liberty out of one side of the mouth and invasion of privacy out of the other. I have even narrowly stomached the neo-con abuse of civil rights for political gains, economic relief only for those that don't need it (haven't we proven Reganomics doesn't work), and their blatant bigotry for the urban poor, non-subserviant women, gays, Blacks, Hispanics (that aren't rich Cubans who can swing Florida), and basically anyone that doesn't fit their WASPy little universe. I suppose all of this stomaching was a result of the insulation that is art. However, Ms. Mac Donald's blatantly neo-con approach to the arts is far beyond stomachings. It is an uninformed sermon against art which isn't polite by someone who clearly exudes everything that antithetical to art in the United States today. It has a thin veneer of scholarship which reveals her purely superficial understanding of the subject. It is as if Fox News has gotten into the opera business.

(I realize I'm not being as diplomatic as some of my more prudent colleagues. Luckily for me I have youth on my side, and that gives me the courage to say to Ms. Mac Donald what needs to be said: "you would do well to keep your small-minded conservative bigotry on your side of the fence and in a realm that you somewhat understand".)

Ms. Mac Donald's thesis takes as self-evident a flawed principle. Believe it or not, Mozart is dead. There is no obligation to Mozart or Verdi or Puccini or Strauss or their poetic compatriots. No such obligation exists. Her persistence and consequent assumption, that the reader take this as fact, that one must align one's self with the original artistic or aesthetic intentions of the composer, is ridiculous. Directors need not be afraid, and her assertion that directors wishing to substitute or suggest additional meanings in a work should write their own opera is pure idiocy. The director should be a creative artist.

Her defense of Stephen Wadsworth, one of the least interesting or memorable (and yes, a traditional director can still be interesting and memorable, and even compelling) directors working today, a questionable level of discretion in her taste. Her appreciation for Wadsworth’s curatorial approach to directing reveals her limited understanding of the subject. Opera is not stagnate as Ms. Mac Donald would suggest. She pines for the Enlightenment, but not enlightenment itself. For her it is merely a historical happening, an annotation in a history book. A truly enlightened thinker of today would know that all art should be a living organic experience. Opera is not meant to be hung on a wall and looked at on one's way to the museum cafe. Clearly Ms. Mac Donald is the type of audience member that goes to the opera to be seen at the opera or to say "I went to the opera", but she is also the type of audience member that will never really get opera.

The director has no obligation to the composer, and though he is wise to consider the music, his dance goes both in and out of synch with the composer's notes and even with the text itself – what is literal, what is metaphorical, what is ironic, what is sincere. Neo-con’s don’t see this degree of subtlety in their black and white world. The director isn't creating Mozart's "La Nozze di Figaro", he is creating his "La Nozze di Figaro" and there is nothing wrong with that, on the contrary that is art moving forward just as humanity does. Ms. Mac Donald longs for productions which say nothing, but rather are still inoffensive memories of another time. That is fine, there is a place for that. That isn't art. The singing will no doubt be artful, as will the designs hopefully. That sort of directing, however, is superfluous.

I have not been fortunate enough to see all the productions to which Ms. Mac Donald alludes, nor I suspect has she. That said, I would caution the reader of her article to not form judgments based on her descriptions. She has cleverly left out the contexts of many of the examples she sites, not offering their true functional role in the operas. Like many neo-cons she comes dangerously close to mischaracterization in her tirade. For example, her jealous distaste for Peter Sellars results in an unfair portrayal of his work to her reader. While she states the no regietheater proponent can bare a happy ending, she conveniently fails to mention that the final of Sellar's "Figaro" is filled with joy in a dance choreographed by Mark Morris, in fact the whole opera is playful and witty. Mark Morris is quite the regietheater director himself. Ms. Mac Donald, in her seemingly divine (because it certainly isn’t logical) judgment of the Met's offerings, states that nothing in Gelb's first season suggests he will tarnish the geriatric house's reputation for producing thoroughly uninteresting work to audiences that don't know better. She must have decided the Morris/Gluck "Orfeo" wasn't offensive enough to qualify (or, as I suspect, she was too busy to take the work in).

This gets at the biggest untruth in the article. She fails to mention that director led productions do not always contain violence or drugs or even sex. No, Ms. Mac Donald has conveniently decided that regietheater means simply offensive opera. This is born out of her myopic approach to the topic and neo-con steeped tradition of spinning everything. She doesn't mention directors like Robert Carson or Laurent Pelly or David McVicars, directors that are most certainly the driving force behind their continental productions, but who do not fill their production with gratuity or the negativity and aversion to charming wit that Ms. Mac Donald coyly associates with all director driven opera (audience in Chicago can witness this first hand when Mc Vicar’s “Giulio Cesare” comes this season). She also allows the reader to have the impression that all Sellar’s productions are full of violence and sex, not mentioning the wildly popular Sellar’s productions of “Giulio Cesare”, “Nixon in China”, or “El Nino”, not to mention Sellar’s “Theodora” which is profoundly and absolutely loyal to Handel’s narrative. It does depict some violence, but should we be afraid of ever depicting the violence we find all around us on the stage? Should opera only be idyllic depictions of an imagined past on only superficial violence?

She also spins her story to read as if audiences are fleeing from European houses. This is not true. Opera in Europe is more popular than ever and houses are filled with young people. They no longer see an antiquated art form, a stodgy museum piece, they see breathing art that speaks to them. She even goes so far as the paint a picture of audiences coerced into finally enjoying these productions, as if the German houses refused to stop remounting the production until audiences were brainwashed - as if it is inconceivable that audiences needed time to grow into the work. This isn't unlike the premier of "Le Sacre du Printemps" or many a Mahler symphony. Would Ms. Mac Donald suggest the Stravinsky's popularity or public affection for Mahler 8 is somehow compelled against their will? In fact, it is opera in the United States that suffers. Sure the Met is full because it is so popular to be seen at the Met or to say "I went to the Met", but companies around the country struggle with interesting audiences with their dated and only-sleep-worthy productions. Ms. Mac Donald rails against the San Francisco Opera which is one of the few companies selling seats and doing important work (take their production of the Messian "St. Francois" for instance).

Ms. Mac Donald also rails against the appointment of Gerard Mortier as General Director of New York City Opera. This is born out of her clear aversion to anything Continental (large C intentional). Though Mortier is Belgian, Ms. Mac Donald certainly would throw him out with the freedom fries. In fact, Mortier's appointment is one of the few promising things that has happened in opera in the United States in a long time. Finally someone that understands opera is about more than the park-and-bark style for which Mac Donald pines. Finally someone that understands opera isn't about the music or the text or the sets or the lights or even the direction. It is about production. Ms. Mac Donald ignorantly enlists Wagner (Richard or course) into her camp. What she doesn't get is that the type of work Mortier does is what really exemplifies Wagner's ideal situation of a complete production in every respect under one unifying concept. Finally there is someone that can challenge the Met, with its vast resources, to create work which is beautiful and not just pretty.

Even Ms. Mac Donald’s "fears" for the coming season at the Met are ludicrous. Her terror of what Patrice Chereau might bring to the Met is laughable. His Bayreuth production is widely considered the Ring masterpiece of the 20th century and he is revered by audiences and critics alike. That she would prefer the Met's old Schenk production is telling in and of itself, the only thing more laughable than that production being Ms. Mac Donald’s presumed defense of it. She thinks that Luc Bondy throws up red flags, a director who’s "Hercules" at BAM was considered not compelling enough. Ms. Mac Donald only seems to have reverence for polite opera that doesn't get in the way either to move or provoke (God please not another Zambella many times can we chew Zeffirelli's cud?).

What is far more distasteful than the productions that Ms. Mac Donald rails against is her own thinly veiled bigotry. Through the words of this article she clearly sneers at everyone from gays to Muslims to people that have sex (oh, those neo-cons love pass judgments on the bedroom). She balks at the idea of houses hiring prostitutes and German officials rubbing shoulders with prostitutes. I guess she would prefer prostitutes stay working in the streets where they belong and no doubt deserve to be. What is most frightening or entertaining depending on how one looks at it, is her horror at the idea of subsidized arts programs, never mind that almost all the works she refers to were the product of subsidized economic arts cultures. Perhaps subsidies do make for extreme risk taking in the arts. Maybe that is what allowed Wagner to write "Tristan" and Mozart to write "Figaro", works that from her inoculated Manhattan existence Ms. Mac Donald fails to recognize are in fact quite revolutionary and anything, but polite. And, for someone who complains of a lack of wit in these riegetheater productions, Ms. Mac Donald can't even find the wit herself in the Met's newest art acquisition. I imagine the wit of regietheater productions simply goes over her head.

Ms. Mac Donald doesn't have a true historical context for understanding these works, and she doesn't have sufficient vision, openness, or compassion to understand these productions. A lack of vision, openness, and compassion: precisely the problem with almost all neo-con positions. It is narrow minded artistic bigots like Heather Mac Donald that are in fact destroying art for the American public. History has shown us time and time again the those like Ms. Mac Donald matter little in the larger context. They will not be remembered, they will not impede progress. It has always been the pleasure of artists from Bach to Wagner to Sellars to rise above the tininess of the Mac Donald’s of the world.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

And hopefully the last one...

Emperor that is! I must admit it was a real challenge to get through Tan Dun "The First Emperor" last night. I didn't have high hopes, and the hopes a did have were certainly not met. Tan Dun's score was not without some beautiful moments, but generally lacked the ingenuity and brilliance of his earlier works and really seemed to sell out to the lowest common denominator. The piece itself had all the human triviality an banality of a "Don Carlo" or "Roberto Devereux" (bothy of which I love), but non of the musical or dramatic witicism to make up for it (and thats why). All and all an plot not worth watching.

Elizabeth Futral sang quite lovely with what see was given to do. Most impressive was Paul Groves. Neither of these could make up for Pladido Domingo. The voice isn't what I would look for, but it is still strong (completely inappropriate for this music though). What was terrible was his attempt at acting. It must be said that the director takes ultimate responsibility for that, but this was classic externalized non-emotion that the Met has worn on the sleeve and certainly not felt in any meaningful way. If those loyal, lovely, and large audiences at the Met had any idea what they were missing, I'm sure things would change there in a hurry. I imagine with Mortier across the plaza that just might happen.

I must add to this that the lighting design by Duane Schuler and set design by Fan Yue were awe inspiring and quite beautiful. Had the rest of the production lived up to the visual design perhaps this would have been more than simply another Met "shock and awe" campaign, but alas director Zhang Yimou failed to impress. It is clear that the Met put together names like Dun, Yimou, and Domingo, failing to think about whether any of them were qualified for the particular project.

Bigger isn't better...better is better.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Back logged musings...

Still recovering from my all too recent computer crash, I have come up for a bit of blogging air. I have been juggleing several projects at once this past week. Besides rebuilding AOT's electronic infrastructure, I have been working with odds and ends each show for the coming year and beyond.

First comes "Ground". This is our very unique and moving piece which will open our season at Georgetown the weekend of September 7th-9th. It is a piece we've mounted before so the pre-work for it is different than normal. I can count on the splendid musicians (soprano Elizabeth Baber, countertenor Brian Cummings, and Ignoti Dei members Danial Boothe, Daniel Rippe, and Charles Weaver) to come with their music and staging relearned. There aren't many costumes and props that need to be replaced either. The real trick is going to be getting the word out. This isn't the first time we've performed in DC, but it is our first performance in Georgetown. The last time we performed in DC we also had the resources of the Washington Early Music Festival. So, the larget job right now is making sure we get the word out about this production. The one thing we have on our side is that this piece was rated on of the top ten performing arts events of 2006 by Ionarts. Georgetown is being very helpful in getting word out to their mailing list, and we hope to collaborate with the Institutio di Cultura as well. It is a challenge because "Ground" doesn't have the instant name recognition that some like, say, "La Boheme" does. That said, I know that we can get the Gonda Theater full of people that are tired or uninterested in the obtuse productions of larger area companies and want to see and innovative and moving work that engages and transforms. (Just a note, opening night of "Ground" will include a reception to innaugurate our residency at Georgetown and everyon is invited!).

Next comes "Messiah". Things are a bit far out to be focused on marketing (though plans are in the works to get the word out in both Baltimore and Washington DC). The staging concepts are in place, the costumes are ordered, rehearsal space is organized, and right now I am working on the musical side of things. Soon it will be time to get the string parts out to our concert mistress for bowings and before I can do that I need to carefully mark dynamics, tempi, articulations, and other expression marks. Often times people forget the with early opera, at least when one uses authentic sources, the scores are largely devoid of expression marks. Too often early music ensembles just "play the chart" which results and perhaps tight, but not terribly vivid performances. Another common trend is to leave scores empty of markings and to have the expression come out of the rehearsal process. This is a beautiful utopian idea, but can make for some hairy and non-unified artistic ideas. Also, being wearing producer shoes in addition to artistic ones, I know that this required a lot more rehearsal time. I will be conducting our performances of "Messiah" and am pouring through the score now, marking the musical decisions I've made. Lastly I am organizing the myriad of choirs we will be collaborating with: in Georgetown we will work with the university's chamber choir and in Baltimore the chamber choir of the Handel Choir of Baltimore. We have been invited to perform an additional performance at Virginia Tech, and there we will collaborate with the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers and their director Brian Gendron (Brian will also be working with us on "David et Jonathas" and in the formation of a resident choir for AOT!).

Third comes "David et Jonathas". It still seems way out there, but that will pass quickly. Right now it is finalizing the orchestra mainly. The orchestra will be one of the best period orchestra's American could offer, featuring some of the strongest players from around the country. This makes for quite a staggering budget, but it is also what elevates AOT above the rest (plus we have been awarded a grant from the Geoffrey C. Hughes Foundation to make it possible). We will make our New York debut at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with this piece and that means a lot of additional considerations. We need to find an alternative to our three tons of sand since we will be traveling with the productions (plus, I don't think Georgetown was TOO excited about the great weight of sand). We have to find a New York publicist to get the word out about the performances. I will be going up in late September to meet with the folks at BAM and with our partner organization, the Institute for Living Judaism. I will also be meeting at that time with Jeffrey Weiss, the talented new director of the DIA Foundation. The cast for this show is set and, since it is a revival production, I will save my stress for atleast a couple of months.

Lastly, there is all the rest...and there is a lot of it. Some of it is fundraising, always fundraising. Some of it is the nitty gritty of running a business (ie contracts, budgets, advertisements, relationship building, etc). And some of it is exciting planning for next season which will include the debut of the American Opera Ballet (headed by brilliant young choreographer Joseph Morrissey who is now dancing with Bayerische Staatsoper (one of the most exciting and provocative companies in the world), another New York performance, collaboration with choreographer Lisa Green-Cudek, a possible collaboration between Peabody and Georgetown, and our first performances of some later opera (including works by Schubert, Rossini, and Crumb...I can't say more yet, but it is VERY exciting and includes, once again, some of the great American interpreters of those composers).

With that its time to start the day. Tonight Tan Dun's "The First Emperor" will be broadcast on PBS. My hopes are not high (the Met with Placido Domingo?) and it wasn't reviewed too favorably. I do like some of Dun's earlier compositions quite a bit. I am looking forward to seeing it though, and it is part of their season for this year as well. It is no doubt be high in the spectacle arena. Like I always say, the only thing better than a good "Turandot" is a bad "Turandot"!

Friday, August 3, 2007


Well, the ol'computer finally went, and do you think I had anything backed up? Thats right, its all gone and very much the disaster. I am trying to salvage what I can from other sources, but it will take months to recreate all that data. Experience is the best teacher...Be patient with coming blogs!