Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas Day Wrap-Up

Here is a little post on Christmas Day to talk about the "Messiah" experience, which is now finally finished (that’s seven performances over the course of three weeks). I had hoped to be able to blog throughout the entire process, but that did not become a reality as the show came to fruition. In all honesty I feel as if I have been running on not much more than adrenaline for the past two weeks.

Ultimately I think it would be fair to declare the piece a success. Baltimore audiences were big and enthusiastic (this happening at the last minute after weeks of depressingly low sales). The final show was just the perfect way to go out on - a full house that stood and applauded enthusiastically and with longevity. The orchestra played their best (ever) this past weekend and the soloists were dynamite.

It has been interesting coming through this "Messiah" after the "Acis" experience. I think the two works are similar in their ingenuity and artistic excellence. "Acis" was very different in that its intended effect was clear. The audience knew how they were to react and they were encouraged to respond as such. "Messiah" is a challenging piece. It is unexpected, unfamiliar. It jars people’s expectations of a piece they know so well. I don't think it leads the viewer to a specific and intended place. That is the result of art which wants the audience to bring their own historic consciousness to the performance - to respond to images with subjective meaning as opposed to dishing out objective meaning to them on a plate. There is no ultimate communal arrival point, and that makes for a final product where the audience is left to think for themselves. I have to admit that it isn't as satisfying for the performers, but I think it makes the work more important. It definitely differentiates AOT from other more traditional companies.

Being both conductor and director is an unusual, though not unprecedented, experience. Conducting on stage leads to the even more difficult situation of not being able to see the work in real time. From the video clips I have seen and from the photos, I think this turned out exactly as intended. I am immensely proud of the piece and the company for putting it up (and for the level of artistry). As one Baltimore musicologist said to us this weekend, it is a tremendously courageous piece. It pushes dramatic boundaries, defies the "law" which has fallen away in many arts, but somehow remains in opera, saying things must make sense (refer to the Post review which says "the work doesn't always make cogent sense", high praise indeed as far as I'm concerned), and challenges the tyranny of narrative.

I am now in rural Virginia and enjoying time with family before returning to Spain. I hope I'm not speaking too soon, but it looks like with this, the most expensive AOT production yet, we might have actually turned a profit. Now that is what I call a Christmas present.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A response (albeit brief) to the now famous Ionarts Review

It seems that too often lately these blogs are prefaced by saying that they will be short. This one I'm afraid is no exception. I am running out the door for a day of advertising, lunches, and rehearsals. We also have our donor holiday party on Thursday and I am trying to find where I have mislaid my piano skills. All that said, I did want to write a bit of a response to the Ionarts review of "Messiah" and the controversy that arose since.

I know, I know....never reply to a review. This should be no exception, but self control has never been my forte:

First the title "The M-word...S & M". This is fun for some I suppose. Would that it were an accurate representation of the show it would warrant praise for its wit, even if the rest of the article provided a rounded and representative overview of the show...but alas no. This reviewer, as do many of the other contributors to the debate, makes AOT's "Messiah" sound like an "s & m sex fest". The review even says that the angel (I'm trying not to be a spoiler, really) is “ravaged” and that she wears a “skin-tight” outfit. All of this, I must be frank, is blatantly untrue. I don't want to say that the reviewer lied, but... More disturbing is that the review fails to mention the rest of the show (which does beg the question as to whether the reviewer stayed through the entire piece). The violence in this piece is indicated by the text. It is a necessary part of the story and, with that in mind, it is in fact quite a small part of the whole picture. This violence is the pathway to redemption and this reviewer in his overview (for it was much more overview than review) he stops short, giving the reader the impression that violence is the overriding aesthetic of the piece.

I read Ionarts daily. I think it serves admirably a great mission in the DC area. I must gush and say that I love this blog. I also believe that reviewers can write what they please. And, I encourage the audience to take from each performance whatever they will. That said, the reviewer has a responsibility to his readers to present a fair picture of what they will experience upon attending the show or concert being reviewed. Though I definitely question this reviewers abilities in judging the voice (based on this and other reviews), that is subjective opinion and I can only grumble that Ionarts certainly has reviewers with better ears. This production, to any observer, contained violence (sexual or not) in an isolated way where indicated by the text. It was tempered by a clear larger message (to which the entire third part was dedicated). Journalistic integrity should have compelled this reviewer to understand the power of his media and to present a comprehensive, even if critical, review.

As to the sexual side of things...I do encourage the audience to take whatever they will from these performances. It was, however, completely clear that no sexual inuendo was intended by the staging. I think that because our victim is a woman, in certain minds that violence automatically takes on a sexual color. It would be disingenuous of me to encourage free interpretation and then to be upset that some audience members interpreted a sexual overtone. My only complaint is that this review made it sound that the sexuality was overt. He intentionally exaggerated what was at most a scene open to multiple interpretations, and made it sound as if the sexual violence was clear and unavoidable. His use of "ravaged" has a very precise meaning and was obviously not what happened on the stage. This scene might have elicited sexual thoughts for some people. I insist that this has more to do with what is going on in the audience's heads than what is going on on the stage. I also think that this is absolutely fine. It is perfectly understandable why violence against women could be read as sexual. It often is, and the media that surrounds us often depicts it as such. Making that connection does not say anything unhealthy or unnatural. Still, since the staging in this production clearly did not imply sexual violence, and since the angel in our production is "broken with a rod of iron" and not "ravaged" in any way, I feel this reviewer perverted the truth to come up with a cute title and self-aggrandizing article.

Be critical, that is your job. But don't be so at the cost of presenting a true reflection of what you saw. That is also your job. Simply having a musical background is not sufficient to be a critic. Criticism is an art and a skill. Only the most innately talented individuals should practice it without some study of journalism, writing, or at the very least journalistic ethics. It does a disservice to the entire profession, and is no doubt part of why arts criticism is languishing in the United States. It is most important to recognize that what one writes in the public forum has real consequences, and that is why the reviewer has a responsibility to be accurate and fair.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Coming up for air between performances of "Messiah". I have lots to say about the experience and the reception of the piece both in Washington, DC and in Blacksburg, VA. For now I am about to run out the door to try and advertise some in Baltimore (BMA shows the 22nd and 23rd - the piece is getting lots of buzz, the soloists are fantastic, the orchestra is "ear-teasingly pungent" so says the post - not sure what it means - so it is not to be missed). I will write more later but here are some images that I think turned out great (and I will post more later as well).

Friday, December 7, 2007

MESSIAH and beyond...

A real fast post...

Fellow blogger and AD John Bowen keeps a great set of posts on running Opera Vivente. During "Alcina" tech week and performances blogs dropped of and I thought to myself "Not now! This is the best time to let us know was is going on". Now that I am in the middle of "Messiah" tech and with our first performance tonight I completely understand. I don't even have time to write here all the things that have been keeping me from writing to you, but hopefully tomorrow. I will say that the production is going great. The singers are fantastic as is the orchestra (with yours truly at the podium for the first time). The theatrical experience is unlike opera or theater or anything else. It really should not be missed, and I will add to that, that these DC performances are the ones to catch (the tech at the Gonda is much more sophisticated).

I am really writing because I promised to announce here first our season for next year. I am just barely making it since it will be announced publically tonight. It is all subject to change but here goes:

September (Washington)
Francesco Cavalli

September (Baltimore)

December (Washington)
Phillip Glass

May (Washington)
G. F. Handel

Plus two tentative Ignoti Dei Concerts:

Music of the Jesuits
(Charpentier, Zipoli, Rossi) with Emily Noel

Vivaldi Opera Arias
with Sherezade Panthaki
More to come on all of these, but I have to go get in the zone...