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 Gelb...as 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.