Saturday, December 13, 2008

Listening to the Crack of Doom on the Hydroden Jukebox

Working on "Hydrogen Jukebox" has been more than a little consuming. Both the challenge and potential reward of working on a piece like this are far greater than traditional opera - here there is no linear narrative, no characters, no groundwork with which to begin. It is all starting from scratch and letting the mind run wild. All that to say that my days are being spent sequestered in my study creating what will eventually be the production. In the meantime - here are my recently completed program notes, that I think or hope will wet some whistles.

“Hydrogen Jukebox” is a song-cycle. It is epic in length, epic in scale, and epic in scope. Perhaps because of this, it was conceived as a staged work from its inception, and is widely understood, for lack of other vocabulary, to be an opera. It defies true categorization: a number of texts spanning the entirety of Ginsberg's work, set for a myriad of permutations (solos, duets, quartets, full choruses), which are strong in their images and diverse in their subject matters. What holds this all together – what is essential throughout the entire work – is its deeply-American language of symbols, and the balancing of extremes which it communicates.

“Hydrogen Jukebox”, with texts selected by Ginsberg himself, premiered for six singers at the 1990 Spoleto Festival. The production we present tonight is vastly different. Most noticeably, the cast has been expanded to nine and the movements have been reordered to suggest a particular dramatic arc. In its original form “Hydrogen Jukebox” was described at its premier as “a portrait of America throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s”. It is my belief that by arriving at this new ordering of movements, and understanding Ginsberg's cultural references as metaphors for larger universal themes, it can be a piece about much more. Instead of a nostalgic retrospective of the most domestically-tumultuous decades of the twentieth century, our “Hydrogen Jukebox” is an abstract portrayal of the rise and fall, ebb and flow, of an entire society using the imagery of the great American century. It is a portrayal of the necessary and inevitable paradigm shifts which define the human story, with metaphors which are distinctly American in character.

By expanding the message of “Hydrogen Jukebox” far beyond its initial conveyance, this production paradoxically arrives at a general philosophy much closer to a fundamental truth contained within the body of Ginsberg's work: the meeting of apparent opposites in lasting harmony. In a way, this is the meeting of eastern and western thought which is increasingly prevalent in Ginsberg's poetry. It permeates all aspects and layers of “Hydrogen Jukebox”.

“First, in its large scale structure, the work is cyclical. It is indeed the rise and “Fall of America” (to quote the title of Ginsberg's National Book Award-winning collection of poems), but understood as the meeting ends of a circle. The series of texts which begin and end this performance focus simultaneously on creation as destruction as creation. This is an understanding of the world deeply relevant to Ginsberg, and Glass for that matter, as practitioners of eastern thought. In Hinduism, from which almost all of the non-American references in these poems come, creation-destruction can be understood as a function of the dance, called naraja, of the trimurtis-deity Shiva. Naraja is the sustaining of the universe; it is the cosmic vibration and undulation of everything beyond human consciousness. In creation there is destruction, and in the end there is beginning. Likewise, the beginning of “Hydrogen Jukebox” is about the formation of a new society, but contained within that beginning is the struggle and necessary destruction implicit in all new communities. By the same token, the end of “Hydrogen Jukebox” is about the passing away of a society, but within that is the creation of something new. Their time has past, and a new age has come.

“Secondly, the imagery of the work is about balance. In talking about the cyclical structure of this performance I cited its beginning and end as an example. At the center of the work are two movements which balance each other: “Under Silver Wing” and “from Howl”. Essentially, the references in these movements are the same. They are about the American structure; they are about technology, infrastructure, man's interaction with the natural world, and the realization of the American Dream. They are, however, opposite sides of that coin. “Under Silver Wing” portrays the wonder of the American building – skyscrapers rise like crops, airplanes are metallic insects hopping across the landscape. This America is awe-inspiring, wondrous. The America of “from Howl” is the same, but vastly out of balance. Molloch is the technological and psychological god created by man, who demands the ultimate self-sacrifice. The movement portrays materialism, ultra-capitalism, consumerism, fanaticism, and all the 'isms' which define the new global age in dark and catastrophic terms. In a sense, “Under Silver Wing” and “from Howl” portray the same exact city, but they are Metropolis and Gotham. In just this way, almost every movement is mirrored on the other side of the intermission. Ying and Yang permeate “Hydrogen Jukebox”.

“Thirdly, the small scale minutia of many of the individual movements' imagery is about balance between extremes, and in that way the sameness of extreme differences. The strongest example is the dead center of “Hydrogen Jukebox”. Between “Under Silver Wing” and “from Howl”, lies “Wichita Vortex Sutra”. It begins and ends with the personal and the trivial: a man traveling in a car across the middle of America, beginning with a rumination on the solitude of the American automobile, and ending with a pit stop in Florence, Kansas for “tea and gas”. Between these, in what could be considered the epicenter of the vortex which is “Hydrogen Jukebox”, Ginsberg the poet wanders out into the immensity of the universe. He portrays a solitary man summing from within himself all of human consciousness, all deities, all powers, to “make mantra of American language” in the phrase “I declare the end of the war”. It is microcosm and macrocosm come together; it is the most eastern and western of images along side each other to evoke the very definition of “yogi”, defined in shiva samhita as “someone who knows the entire cosmos is situated within his own body”.

“This same pairing of extremes exists in many of the movements of “Hydrogen Jukebox”. It is a literary device that Ginsberg used often, and treasured as endemic of his own style. This he took from the paintings of Paul Cézanne, where he noticed that there was a physical reaction, an “eyeball-kick”, when the eye moved between vastly different colors. He often cited this phrase itself, “eyeball-kick”, as an example in literature of how the same reaction could be achieved. Likewise, he cited the phrase “Dexedrine Clown” which he used to describe Bob Dylan. The most frequent example he used to describe this literary phenomenon came from his most famous poem “Howl”. The line is “Listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”.

“Our production of “Hydrogen Jukebox” is markedly different than what was presented at its debut nearly two decades ago. It isn't about a museum portrait of America throughout its twentieth century growing pains. It is about a universal truth: ages pass away, times come and go, and societies rise from the sea of posterity to which they inevitably return. All of this, when told through the imagery of Americana, is profoundly powerful, and pregnant with meaning. Yet, on a fundamental level, the production you will see tonight reconnects with a mystical thread of insight which runs throughout all of Ginsberg's poetry, and which is latent in the music of Philip Glass.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Reports of my death...wait, déjà vu!

Well, once again strange rumors seem to be flying around. I heard from a little bird that there is talk that AOT is canceling its Spring offerings! Nothing could be further from the truth. This Spring AOT present three shows. The first is the Washington, DC premier of Philip Glass' "Hydrogen Jukebox", in collaboration with Georgetown University. Then will be our runout performance of "Venus and Adonis" and "Dido and Aeneas" in Blacksburg, VA (made possible by the Virginia Arts Administration), and finally a double-bill of songs by John Dowland and Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments". Plus, there is a special surprise coming in the summer months.

This is all to gear up for our fifth anniversary season next year, featuring 5 different fully staged productions in Baltimore and Washington. The season will include one revival, a baroque collaboration, and most exciting, the possible participation of one of America's most acclaimed Grammy award winning sopranos. AOT was also just recommended for a large grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a project in 2010. So, AOT is in great shape to continue producing its one-of-a-kind work.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I was out of the loop for the last couple days getting work done on other things. I remain completely amazed by Brian Dickie who seems to be able to run a tip-top company and blog atleast once a day! Amazing.

The big news has been the AOT was a awarded an NEA grant to produce John Adam's "The Death of Klinghoffer". We are lucky enough to have a partner orchestra and incredible venue for this performance, but it remains to be seen if we can make it happen just yet. "Klinghoffer" is a tremendous piece, that needs to be done desperately. Unfortunately, it is also an expensive piece and deciding if we can do that, and produce our home season (which is now looking to be 5-6 productions) has taken much time. Nothing is off the table, but I hope to know something in the next couple weeks.

Beyond that it has been detail work - the Heather Lockard, are wonderfully talented costume designer for Hydrogen Jukebox, has been sending me some really exciting renderings. Hannah Crowell and Robbie Hayes who are the set designers for the project have been doing the same. I for my part have been going deeper and deeper into Ginsberg's poetry and Glass' score. It is a great piece and this will be an exciting performance. I'm eager, and I should post more about this, to be working with the students at Georgetown on this. They will bring a unique energy to the production and make it something completely new, not like its premier with "big opera voices" at all.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Sad Day

As announced in the NY Times Mortier has stepped down from City Opera. I knew from his people that this might be happening, but I had held out hope the City Opera would be able, or at least try, to raise the money needed to bring him. As happy as I'm sure Peter Gelb is, this is a sad day for opera in America. Perhaps the message is that we have to save ourselves. Lets hope that it is not back to the dark ages. Saddest is that New York will not see "Einstein on the Beach" or the Messian "St Francis of Assisi".

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


This post will be too deserves to be long, but I'm tired. I just returned from a wonderful, but fast, trip to Paris. On Sunday I saw the "Cunning Little Vixen". This is a favorite opera of mine and one that deserves to be done more often (you in Baltimore will get to see it soon at Peabody directed by my friend and mentor Roger Brunyate). Unfortunately I had mixed feelings about this production directed by André Engel at Bastille). The singing was quite lovely, but Bastille was accoustically the wrong house. I would have liked to have heard it at Garnier. The voices were not small, but got lost. For me the scenography needed something more intimate as well. I would have liked to have seen it at Garnier too. It was a beautiful production, very nice to look at and quite charming (perfect for children and that, perhaps, validates it by itself). But, for me, this is an adult work, and I felt Engel, who is a tremendous theater director (everyone should see his "Le Roi Lear"), didn't quite get opera.
Monday was a wonderful day of taking a long walk with counter-tenor Brian Cummings in the gardens of Versailles. He has an "El Nino" approaching in St. Louis that you should all see if able. I also had a lovely coffee with Jan Vandenhouwe. Jan is a friend and the assistant to Gerard Mortier (as well as a wonderful dramaturg). He will not be going with Mortier to City Opera, but instead will be taking over as programming director for the Concertgebouwe Brugge. Jan is going to be a big name some day, quite on the cutting edge of the field.
The real reason to go to Paris, and the highlight, was last evening's final dress rehearsal of Peter Sellars and Bill Viola's "Tristan und Isolde". It was stunning, truly transformational. Unfortunately it is too much to comprehend in an evening. Peter's work was a clear departure from his previous work, but it was tremendously beautiful. Bill's video was captivating. I trust this men, both geniuses in their own way, but I wish I could see it several more times to really dig into it. This is true of any production of "Tristan", such is the power of Wagner's score, but with all these geniuses dancing and fighting and struggling and reconciling in one evening, it was too much to understand. Still, it was the sort of experiences which define why we are alive.

The highlight, however, was German mezzo-soprano Waltrud Meier. For me she IS Isolde. No one else is like her in this role. Physically she defines the character and the voice is as effortless as a small breath and as powerful as a wave. She was amazing. I hear that this may be her last Isolde. Let us hope it is not so, but if it is, I consider myself fortunate beyond words.

I think I will write more about "Tristan", the production, and why this work is a piece that captures the essence of what we are. But now, for a little sleep.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Richard Taruskin is a fool.

There, I've said it...thats all I wanted to say.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Introducing AOT's new General Director

It is my great pleasure to announce that AOT has a new General Director of the company. Sophie-Louise Roland takes on this role following her acclaimed portrayal these past two weeks of the title role in “Le Cabaret de Carmen”.

This is a tremendously exciting move for the company as we seek to increase our season offerings and touring schedule in the coming seasons. Sophie brings with her a great deal of talent and experience and I am thrilled to be sharing the directorship of AOT with a person of her potential and caliber. We are close to announcing next year's season which will include at least five productions in the Baltimore/Washington area.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Light from the Sun

A great review for AOT from Sun theater critic Mary Carole McCauley. If "Le Cabaret de Carmen" is a performance you haven't been sure about, perhaps you think too outside the baroque tradition of AOT or too far from the opera mainstream, I can't stress enough how much you should come and check it out. It really is not to be missed!

Read the review here

New Pics

(alll by the wonderfully kind and talented Jesse Hellman)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


A few preview to come later...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Carmen I

Well...Carmen is fast upon us and I thought I would write a bit about it each day (though my track record isn't so good, I will try my hardest). Today I am meeting with our music director Jo Ann Kulesza as well as the folks at Theatre Project, Robert Olivier Restaurant, Creative Alliance, and some board members that are working on corporate sponsorship. That in addition to a long list of tasks dealing with everything from costumes to props to marketing.

This "Le Cabaret de Carmen" is noting going to be like any other opera experience you will have had. It is a bit like our "Acis and Galatea" in how it blurs genre and break a lot of the "opera barriers", but a very adult version. Lets face it, Carmen is a bloody violent adult story. It history has been one of watering down. Even from its transition from novella into opera it was soften around the edges. José goes from committing a whole string of murders, to just one violent act of a spurned lover. The fact that Carmen was already married to a gypsy is removed. And, the whole tone of the original story, dark and unglamorized was altered.

Then, over the course of last 150 years, the standard Carmen production has become more and more extravagent. The high point is the Verona production which includes hundreds of people on stage, animals, gypsy dance troupe. It is madness. It also makes for great visual enjoyment, but not a lot of dramatic integrity. I'm not talking about realism, but a sort of dramatic focus and sincerity. I'm actually of the opinion that less is more when it comes to Carmen.

Peter Brook apparently was too, and his version corrected these things. It was a powerful evocation of the capability for madness and great violence in all of us. Horrible, but it caught upon a truth.

Our production uses Brook's reconstruction as its starting point, but I have taken certain unconventional steps to go further in connecting the audience and the tragedy. The first is the use of comedy. Nothing makes in insanity of violence more apparent than humor, and this production will mix the two in truly distrubing ways. I'm going to post on both of these, the tragic and the comic, in the coming days.

The idea of making Carmen a cabaret act, just like making Acis a circus show, came organically. As the pieces began to fall it just seemed right. This theatric coup somehow actually connects it more with the original. In Bizet's music exists something of the Parisian nightlife. The music is tuneful, intoxicating, and it dances. There is also a decadence about cabarets that matches they allure of Carmen. And Carmen is of course on of the great divas in the opera cannon.

Making it into a cabaret allows for the sort of in-your-face-opera that I enjoy creating. The audience actually becoming part of the story. What starts as a harmless evening of laughter and drink, and dirty jokes, grows increasingly darker. Tied to together by to hosts, the audience becomes accomplishes in the violence that unfolds before them. That is certainly the sort of opera experience that I don't know anyone else who offers.

And what about Carmen's as a sexual being...well that demands a post all of its own, and as the cast starts rehearsing and discussing tomorrow I'm sure there will be a lot to say. Once again, however, the decision was organic. Somehow it just works. Carmen needs to be a creature of mystery, coldness, and desire. There needs to be some shame in loving her, and something almost depraved or atleast outside of the norm. A gyspy alone doesn't offer that to a contemporary audience, and neither does a mere cabaret singers. Our Carmen is based on a historical character, Madam Sata, who was a Brazilian cabaret drag performer. This dramatic decision makes alot of the psycological question as the both Carmen and José internal dialogue fall very much into place, and it lends to the uncomfortable darkness of the piece. More to come on that.

I didn't really know where this post was headed when I started it. I see now that it is a list of subject to be discussed in detail in future posts. Good - maybe that will help me actually acomplish it! Now off to the work of the day!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Back in the USA

6am and I am already wide awake. I don't actually have to be up this early, but ah...jet lag. I got in last night, but do have to get started early today with a meeting in DC with the music director and then the designer for Hydrogen Jukebox. Thats how the next days will go. Thursday all in Baltimore with Carmen preparations and Friday back to all day in DC for Hydrogen Jukebox preparations, and then back to Baltimore to see my concept to the cast that night. Okay - out the door!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Grrrr...stuck in Milan

Well, I was supposed to be writing a nice long post from home finally in Belgium tonight. Alas, the will of the Italian train gods is stronger than that of my own and I am stuck in Milan (having arrived two minutes late at the airport). Luckily I am being saved by wonderful friends in Cremona, gambist Rodney Prada and violinist Claudia Combs. I shall try the train, bus, plane to get home tomorrow (note to self - next time fly out of Pisa!).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Moments with the computer

Just a short note because I am not in the easiest spot to post on the internet. For the last several days Ignoti Dei has been rehearsal for a new program of music written for or by Jesuits. We gave the premier in Florence this past Sunday and now I am traveling back to Belgium to make the last few preparations to return to Baltimore and start work on Carmen. I will post some pictures, but for now here is something else...the trailer from AOT's "David et Jonathas".

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mortier Firestorm! Again! (God, I love that guy!)

Thanks once more to Brian Dickie's blog for bringing my attention to debate over Gerard Mortier's recent bid to take over the Bayreuth Festival with Nike Wagner, and the scathing blog by Andrew Patner...which I must say is typical conservative American non-sense. The most important thing to know about Gerard Mortier, is that one never knows Gerard Mortier. You can't predict what we will do, and only time will tell if we will take over City Opera or not - for the sake of opera in America I certainly hope he does!

It seems that what Mortier really likes is a challenge. What could be more of a challenge than breathing life into opera in America? Well, perhaps the ONE thing would be bringing life into Bayreuth I will admit, but I think he is atleast sincere in his desire to force change at City Opera and to make a company that actually produces interesting work. Mortier's comments on the subject are convincing, particularly about Peter Gelb. Patner says some pretty ridiculous things, but one of the most ludicrous is that Mortier would not want to take over City Opera because of if he feels threatened by Gelb? If anything I think Mortier is turned on by the challenge of getting in the ring with Gelb. And good for him.

Personality aside, though Gelb can hold his own when it comes to "beyond self-assurred"!, Mortier has changed and continues to change the face of opera. He is passionate about contemporary opera and education. Already leaps ahead of the Met. And he widely admits the problems with a largely state funded system. If Mr Patner is suggesting that Mortier would rather produce in a bubble where he does not have to actually sell tickets, one should look at the sales of the Paris Opera under Mortier's leadership and at the decrease in average age of opera goers. Mr Mortier has just realized that creative programming CAN reach new audiences. There is no evidence that Mortier only has passion for working in the European system.

Who can say if Mortier will stay at City Opera for a full term or come at all. We should count our blessings to have him interested at all. The arts scene in American will be better off for having him.

(Incidentally there was some atrociously ugly commentator to Brian's blog! Tsk tsk! COT is one of the few companies doing interesting work...and Paterre Box is HARDLY the place for intelligent conversation!)

Monday, August 25, 2008

On the Lake...

Just a tiny post. I'm in Lugano, Switzerland visitng Franklin College and getting some work done on "Le Cabaret de Carmen". Off to Cremona on Wednesday for Ignoti Dei's European debut!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Now hold everything...

I just posted a tiny note about being in Paris, when Kim Witman's fantastic blog led me to an op-ed piece in a recent Baltimore Sun edition. It is something I miss while being abroad. The piece is so beautifully written that I will include it here in its entirety, without permission but I hope alright just the same.

It gets to something that has obsessed me lately. That when we talk about the powerful of opera (and when I say opera I mean the arts, but opera in particularly since, as Peter Sellars recently said at a forum on "Adriana Mater" at Santa Fe: "Opera is on of the few places we are stilled allowed to be profound") it isn't something intangible. Opera does have the power to make a change for good, to touch people. And lately I have been thinking not just the power, but also perhaps the responsibility.

Summer Nights at the Opera - by Diane Cameron

Picture this: Your life has just gone down the drain, so you swallow a lethal dose of poison. Just as your nervous system begins to fail, you sing a moving and beautiful song.

Crazy? Not at all; just another summer night at the opera.

As an opera fan, I'm used to hearing, "How can you like opera?" Friends complain that opera is unrealistic: "Who sings when they are dying?" They imagine, as I once did, that opera is for the old or the rich. It's true that opera isn't for everyone.

It's an acquired taste. But that's because to appreciate opera, you must first acquire some life experience.

This, more than any other reason, is why opera audiences tend to be older. The age of opera's audience reflects experience rather than merely years.

There are some young people who are old enough. So how do you know if you're ready? It all depends on your story.

Opera is all about story. We're attracted to good stories because stories are how we teach and how we learn. The old saying is true: A smart man learns from his own experience, but a wise man learns from someone else's. This is why we tell tales, why we gossip and why we go to the opera.

But critics say, "Oh, the stories of opera are so old, who can relate?" Yes, opera does have deep roots going back to ancient Greek theater, but the stories are timeless. The plots of opera's standard repertory read like headlines from yesterday's New York Post: "Disgruntled Bozo Snaps, Stabs Two" (Pagliacci) or "Seamstress Coughs To Death As Friends Look On" (La Boheme) or "Bride Goes Mad, Murders Hubby On Honeymoon" (Lucia di Lammermoor).

I didn't always love the opera. I remember the first time I went. I was in my 20s. It was something German, the night was long and I was bored.

So, what changed? I got older and life happened. When I look back at that time in my 20s, I realize that I hadn't yet begun or ended my first marriage and therefore didn't fully understand the concept of tragic-comedy. I hadn't yet seen people I loved dying and learned that singing is the least of the strange things people do on their deathbeds. And in my 20s, I hadn't yet had a serious illness of my own, so I hadn't learned that sweet and scary amalgam of fear, self-pity, courage and melodrama.

But what about all that singing? People don't really sing about their problems, do they? Well, ask yourself: Have you ever had a really bad day and found that talking didn't help, but when you drove home from work belting oldies at the top of your lungs, you found that you felt much better when you got home? Or maybe the day after a break-up, you couldn't move the gray knot lodged in your gut, but a song on the radio helped you to start the healing.

So how can you know if you're old enough for opera? Here's my theory: You have to have lived a little and loved a lot.

Ask yourself: Have you ever, against your own good sense and your best friend's advice, fallen for the wrong person? Do you know, despite the false comfort we offer teenagers, that sometimes unrequited lovers do suffer for years? Have you ever begged God to stop an illness, a death or someone else's decision? And have you learned that forgiveness doesn't follow a formula but that it can come like grace after something as simple as hearing a song?

When you are old enough - and have hurt enough - opera doesn't seem silly at all. If you know from firsthand experience that grief and humor are the two lines running parallel down the center of life's highway, then you, too, are old enough for the opera.


Just a little note. I'm spending a bit of time in Paris for some meetings about an upcoming project. AOT has added an exciting new show to our Baltimore season...a staging of John Dowland lute songs and a staging of Kurtag's epic and incredibly gripping "Kafka Fragments". I am working on parallel productions of these piece on this side of the pond and am in Paris to meet with some collaborators to brainstorm - always the most fun part. While here I will do a bit of sightseeing, and even get in a visit in countertenor Brian Cummings which is always the highlight!

Off to Italy on Friday though for a week and a half of Ignoti Dei concerts!

Ah, live is so trying at times...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Le Cabaret de Carmen

Kel Millionie has done it again with his images for our upcoming new production, and that reminds me that it is high time that I said a few words about this really exciting and imaginative production that gets back to AOT's roots. Our "Le Cabaret de Carmen" uses the musical score of famed director Peter Brook's now infamous production, "Le Tragedie de Carmen", from the 1980s, but the imbalances stop there. This an wonderful original piece of theater that is both delight and disturb. It is provocative and intoxicating, just like its famous score.

First something about Peter Brook's brilliant version should be said. Brook's agreed to direct a production of "Carmen" only on the condition that he could do what we wanted with the piece. First thing was to could out everything that wasn't necessary. This meant goodbye to the chorus, goodbye to the large orchestra, and goodbye to even the extraneous characters. What was left was like a "Carmen concentrate". It is 90 minutes of music for the four leads (Carmen, José, Escamillo, and Michaela) and two actors that take on many different roles. The orchestra was cut to a small chamber size and most importantly the action was reordered to be closer to the original novella from which Merimée took inspiration. In a VERY general sense, what Brook did was to try and create a piece more along the lines of what Bizet originally intended, a dark brooding tale of human descent that doesn't lighten-up with the tunefulness of what Parisian audiences demanded. It still has the same structure and narrative as the original my with a dramatic fingerprint entire Brooks.

Now, to AOT's "Le Cabaret de Carmen"...we have taken Brook's dramatic intuition several steps further. At its heart our Carmen is about the same themes which any good Carmen, whether the Brook's or a traditional production of the full Bizet score, should be. The story of Carmen is about the potential of the human spirit, both for its animalistic core and for its ability rise above itself. There are two parallel stories to any properly told Carmen. The first is of Carmen who rises towards the end in the hope of overcoming her own past, diminished potential and cycle of violence and betrayal. The parallel story, though moving in an opposite direction, is that of José, who through lust and carnal desire is transformed into little more than a hurt and angry beast.

Our Carmen tells this same story, but in entirely original terms which will make the piece come alive for audiences in dynamic new ways. The core story is the same, but the language is completely new. Though we use the Brook score, the dialogue is new. The action is set in a Parisian cabaret let by a master of ceremonies. Audiences literally become part of this show when they walk in and as they are served food and drink by characters which are on a tragically charted course. From Brook's reduced orchestra, we go even further and perform the piece with a stage “tango-style” band. Even the orchestra is part of the performance.

(Incidentally, an interesting thought about tango is its roots as pantomime of a rider trying to subdue a wild horse on the plains of South-America...this has very compelling ties to bull-fighting as the central metaphor in a traditional Carmen.)

Carmen and Escamillo are two cabaret performers in AOT's production, and their performance numbers are staged as just that, without any attempt at narrative verisimilitude. This works splendidly with Bizet's score. A typical complaint of the music is that certain arias seem more like silly or at least commercial French songs of the day, than truly dramatic opera pieces. Nothing could be better for our Carmen. José and Micaela are members of the audience that gradually become sucked into the action.

The entire show is led by a master-of-ceremonies, and the owner of this cabaret, Madame Pastia. Together they bring a witty banter, that through its cruel comedy sets the tragedy of this tale into severe relief. The final coup-du-théâtre is in the character of Carmen herself. In a vital twist she becomes a sexually ambiguous nightclub performer, devoid of even a sexual identity until her death. José's forbidden lust, his shame and misunderstanding of this mysterious desire makes complete sense now as the pieces fall into focus.

In the lead role is French mezzo-soprano Sophie-Louise Roland, whose signature role Carmen has become. Joining her are Baltimore favorites Ryan de Ryke (our crooning Escamillo), Adam Caughey (José), and Bonnie McNaughton (Michaela). I will be taking the role of the naughty Host (which I'm terribly excited about) and special guest Lydia Gladstone will be baudy Madame Pastia. The performances will be sung in French with dialogue going between English and French (with projected titles).

This is not the sort of opera performance you can experience anywhere else. It is truly original and should absolutely not be missed. We are once again on the Baltimore Theatre Project's season. We expect even bigger crowds than we received for "Acis + Galatea", which almost sold out every show, so I encourage you to get your tickets now. The performances are September 25th-October 5th. I should add that the best seats for this show will be at tables on the stage itself. These seats include food and drink and are more affordable than almost any other opera ticket in town.

More to come on Carmen and a whole host of other projects soon!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A new home and hard at work!

I have been a bit out of commission, though I've had lots to say, for the past week. That's because straight out of Santa Fe, I had one day to pack everything up and move to our new place in Leuven, Belgium - a beautiful town very close to Brussels.

Much to report though:

First, I had a wonderful time with members of the AOT Board of Directors at Santa Fe. Last Friday we attended the new production by Paul Curran of Billy Budd. This is an amazing piece that doesn't get done often enough. One of the biggest problems with it is the all male cast. The lead role is really Captian Vere which was written for Peter Pears, Billy Budd it a vital large, but dramatically not central role. In the Santa Fe production Billy was portrayed to great effect by Teddy Rhodes (it helped that he looked the part). The set was beautifully done and played ideally against the Santa Fe desert backdrop. I was a little dissappointed with what I saw to be a rather two-dimensional interpretation of the piece, particularly in the characterization of Claggart. It was a little black in white for a piece that can have greater depth I thought. Still, a wonderful evening in the warm desert air with beautiful Britten.

The real excitement was the next day's "Adriana Mater" which I had already seen in rehearsal. It was even better the second time. The music, particularly orchestration, is ravishing. It is a slow piece and both music and plot move in slow steps over little but substantial terrain. If one is willing to let go of the need for action it is a very powerful evening. The normal Sellars team of set and lighting designers really stole the spotlight. The after party was a great treat spending time with all the creative parties involved, the Santa Fe management team, and most of all Peter. He is a tremendous force of energy, ideas, and spirit.

The move to Leuven has been smooth, which is a good thing since I'm hard at work on numerous AOT projects and other projects as well. These include the upcoming "Cabaret de Carmen" at Baltimore Theatre Project, "Hydrogen Jukebox" at Georgetown, a new piece called "A Pilgrime's Solace" for a theater here in Belgium, the Britten church parables (fantastic pieces!), and finally a production proposal for "Einstein on the Beach". AOT has recently received grants for to further projects so work will begin on those soon.

I look forward to expounding on all these projects, probably starting with the "Carmen", in the near future. As for now, I am off to Barcelona tomorrow for a meeting and a visit with friends, and then a slew of concerts this month in Venice and Florence, and finally a meeting in Paris to plan the new piece to which I'm very much looking forward.

Friday, July 25, 2008

From Santa Fe

Well, I have once again been shamelessly absent from the blog. I am starting to believe that as much as I love Brian Dickie's tireless attention to his splendid blog...mine are never going to be anything except for on a more occaisional basis.
I have been busy in Bloomington, IN, first teaching the Summer Opera Workshop, which this year for the first time, invited students from outside Indiana, University. It was a fantastic group of young artists, good voices, good dramatic instincts, and a good set of scenes. For my part I directed scenes from Cesare, Rosenkavalier, Dido and Aeneas, Calisto, Nozze di Figaro, A Little Night Music, and others. Once that was over I stayed on to help Vince Liotta with the revival of his production of "She Loves Me" for the IU Summer Music Festival.

Now all that is past, and I am enjoying a long weekend with friends in Santa Fe before leaving to Belgium for a month on Tuesday. Fantastic place this Santa Fe! Arriving early to the theater one sits and watches a blue sunset on the desert. But more about that to come...

I spent a wonderful long afternoon with director Peter Sellars. This is a tremendous force of energy and a model of artistic integrity. Of course Peter has been surrounded by controversy all of his life, but this is because he is unwilling to compromise his ideas of opera as a populist and immensely powerful force for change. Sitting with this incredibly friendly and incredibly kind man has been a very affecting experience. He is full of belief, creativity, compassion, humor, and humanity. I gush a bit, but it is so gratifying, and so rare, that one finds their artistic role model to be a role model for how to live as well. I am in awe of what he has accomplished and how he has accomplished it. And, I am inspired by him.

Last night I went with Peter to the dress rehearsal of his project at Santa Fe, "Adriana Mater". This is a collaboration with composer Kaija Saariaho. The sets are by the amazing sculpter and designer George Tsypin. The first highlight of the evening was arriving at the theater, my first time there, to watch the sun set over the desert. These rolling blue and grey and black clouds eventually became the backdrop for the performance. The orchestra was stellar, and the singers, who have been ill, were quite effective. Peter staging showed a real maturity from those fantastic early pieces. It is subtle and understated. I thouroughly enjoyed the performance, though I was going on little sleep, and look forward to seeing it on Saturday.

I am here in Santa with members of the AOT board of directors. Today we go on a nice hike (I will take pictures!) and tonight we she Paul Curran's "Billy Budd"

There have been some additions to the upcoming work load, but I can't mention them here yet. Soon enough though!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reports of my death of been greatly exaggerated!

So...I have heard recent rumors that American Opera Theater is no more! But, indeed that is thankfully not the case at all. I suppose not blogging in a month hasn't helped any. I must apologize. I have been traveling a great deal and as much as I admire Brian Dickie's ability to keep at the blog when on the road...I just can't do it. I spent a wonderful time in Mobile, AL with the folks at Mobile Opera before heading to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University where I am teaching a month long scenes workshop. After that I will stay on to work on a production of "She Loves Me" with the IU Summer Music Festival, and eventually end up in Italy for a series of chamber music concerts. All before returning to the US for the next works of American Opera Theater.

Which brings me to a few updates on the company and the coming season. Unfortunately we have canceled September's production of "Calisto". The timing with the University and a desire to get the production just right have made this seem like the best decision. In its place we are going to present a burlesque evening featuring many AOT favorites in a diverse array of performances alla the classic variety show. In an effort of perform more in Baltimore we will present this both in DC and in Baltimore.

In the last week of September and the first week of October we return to the Baltimore Theatre Project with a brilliant new cabaret production of Bizet's "Carmen". In a unique theater experience that only AOT can provide, this immortal score comes to life in a dark and witty production that combines a theater transformed into a Paris cabaret of the 1920s, with a tale of backstage lust, prostitution, love, and death - with an international cast of rising stars and all led by a depraved Master of Ceremonies. Music director will be JoAnn Kulesza, with lighting be Kel Millionie, and a special appearance by yours truly. This production will be a Baltimore exclusive.

In January, AOT will present Phillip Glass's "Hydrogen Jukebox". This mesmerizing piece combines Glass's atmospheric score with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg to paint a picture of America - from beginning to end. This will be a rare opportunity to see this work staged, and it will be a Washington, DC premier. More information to come on this important new production, but it is a unique opportunity not to be missed, and it goes up just days before the inauguration.

In April AOT will continue its budding relationship with Virginia Tech with a new double-bill production of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" and John Blow's "Venus and Adonis". To be presented at Virginia Tech, this new production of the Blow and resurrected production of the Purcell will be a workshop to prepare for a fully staged production in the 2009-2010 season. As the first AOT production, this is the perfect way to usher in our 5th anniversary season.

Finally, AOT's most acclaimed production "Acis + Galatea" returns during the summer of 2010. Called "The Future of Opera" by the New York Times, "Acis + Galatea" represents AOT at its most inventive. It is a performance that captures the imagination of young and old alike and has delighted audiences around the country. Don't miss this opportunity to see a soprano sing while hanging upside-down, a tenor ringmaster on roller skates, or the antics of an alto dancing bear.

There is a lot more exciting news to come that I can't share just now. This post is just to let you know we are still here and that the work will just keep coming and getting more exciting with each production!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My point exactly...

I received this wonderful email yesterday (much needed solidarity indeed) and the sender graciously agreed that I could include it in a post. I'm too tired to get into a heady discussion of the nature of art, and why and for whom it exists...but this sort of email means more than a good review ever could. We don't produce for the critics.

Hello Mr. Nelson,

I wanted to thank you and all the members of AOT for the wonderful performance of David et Jonathas this past weekend. My partner and I attended on Saturday and were so moved by the music, singing and artistry that we returned for the Sunday production. We have long been opera fans, but frankly we have grown weary of productions that, though technically dazzling, are too often stodgy and passionless. This weekend, for the first time in years, we were both moved to tears by a work of opera--of course, the company's creativity and musical prowess were first-rate, but it was the soul and utter humanity of your production that enraptured us. Though you may find that some audiences and critics are not prepared for opera that actually engages them emotionally, still less opera that challenges them to think and respond, please know that we loved it and we know that many other people will also.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Non-need for Narrative

I have promised myself never again to respond the reviews! It is a bad idea and a waste of energy for all concerned. Critics are in general a mixed bag themselves, rarely of much insight or foresight, and on the whole inconsequential. Still, it is a promise I have a hard time keeping at times like this and I am going to try squeak through on this one.

By all signs this weekend's production of "David et Jonthas" worked, this is spoken to by the reviews by Anne Midgette and Charles Downey. Some of you might find it strange to hear me say this, since neither of those reviews were really positive. Well, in general the people I respect are artists and not reviewers, so it becomes a process of sifting through the perfunctory text of what a critic says to glean any meaning from it. What I got from their reviews is that the plot as such is indeed obscured, time and setting made ambiguous. And to that I say “and...?”.

This was by no means accidental or because of an oversight in the production. It is a product of the piece in modern performance that the company chose to embrace instead of correct. The work is not about narrative and neither is the production. Okay, so what is the problem? Well, this isn't for everyone, and it especially isn't for all traditional opera audiences. A style of theater that is not about linear narrative is nothing new. This is Beckett, this is Ionesco, and many of the works of their successors like Stoppard and Albee. As with this production specifics are hinted at with references or imagery, but focus is not put on the chronological journey, and actually the ambiguity lends a clarity to other aspects of the production. This is just not done in opera though. It requires more of an audience. It requires an audience to meet the production halfway, to work. It is difficult to sit back complacently and enjoy this style of theater without being actively engaged, without thinking. A lot of opera audiences have not made this leap yet as theater audiences did years ago. I can't say it is not more the fault of conservative companies in America actually. Regardless, critics largely represent the past aesthetically and it is little surprise that they wouldn't “get” it.

It appears to me that some of the reviewers of this piece weren't able to make this leap either, regardless of claims of opera in DC being conservative (which of course it is). It is easy to be for "inventive" stagings, as long as that means simply transferring the plot to a different time or place. But, messing with the primacy of narrative is a harder pill to swallow, and requires an openness of mind that some people don't have. It is easy to claim to be forward in ones thinking if all that is being adjusted is the surface. When the rules of the game themselves are questioned and altered, people's real colors come out.

Now this might sound elitist, but actually it is the opposite. I'll explain. People love this work. They weep and they stand (something not mentioned in either review). It is a moving experience for loads of people regardless of its lack of explicit narrative. Those that enter the theater without erudite expectations of what opera “should” be get it, and in a way that is the goal of AOT, not pandering to a class of traditional opera goers that like things just the way they are and don't at heart want to try anything new (this is by NO means true of all opera goers, many of whom have extremely open minds and don't come to an experience with expectations for its result). This is why the company is able to reach out to wider audiences that aren't part of the “opera class”. Some traditional opera folks will be challenged by that and some will revel in it. It is what it is, and it will all wash out in the end. For me, I like what Dylan did with electric.

I think that there was actually a lot of valuable information in both the Post and the Ionarts reviews from which this young company can learn. I mean that, and I don't want anyone to think for a moment that I blindly ignore criticism. I think the largest dramatic point in both articles is irrelevant however. One has to finally make a choice as to whether to listen to critics of questionable skills and intentions, or to oneself. The answer is obvious of course, and as far as deciding whether one has made the right choice, it is difficult. It helps to know personally that a large body of the audience were moved and had an intense cathartic experience, something increasingly rare in American houses. That is not a completely reliable gage of a production's success either of course, but it is vastly more accurate than the words of status-quo critics.

Critics, not necessarily these, but as a group, belong to a noble and I would even saw important profession. Posterity has shown however that, as a general rule, their societal role is rarely connected with feeling the pulse of aesthetic change or being aware of larger truths. What we know from posterity is that more often than not critics get it wrong, and more importantly, they just don't matter too much in the long run.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Gay Opera?

One of the realities of living in Europe and running a company in the United States is that the production calendar gets somewhat compressed (somewhat being a gross exaggeration). I arrived back on native soil last week and have been body deep in supervising set and costume construction, preparing to rehearse with the choir, prop acquisition, you name it. I am going to take a break from that to write a new entry on "David et Jonathas".

As my previous posts show, there is a lot about this opera that makes it unlike anything else of its time. One particularly compelling aspect is that of the relationship between David and Jonathan, a historical relationship that has for a very long time been held by many to be romantic and even sexual in nature. In deciding to produce this work, one has to decide how to portray the relationship, which side they stand on, if not in relation to the biblical truth, than at least to an the issue of same-sex love in 17th century French society.

Really, there are three temporal locations for this consideration.

The first is biblical. Many scholars argue on both side of this issue. The text of Samuel I and II clearly indicates the primacy of David's relationship with Jonathan. But it isn't that easy to find the context. While this part of Samuel deals largely with the relationship between the two men, and lines such as "love more than that of a woman" abound, the text also indicates that David weds a daughter of Saul and has children with her (and of course we know what happen is Basheba). Some would argue that same-sex romantic and sexual relationships were a norm at the time, and that David's marriage was pursued in order to create heirs (the ancient equivalent to a 501K plan). The answer this question will probably never be known, and both sides make excellent points.

The second temporal consideration is the period in which the work was written, 17th century France. Regardless of the actual nature of the historic relationship, how did Charpentier and his contemporaries view it, and thus portray it. Again, no clear answer emerges. On the one side, the is a lot to be said for the existence of same-sex relationships, in fact an entire culture of such, in baroque Europe. Ellen Harris wrote a noteworthy look at Handel through the context of his secular cantatas. While I'm not sure I buy into her conclusion of Handel as a homosexual, she does establish a tradition for homosexuality during that time. At the same time, writing for a Jesuit college, it seems circumspect to circumspect that Charpenter would be writing a "gay" opera. This is probably unlikely. Instead it seems that a type of male-male relationship existed in the 17th century that does not exist today. A close, largely non-sexual, but extremely intimate relationship. This closeness between men is at least viewed with curiousity if not open dismay today.

Finally there is the here and now. For me this is what is important. We have no idea as to the nature of the historic David and Jonathan's friendship. At the same time Charpentier's "David et Jonathas" could very well have intended to portray a type of male-male relationship unknown today. Instead I have approached the text as organically as possible, trying to react honestly, and I think I have come to the same place most audience member would when encountering this libretto and viewing it as a new modern work, without historical or generative baggage. I have purposely ignored what I know about the historical life David following the death of Saul, as well as what seems the most likely way the first Parisan audience understood this story.
Lines like "despite the harness of my fate, at least I can still tell you that I love you” (Jonathas to Daivd, Act V) and "Lord, I have lost everything that I love, for me all is gone" (David talking about the death of Jonathas, Act V), abound through the piece and I think have a clear implication for the contemporary reader. Just as I am uninterested in baroque staging because we are performing for a contemporary audience, I am also uninterested in the historical or originally intended portrayal of this relationship. Instead I am interested in what will emerge for an audience what the work today, it is in this way that masterpieces rise as phoenixes..

So, yes, for me "David et Jonathas" is a "gay" opera. But seen as such, the work becomes more beautiful for what it is not about rather than what it is about. That David and Jonathan are lovers is not at issue, it is never brought-up, and has no function in the unfolding plot. This a tragic love story, the type almost cliché to opera. The only difference is that the central pair of star-crossed lovers are two men. Because of this the piece is even more breathtaking in its restraint and simplicity. Seeing these two male characters embrace freely on the opera stage is a powerful and moving experience.

Now I am off to rehearse with the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers who will be joining us for the production. Tonight I introduce them to the French Baroque concepts of inégal and ornamentation.
This photo is another one of my favorites from the workshop.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Wearing multiple hats.

A small break from the "David et Jonathas" saga: Thanks to Clayton Koonce for drawing my attention to thisact of conductor filling in as tenor.

I worked with Antony at Wolf Trap and he is one of the brightest and most versatile conductors around, as this clearly indicates.

DAVID ET JONATHAS - Accidental structures and the silent character they create.

I have often said the "David et Jonathas" is unlike any opera of its time. This is not simply because the music contains an emotional musical directness that predates verissmo, and a through-composed formal structure of which Gluck would have approved. It is also because dramatically the work has more in common with much more modern, even absurdist (and indeed I used “The Myth of Sisyphus” and other writings by Calmus to develope my initial concept) theater styles, than it does with other contemporary works of the baroque.

This is not the case because Charpentier and Bretonneau were interested in early modernist dramatic concepts. Rather, it is a product of the magic touch and infinite wisdom of history. The work was originally composed to be performed at the Jesuit school for which Charpentier worked, interspersed with a spoken tragedy titled "Saül", also by Père Bretonneau. Each act of this spoken Latin tragedy would be followed by an act of the sung French piece. While the spoken play propelled the dramatic action, the musical portion reflected on the emotional states of the principle characters. We perform "David et Jonathas" as a five act opera with prologue, but this is not how it was imagined. As such the work takes on a new dramatic affect that reflects a much more modern theatrical aesthetic.

There is almost no true "action" in this work. Rather there are four character portraits bookended by the prologue, which sets the tone of the work, and the final act which portrays the tragic consequences when these emotional states meet each other. Each of those four acts contains a large central scene for one of the characters (David, Jobel, Saül, and Jonathas), and it is indeed these monologues where time freezes that the work's most profound music lies. As such, the modern work "David et Jonathas", without the spoken action of "Saül", becomes a portrayal of humanity's core themes - love, fear, and faith.

Because so much of the work is devoted to monologues, a curious theatrical coup occurs. This is a biblical work, and the majority of these monologues are addressed to a "God" - some external force, deity, fate, or simply the vast universe. These external force is so strongly present in the text of the work, that it becomes an ever silent omnipresent principle character to which the fundamental questions are posed and from which no answer returns. Man is met with the implacable silence of the universe. In the words of Pascal:
“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”.

That captures it perfectly for me.

The trajectory of this work's "meaning" is of great interest to me. Just deciding to produce it, without the spoken Latin text, creates a completely new work. Arises a theater piece with modernist/absurdist aesthetic of which Charpentier could not have conceived. Emerges an utterly crucial, but non-tangible eleventh character. And, the work takes on an additional central theme - that of man's struggle to reconcile logic with the seemingly arbitrary and, as such, unfairness of God's/the Universe's law.

And a few photos that capture some of these moments of man vs. silence (Jason Buckwalter as Saül, Brian Cummings as David, Matthew Walker as Jonathan:

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


In a month from today American Opera Theater will give the North American professional premier staging of Charpentier's 1688 masterpiece "David et Jonathas" (for those of you that knew us when we were Ignoti Dei Opera this might seem a bit confusing - we workshopped D+J in 2005 with our young artist program Les Enfants Terribles at the Baltimore Theatre Project and a tiny band - this will be a full mainstage production with large forces for both the orchestra and choir). This is an important step for the company, and after 3 performances in Washington, DC we make our New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music...more than a touch scarey, but exciting all the same.

Inspired by Opera Vivente director John Bowen's blog posts leading up to their performance of Jonathan Dove's "Tobias and the Angel" (a show that got great reviews and I hate to have had to miss it - congrats to John and the whole company!) I have decided to embark on the same pre-show path. I must admit that John's dilligence in this is a little daunting, but I will try all the same. With each post I will also include one or two production photos from our 2005 workshop (beautifully shot by Greg McKleskey).

For this first in the series I am going to take the easy way out (because I am running out the door to rehearse for a concert of rare Spanish violin sonatas I am playing with ID violinist Daniel Boothe this Friday!), and will post the description of D+J on our beautiful postcards designed by Kel Millionie. Still, I hope it will wet your appetite.

This photo of Jason Buckwalter as Saül is my favorite from the workshop.
As a piece mainly about man's relationship with a higherpower, be it fate, God, a vast space,
I think that this photo captures it perfectly.

The American Opera Theater completes its 2007-2008 season and makes its New York debut with Charpentier's remarkable 1688 opera "David et Jonathas". This work is a breathtaking masterpiece of the French baroque, yet strikingly contemporary in its themes. "David et Jonathas" explores the relationship between three timeless figures and mans relationship with the universe. In profoundly beautiful music Charpentier creates a heartbreaking portrayal unlike any of its day. The Baltimore Sun says the opera "set to music of immense beauty, couldn't be more noble as anything by Wagner, as emotionally wrenching as anything by Puccini". With the acclaimed Ignoti Dei period orchestra and an international cast of soloists, AOT is also particularly proud to be joined by the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers in these performances. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this rare and profound work come to life on stage in a New World premier production.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Why I Read Blogs

If you have a chance you should read Kim Witman's fantastically brilliant blog. This gets it just right, particularly the part about the sofa...why can't I write entries like that?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Tannhauser" makes me sound like a conservative...I'm not, really!!!

Joan Matabosch was good enough to get me into the closed general rehearsal yesterday at Liceu for "Tannhauser". There were some small mishaps and I understand why it was closed, in general things were fairly tight. The production is by Robert Carsen. I am fairly certain this is a premier, the performance scheduled for December in Paris turned into concerts because of a strike. I must admit it is still thrilling for me to see a show as one of the only people in the theater.
Before I can say much about the performance I have to say that Robert Carsen is someone I admire greatly. His work for me is terribly influential and many of his productions rank among my favorites. Among his best, for me, as "Les Boreades", "La traviata", "Rusalka", and especially "Cappricio". Because of this there was a lot of anticipation for this production. "Tannhauser" of course contains much incredible incredibly powerful music and I was looking forward to sitting through the whole thing.

I have to say that I was rather disappointed with the production. Carsen is a wonderfully talented director and he can create stage pictures that are really breathtaking. There is no better word for it. He conceit is what did not work for me. He turned Heinrich from a Meistersinger into a painting and the production became about the struggle of an artist to follow is true and unfettered, uncensored that is, path. What one saw on stage was strong, striking, and always done with controlled flair. The way Carsen manages the balance and formalism is to be greatly admired. The image of pilgrims carrying paintings to Rome and returning with empty frames, cleansed of their "sins" could have been pedantic and rather trite. But the way he depicted it in real space, with masterful lighting, was beautiful enough that one could easily enough forget that the idea is a little too obvious to be compelling. This was repeated time and time again - beautiful images to accompany a rather weak concept. Eventually it wasn't enough for me.

"Tannhauser" is difficult, but this is my most basic take on it. The story itself is troubled. At the least it is not among Wagner's best, at worst it is clumsy. This becomes a bit subjective, but I'm going to write as if it is objective because it is SO true for me. When one listens to Wagner's towering score it is clear that he takes this legend and ennobles it - he makes it about more. The music indicates that it is about the largest of human concepts - the power of faith, the hope of human redemption, the sacrifice and power of forgiveness.

Carsen's concept took out all issues of spirituality. I don't think "Tannhauser" must be approached from a Christian perspective, but it does enter on human spirituality. Making it a work about the struggle for artistic truth trivializes the legend. In other words, I feel Carsen might have been true to the legend, but not to Wagner's score. Wagner indicated something extraordinary and Carsen responded with something unconvincingly ordinary. For me it was summed up by the last scene where, to unimaginably transcendent music, Heinrich instead of finding salvation hangs a painting on the wall. "Anti-climactic" doesn't really go far enough.

Still - the level of production was fantastic. The singers quite good and the orchestra, as always, quite impressive. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I went to see the Robert Carsen new production of "Tannhauser"...I will give a full repot tomorrow, but for now...thought I enjoyed the overall experience, the production was a bit of a disappointment.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Grimey Moon Grimes

[I do realize that this title makes no sense, it is just that this short post will be about Peter Grimes and I always loved that line from "Ballad for the Sad Young Men"]

There has been lots of talk lately about the new production at the MET of Britten's "Peter Grimes". I'm afraid I am going to miss it, but it looks very interesting and I am sorry that this will be the case. It is directed by John Doyle who made waves with his innovative staging of "Sweeny Todd", and later is a new production of "Company". The production, and most notably its set, seem to be getting lots of talk. You can read about it here:

Tomassini's Piece

Maury's Piece One

Maury's Piece Two

Of course the caddy crew doesn't like it, but I don't put too much stock in that...they don't seem to like this incredible and striking piece to start with, and are usually resistant to new ideas, particularly at temple of stagnation like the MET. To me the photos look fantastic and seem to really capture what the piece is about (this might be the problem, sometimes folks find it difficult to understand sceneography that is not a backdrop to narrative, but rather an active player in the interpretation of the work). That said, though it sounds admirable and interesting, the final coup-du-teâtre that was quickly removed, presumably by Gelb, does seem like a perhaps miscalculation. It is hard to make what has seemed up to that point like a one layer piece, to all the sudden become a meta-production in the final moments. I applaud the MET for doing this production though, I think Gelb is really trying to move the MET into the last century finally (maybe they will make it into this one some day). Something I notice and wonder about is that the MET tends to hire, with the exception of Mark Morris, cutting edge theater directors when they want to make new productions, apparently forgetting that opera and theater are two different forms and folks with lots of talent and experience in theater are not necessarily prepared to direct opera. This is common all around, but without fail at the MET. Take Mary Zimmerman or Julie Taymor. Hopefully they will realize that there are great innovative opera directors out there. For instance there is the Willie Decker production of "Grimes" that is tremendously riveting and even more adventursome (minus the final scene!) that Mr. Doyles. (Decker also has a fantastic "Boris" and will direct "Death in Venice" soon at Liceu which I hope to catch before returning to the States for Charpentier).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Among Friends

Here is a photo from the recent chamber concerts of Ignoti Dei in Venice at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia. On the right is one of our wonderful gambists (and sometimes violonists) Marcy Boelli with her husband Michiel. They have recently moved from Vienna/Venice to Newport Rhode Island, and I am very happy to have them stateside (not least because Marcy can play more often with AOT). Michiel himself is an impresive violinist, but an even more captian of several ships, including their baby the Hollander (got to love that name!). Then a wonderful Rossini tenor Daisuke who live and works in Venice and who some of you will remember from the workshop of "David et Jonathas" in 2005. Then violinist Daniel Boothe, our good Venetian friend and theater-lady Teresa Turrachio, and myself. It was a wonderful concert of German music. Dan played a fantastically beautiful Smeltzer sonata, Marcy played some solo Abel, I played a wonderfully dramatic Froberger suite (a lament on himself...marked "to be played with discretion...far more discretion then my captors showed to me"), and we ended with a Buxtehude trio sonata that is too crazy to portray here. The houses were packed and people seemed to love this rarely played but incredibly vibrant music. Next on Ignoti Dei's schedule is a concert of Spanish violin sonatas in Barcelona, and then Jesuit music in Florence. We hope to do two concerts in Baltimore/Washington next year.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Back in Business

We have returned finally from Venice (where we stayed in friend's fantastic apartment on the grand is a tough life isn't it?) where a series of concerts went well and we even had time to escape to Udina to meet with Emma Kirkby and the fantastic Concerto Pallatino. It was a great trip, great to speak Italian in which I am far more comfortable than in Spanish, and great to be back with friends. Now it is really time to hit D+J hard and at the same time I am completing the last grants for next season.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La Serenissima

I'm off to Venice this morning where Ignoti Dei is giving a series of concerts this weekend. I will try to write some while I'm there, but there will no doubt be distractions!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Baroque and Authenticity

Often times I mention COT Director Brian Dickie's blog - he has really perfected the art of the blog and of course has much interesting news and thought to offer on it. We are all lucky to have such a chance to look into that world. Recently he has posted some thoughts on the subject of "the baroque" to which I have been meaning to add my own thoughts. This is a huge can of worms and words, and one about which I could write probably a not-so-small book (and might one day). I will try to keep be concise here at the risk of not being quite as coherent.

First, I am not a purist. If anything I feel I'm more in line with the observations put forth by the wise, if reprehensible, Richard Taruskin in the 1980s. For various reason I think "authenticity" is rather like a phantom. It is something that gets a lot of hype and belief, but it doesn't really exist. That isn't just because there is so little historic truth about performance practice we can know for certain (most of what has become accepted as "baroque performance practice" is actually not so clear cut when one looks at the sources). No, authenticity doesn't exist because the whole notion of authenticity, the primacy of the composer and his epoch's "intentions", is completely a modern concern, one that would not have concerned the 17th or 18th century musician. HIP performance attempts to arrive at some sort of ur-text, sweeping away years of pedagogical tradition as someone might sweep the dust off an antique. The "dust" in this case isn't meaningless, it is instead an evolving performance tradition of which the baroque musicians were aware and were apart. The idea of turning away from that comes from the same modernist attitude as the academic composers of the 60s and 70s. Actually, even HIP is part of the tradition, it has to be as much as it might wish it could actually be something completely different.

That paragraph was simply a preface to this: I do believe in the current supremacy of period instrument, and more importantly historically informed, ensembles to realize this music. I also believe in the importance of enlisting singers that are vocally appropriate for this music in a historically informed context. This is personal - I think the music making is better. Beyond that, aside from the few (and they do exist) that would prefer to hear the Leppard bastardization (more on this later) of "Calisto" to Jacobs more stylistic (though only slightly less a bastardization...more on that later too), or prefer to hear the incomparable Jesse Norman turn Purcell's famous lament into a soggy-swamp, the general aesthetic of the age does break towards more historically informed forms of performance. Ultimately I agree with the young enthusiast that started Brian's thinking on this, Chicago as a major city is desperately in need of its top baroque orchestra to be using period instruments and a more informed manner of playing (and more informed players). They can and should be better.

There are certain historic points of which we can be relatively certain, and which I think should effect performance to that end (at least until our collective tastes change). I will bullet some of these that pop to mind:

Gut strings - The use of all steel strings did not happen until this century. The sound of gut is completely different and gives a color not possible on steel strings. Using gut strings is important and there is little reason for not doing it (except fear on the part of modern players that will have to adjust)

Baroque/Classical/et al Bows: The construction of the bow is INCREDIBLY important. The modern bow is different in many ways, perhaps most importantly in weight distribution, than a historic bow. This changes the natural bloom of the note and the way one phrases. The music will sound different with a period bow versus a modern bow.

Instrumental Vibrato - There is little question that vibrato was used with discretion in the baroque. It is true that there remains heavy debate as to how much vibrato was or was not used, still, the modern approach of vibrating on everything is ludicrous and was not part of the baroque aesthetic. Vibrato was not treated as part of a machine that turned on at the playing of each note, it was used with intention. The myth that period orchestras have worse intonation than a modern orchestra comes from the fact that modern players can hide bad intonation with vibrato. They don't play a note, they play around a note. Hearing a modern group adjust to playing with no there is poor intonation.

Vocal Vibrato - Now here is a debate!!! A healthy relaxed voice has a natural symbiosis with breath and its inherently cyclical nature. It can go between vibration and straight singing seamlessly and with comfort (both are healthy) and uses vibrato as an ornament just as we know the treatises indicate (Monteclair is the most explicit on this point). A wide vibrato that cannot be controlled comes from poor breath-support. This sort of vibrato distorts pitch and makes clear coloratura impossible.

Bel Canto - Here is something I have wanted to get into for a while, ever since Bill Crutchfield made some rather silly comments on IU's recent production of "Figaro" to the affect that he was teaching the singers the historic way of singing this bel canto music. This is simply not true! Mozart and his contemporaries were absolutely not "bel canto". Not that they didn't have aspects of bel canto, of course they did because their school grew into bel canto. But, we can't apply the style of bel canto in reverse. There are aspects of bel canto that were not part of classical singing, just as there are parts of classical singing that were not part of baroque singing. Some things Crutchfield asserts are true - individual ornamentation for one. But, he also asserts that Mozart should be sung with the perfect legato that one identifies with bel canto. This is just not true. Legato is just a tool in the box of a classical singer, and it was one used even less in the baroque. More grating is insistence on "beautiful sound", that every note must be in the sweet spot. Rubish I say! In Mozart every note is NOT equally beautiful, there is a hierarchy. It is this thinking that causes modern players of play Bach like it is Brahams...SOME NOTES ARE MORE THAN OTHERS!!!! It is that contrast that bring the music to life.

Articulation (coloratura) - The last point touched on many of these things, but it is worth mentioning that I think coloratura is neither always legato (diaphragmatic we say), or articulated (in the throat we say). It is a blend of the two used at the singer's discretion. Bartoli is great at this.

General Style - This is simple. If you are going to perform this music you have to educate yourself, whether on modern instruments or not. Trills are performed differently in the baroque and in the classical, dance forms indicate certain tempi and characters, ornamentation as a whole was used in different ways related to text, and so much more. There is no excuse anymore for performers and conductors not to know these things.

The performance of Monteverdi - This is particular problem for me, and it isn't just Monteverdi, but all early Italian opera of which I'm a bit of a specialist. This notion of completing the score, adding bells and whistles is nonsense. Leppard started it, Harnoncourt went with it, and so does Jacobs. It is terrible for the music, destroying the early Italian notion of the supremacy of text, and that most of these composers saved treble instrument accompaniment for the most special moments in the opera. Jane Glover, whom I have a lot of doubts about in some respects, at least is clear about this point and doesn't do such things, trusting the music. The Venetian orchestra was one to a part strings, bowed 8' bass, harpsichord (maybe two), and theorbo (maybe two). To that there is justification to add cornetti or recorders, dulcian, organ, etc (looking at larger court orchestras of the day). If you wouldn't add an electric guitar to Strauss, you probably should have the same thought on these works and leave the modern trumpets out. I think using the Leppard editions is pretty inexcusable, that is unless you sincerely want to present Leppard's "Calisto" and not Cavalli's, because they bare virtually no similarity to each other.

I could go on, but I really need to be marking my articulations in the string parts for the Charpentier. I have some final thoughts though, and these are random and not in any particular order.

-HIP isn't perfect by any stretch and does a lot of things wrong knowingly. For instance, it is established fact that classical recitative was mostly realized with a cello playing chords. Almost no one does this. There are lots of examples of this. Pitch is another instance. We have decided that baroque pitch was 415, French pitch was 392, classical pitch was 430, and Venetian pitch was 465, largely because of the convenience of transposing a harpsichord.. This is all modern. Les Arts Florissants is closer when they play French repertoire at 400, closer to an actual "French" pitch. And pitch is important, perhaps not with biblical proportion, but it merits thought.

-Singers! I actually think vocal training is better now in this area than it was twenty years ago. I never really liked Emma Kirkby's voice to be honest, at least not for Baroque lead roles that need more character. I think many "modern" singers are doing the best baroque work: Bartoli, von Otter, Genaux, Keenlyside. Still, Peter Gelb's statement in the Sunday Times that he wants to cast Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo in the Gluck makes me balk....come on. Brian Dickie needs particular credit for this - he casts exceptionally gifted and smart young singers for COT baroque operas (like Danielle Denise who doesn't convince me as Cleopatra, but who I think has a lovely command of the style and particularly in French music).

-America really has to fix this union thing! Modern orchestras, with that good leadership of an Haim or Christie or Bickett, can fake the baroque sound. I have quite smart friends that saw the opening performance of "Cesare" at the Lyric and thought the orchestra sounded tepid and not at all together. I also have friends that saw a later performance and thought they sounded quite convincing. This gradual improvement probably would not have been necessary had Haim been allowed to bring her own players, regardless it would have still sounded better with period bows and gut strings that give a silvery quality that isn't possible on the modern violin with the modern bow. The unions don't allow bringing in a non-house orchestra and it keeps American houses behind. I remember living in Venice and hearing a performance of "Rodelinda" on the radio and thinking that it was an amateur Italian period orchestra. It was the MET performance! No, we now have orchestras in American that can play this rep better and the houses should figure out a way to make that work. COT is a fantastic company, probably one of the best in the country for this stuff, and I really feel they should be using period instruments, because they are one of the few places that can and be a true trend-setter in the States. With the state of the union in “baroque-land” right now, however shameful, I know that using a period orchestra (Ignoti Dei for instance!) would be cheaper, even if they are from out of town, than using local modern players. And I don't know...Leppard? Ah well...

-Finally, for me the baroque is about expression through dramatic contrast (just think of the architecture!!!). This is why vibrato is simply a tool. Ornaments are tools. Articulation is a tool. Not all notes are beautiful, but the phrase is made more beautiful through the contrast of important and unimportant notes. Vibrato all the time is a waste - when used with discretion it makes a note into an emotional dagger. The same goes for straight-singing. I am personally much more post-modern. I don't believe in right-wrong, black-white, on-off. This is an incredibly rich and powerful repertoire if performed as such. I don't think modern players have any less claim to it, but all that perform it need to be aware of its inherent differences, and the distinct approach one must have to bring it to life.

And then there is how to stage it...

Friday, February 15, 2008


I realize that I should probably add that none of those things are going to enter into an AOT production anytime soon...just didn't want you to think I was gathering ideas!

What the F$%&?

Wednesday evening was very interesting. I went to Calixto Bieito's newest production at the historic Teatro Romea that he runs here in Barcelona. For those of you who don't know of Bieito he is an EXTREMELY controversial theater director doing opera in ways that offend a lot of people. He did the "Abduction" in Berlin last year with real prostitutes that started that neo-con crtique of state-sponsored arts and director led productions. He also did a very famous "Ballo in Maschera" set in a series of bathrooms and a "Wozzec" set in an industrial space, feet of mud, and almost completely nude (some men in an aroused state even). Now, I don't really have an opinion on him. The fact that he is controversial doesn't make me feel one way or the other - it does seem like a lot of it is for shock value, but I have also been controverisal so I will wait to form an opinion. I have never seen his operas so I can't comment. Joan Matabosch who runs Liceu has told me great things about his work and I respect Joan a great deal. On the other hand a good friend that plays in the Liceu orchestra says terrible things about him.

This production was a theater piece (though billed as an opera it had limited music) based on the ancient Catalan piece of literature "Tirant lo Blanco". This is a very famous text referred to by Cervantes. This take on it was essentially abstract with a blind women playing the organ off to the side and basically imagining the story in her mind. I didn't catch the whole thing becuause I was late to it and had to leave early to make it to Liceu. What I did see though included a half-naked youth bound-up and walked around on a dog collar, another almost naked man spray the audience with water, a women breast feed said naked man on stage, rabbits cooked onstage and feed to the audience, and an invalidic man fed his own urine. NOW, I absolutely cannot say whether I liked it or whether it made sense, and I urge all of you not to make any judgements based on what I just wrote about it. I do not know the original text, and this was all in Catalan so I couldn't understand any of it. It could have made perfect sense. Who knows, plus I missed most of it. That said, this was a dress rehearsal and I was there with my friend who studies with one of the actors. The theater (a very compelling transformed historic space) was packed with highschool students, a class trip a think! I couldn't believe this, and like the work or not, it is clearly this early experience with truly challenging theater that makes European society understand SO much better the importance of theater and all the arts in society (I should also say this lack of a fear of showing young people the naked human body and sexual references probably also leads to better mental health in Europe when it comes to issues of sexuality that are completely taboo in the US).

I literally ran from that performance around the corner to catch a production of "Elektra" at Liceu. This was a good performance...the orchestra sounded fantastic, the singers did an okay job (acting not great), and the production was interesting and worked in concept (the details didn't always work...again bad acting) until the end where Elektra survives and does NOT dance herself to an ecstatic death...I missed that and kind of think it the point of the whole opera. It was a very modern production, not Bieito, but still director led. The Liceu however, was PACKED to capacity. This wasn't an opening night, no huge names in the cast, and "Elektra" is not a particularly popular work. Even more, I would say the average age was under 40.

I realize that I am going out on a limb here, but there seems to me an obvious connection between a class trip to see some of the most controversial and challenging theater being presented in Europe today (good or band), and an opera house practically sold out with average aged people to a modern production of a not terribly accessible opera. Hmm.... NOW TAKE THAT those that have suggested regieteatre is killing opera in Europe - sold out for no other reason than people enjoy going to the opera, and several ovations for a production well liked.