So...their 2010-2011 Season
I have to admit I'm a bit surprised and perplexed. Once again it is only 5 shows, but that doesn't bother me (in fact, 5 shows is the perfect number as AOT watchers will soon learn...nudge-nudge wink-wink). And, it is the same pattern as this year (I think, the Times wasn't completely clear on this), 1 new production and 4 old productions. That is disappointing, but understandable with the money problems these days. And, the 1 new production is by Christopher Alden, which is a big disappointment; not because he isn't good (his "Don Giovanni" was a big success there, so clearly people like him), but if they are only to offer 1 new production, it should be a different perspective (I think that is the job of a cultural institution like City Opera). And, from a company that had, I thought, clearly articulated their goal to offer extremes of the repertoire (early and later), it is an incredibly conservative and, dear I say it, "bourgeois" season. Get this:
"A Quite Place" - Leonard Bernstein (Christopher Alden production)
"Intermezzo" - Richard Strauss
"Elixer of Love" - Donizetti (Jonathan Miller production)
"La Machine de l'Etre"/"Erwartung"/"Neither" - Zorn/Shoenberg/Feldman
"Seance on a Wet Afternoon" - Stephen Schwartz
First of all, the Bernstein. Actually this is a great, or at least an interesting piece. It is based on the shorter opera, and gem of a piece, "Trouble in Tahiti", but expands upon the domestic story to also include a grown-up gay son, and digs more deeply into their lives and relationships. It is great music that deserves to be explored further and, though theatrically it is mundane and soap-opera style, this is an understandable choice. What I don't get it why Christopher Alden? Personally I think Christopher Alden is the lesser of the two Alden brothers (his brother David Alden is more active in the European scene and, even though he is the definition of an enfant terrible, his production are brilliant and thoughtful). Christopher Alden's work tends to just be strange and provocative for the sake of provoking. Most of all, there just isn't any dramaturgical work or actual directing of singers there. This can work I think for contemporary opera, or works with less cultural specificity like Handel, typically unstaged works like Bach oratorios, and some would argue Mozart (though I thought his "Don Giovanni" was lacking...to be kind). "A Quiet Place" is uber-specific, it is melodrama, and I can't imagine why choose Chris Alden for it....
The next two, "Intermezzo" and "Elixer of Love" are the most strange. "Intermezzo" is the weakest of all the Strauss operas from that period (perhaps because he wrote the libretto himself...and a poet he was not). Put alongside "Rosenkavalier" or "Capriccio" it just can't hold up. Some great music, but not drama worth watching (though I do prefer it to "Arabella"). Then "Elixer"...well, "Elixer" is just drivel. It is tuneful, but makes "Barber of Seville" look like a Shakespearian play, so little depth it has. It is just so fluffy as to make me hard pressed to jusitfy its existence. Furthermore, Jonathan Miller, though an immensely gifted director, is about as conservative as they come. Which brings me to a larger point about these two productions. These are shows one could easily see at the Met, 200 feet from City Opera, in better productions with better singers. That is the nature of the beast. I thought the whole point was that City Opera finally realized, now that the Met is showing signs of a pulse and bringing in productions that are interesting to watch, they need to produce operas you can't see at the Met. Why would anyone go to see Donizetti or Strauss at City Opera if they could see them at the Met? Jonathan Miller may be talented, but he is a Met style director, not a City Opera that is differentiating itself enough to survive.
Okay, the triple bill is interesting contemporary music. I'll return to that. And then "Seance on a Wet Afternoon". This is a new opera by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of many brilliant musical theater pieces including "Godspell", "Pippen", and "Wicked", and also of the Disney score to "Pocohantas". He is not, however, an opera composer. And, having heard this piece in Santa Barbara, let me say it again, he is NOT an opera composer. Unlike the Berstein that opens the season, I don't think this is fit for the stage of City Opera. Which brings me to the contemporary music question. City Opera, and I know this from Ed Yim, the talented creative force in the Artistic Administration there, was going to make contemporary music a focus of theirs. So, what is contemporary here? Bernstein...yes, okay, but not really. I had been thinking of Messiaen or Ligeti or even Adams...but Bernstein? Great music, but not challenging at all. And Stephen Schwartz? Same and even more so. So the only truly contemporary music is the triple-bill, but they can't even give an entire program to a challenging contemporary opera?
The other focus of City Opera (we were told this is where George Steel's true passion was) was going to be early music. The earliest thing here is Donizetti!!!! No Handel, not even Mozart. This season, I have to say, is playing it SO safe as to be utterly boring. It makes me so nostalgic for the days when we thought, or tricked ourselves into hoping, that Mortier was going to take over. Ah..."St. Francois"..."Einstein on the Beach"..."Brokeback Mountain"..."Rappresentatione di Animo e di Corpo"..I think with this sort of uber-conservative programming, they are putting the noose around their necks. And, I have to say, the AOT season for next year looks MUCH more interesting than this. Can't wait to tell you all about that.
I'm probably not making any friends here...I LOVE City Opera. I want them to do more than survive, and I think they more potential than the Met to produce interesting and important work. I respect and admire George Steel, and his is not a job I would want. I just don't understand these choices...I think they are drinking the cool-aid of cultural lowest-common-denominator. It doesn't seem like George Steel or Ed Yim, who I know gravitate more towards works of depth and profound strength. This seems like a dangerous path for City Opera to go down, but I hope they can make it work.