Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Standard Repertory

A couple of months ago, owing to illness, I missed a friend's party at which my name came up: there was a discussion of the standard operatic repertory and the question arose of what the most recently composed opera to enter the standard rep might be.

When I heard about the discussion, my first reaction was "It depends on how you define 'standard repertory,'" which was acknowledged as a fair question. The question has now arisen on Bill Burnett's blog Opera War Horses (which you can't access right now) and on Wellsung, where I'm linking to Jonathan's posting and the ensuing discussion in comments.

So just what is the "standard operatic repertory"? Operas the Met's core audience will sit still for? Anything with a melody? Opera War Horses is defining the standard repertory as "a body of operatic works, all of which were first produced in a 140-year period that begins with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 1786 and ends with the posthumous production of Puccini’s Turandot in 1926," according to Jonathan. I haven't seen the specific operas named by Mr. Burnett, so no comments there. Anything put on with some regularity at major U.S. and European houses?

For myself, I think 1786 to 1926 is much too limiting. The people at my friend's party came up with Wozzeck as the most recently-composed opera to enter the repertory. Unfortunately, it was completed by 1922, and so Turandot beats it by a few years. I have to wonder, also, whether the party-goers realized that Berg was still to compose, and not quite complete, Lulu, which I suspect is performed about as often as Wozzeck. (I am happy to be proven wrong on that suspicion, though I like Lulu better.)

Moreover, I came up with the following works off the top of my head that were written after Wozzeck and that I consider to have entered the standard repertory:
  • Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich, 1936

  • Arabella, Strauss, 1933

  • Capriccio, Strauss, 1942

  • The Rake's Progress, Stravinsky, 1950? 52?

  • All of the operas of Britten, of which I'd consider Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951/60), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (1973) to be "standard repertory"

In my opinion, then, Death in Venice is very likely the most recently composed opera to become part of the standard repertory. (I would love to hear alternative opinions on this point.)

In addition to those works, though, I came up with a bunch of outliers that may or may not be standard repertory. They are mostly American: The Ballad of Baby Doe, Vanessa, and Susannah. I've seen only Baby Doe of that group, having missed Vanessa at Los Angeles and Susannah at Festival Opera in the recent past. Then there are works like Le Grand Macabre, Nixon in China, and even Doctor Atomic that may be standard repertory in another 20 years. I believe that Saint Francois is too esoteric (and too expensive to stage) to make it into the standard rep. There's no way to know now what the performance history will be of works by composers such as Ades and Sariaaho.

But another significant point in this discussion is that the standard repertory changes over time. Opera didn't start with Mozart, but in 1960 how many performances of Handel operas were given? You can hear Rodelinda at three American houses this year, and a couple more in Europe; his operas are seemingly being revived as fast as good performing editions can be produced.

For that matter, Cosi fan tutte didn't really become a standard until the last 40 years. Idomeneo, a great work, was probably not heard at all between the 1780s and the Glyndebourne productions of the 1950s. The only Mozart opera to be performed much from his death until the 20th century was, I believe, Don Giovanni.

I'd go as far as to push the standard repertory back to the operas of Monteverdi, particularly L'incoronazione di Poppea. Operabase reports that it's getting 62 performances in 16 separate productions in the 19 months from January 1, 2005 to July 31, 2006. That's quite a few more than Lulu is getting in the same period.

Of the 19th century operas now commonly performed, Don Carlo seems to have entered the standard repertory with the famous Convent Garden production of about 1958; La forza del destino was performed more from the 1920s through the 1960s than it is today, perhaps because of Don Carlo's increasing popularity. I think Simon Boccanegra is the last great undiscovered Verdi opera; I hope some day it will be performed as often as Don Carlo. La boheme and Madama Butterfly seem never to have left the standard repertory, but La fanciulla del West has yet to enter it.

I haven't said much about operas that were in the standard repertory in, say, 1900 or 1950 that are hardly performed now, but there are plenty, of course. A look through the Met annals or Rosenthal's Covent Garden book will give you an idea of what was then current in the English-speaking world, for example.

Moving forward - it took until the 1960s for Die Frau ohne Schatten to get much attention in the U.S. And Turandot, surely the 800-pound gorilla of all the operas I've listed, was hardly performed in the U.S. between the premieres in 1926-27 and the advent of Nilsson at the Met in 1961. It lived on through the 30s in Chicago, where creator Rosa Raisa lived, and where Eva Turner gave some of her few U.S. performances. Oh, and of course it got some performances in the 50s by San Francisco Opera, with Carla Martinis, Inge Borkh, and Leonie! Rysanek! in the title role. But I don't think any Americans would have considered it standard repertory in 1955; today you can hardly take a step without tripping over the Chinese Princess.

Friday, December 23, 2005


My partner is a doctoral student in public health, and we talk a lot about public health issues of various kinds. I have been saying off and on for a few years that the most revolutionary action the nations of the world could take would be to provide clean water, sanitation, vaccinations, and an education to everyone. Yes, it would be a huge undertaking, but the benefits would be staggering. And it's not money keeping this from happening: it's lack of political will.

Today's N.Y. Times has a story that left me enraged, because it shows how clearly clear water and decent sanitation are linked to poverty and the situation of women and girls in the third world. It's about how lack of sanitation keeps African girls from obtaining an education. That is in addition to the other enormous social barriers women and girls face in Africa.

Read it, and you, too, will be enraged.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Four Times Eight

Drew tossed me this one - which I was going to answer anyway. Note that I'm treating "four" rather loosely in a couple of places, for which no apologies whatsoever. I mean, naming only four favorite foods: insane.

Four jobs you've had in your life: office worker, flute teacher, insurance underwriter, technical writer

Four movies you could watch over and over: Casablanca, Moonstruck, Holiday, The Adventures of Robin Hood

Four places you've lived: Teaneck, NJ, Waltham, MA, Lake Grove, NY, Oakland, CA

Four TV shows you love to watch (not limited to shows in production): Star Trek: TNG & DSN; Mystery!, Six Feet Under, The West Wing

Four places you've been on vacation: Maritime Provinces of Canada, Orkney, Seattle, Paris

Four websites you visit daily: See my blogroll for the classical blogs, Dog of the Day, Astronomy Picture of the Day, Salon

Four of your favorite foods: Soon tofu soup at Pyong Chang in Oakland, steak frites, broccoli rabe, gingerbread (the best bribery material in the known universe), anything at Shalimar, roast chicken, salad

Four places you'd rather be: Hanalei Bay; just about any place with my partner; up to my elbows in grapes; London; attending an opera performance

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Balances, Again and Again

It turns out the sound and balances in the orchestra of War Memorial Opera House really are, uh, interesting. It seems a difference of all of eight feet has a noticable impact on the sound quality.

For complicated reasons I'm not going to go into, I saw the entire Norma performance last month from orchestra rear Z-104, while my companion saw the first act from ZZ-101 (the very back row, where the seats can be moved around to make space for patrons who use wheelchairs or scooters and their friends) and the second act from Z-102. He later reported that he'd thought the sound slightly better from Z-102 - a little muffled in row ZZ, and less so in Z. He's not a musician, but he is a good listener and musical, with a good enough ear that he easily picked out the best of the singers (Mishura) and knew there wasn't significant competition for that title. I definitely trust what he said about the sound quality.

I had my own minor revelation when I reviewed Fidelio. I was in around row M, but just off the right-hand aisle - not the one by the wall. It was not difficult to hear the singers' voices expanding into the house, an effect you miss in orchestra rear, where I feel more as thought the voices are aimed directly at me. But there is a disconcerting sensation of being out of the line of fire when you're hard left or right, plus there can be a distracting sensation that the voices are echoing off the wall.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Breaking Up, Part 2

I posted last week about the breakup of the Audubon Quartet in a welter of court actions and bankruptcies.

That posting generated some comments, including the following from Michael Renardy, whose Web site includes documents relevant to the situation. Mr. Renardy wrote the following, to which I'm responding here because I have enough to say that I don't want to bury my remarks in the comments:

I see a lot of comments like these: Since Ehrlich now has the reputation that he is willing to sue his colleagues, has he really salvaged anything? Baloney, I say. At least outside the "genteel world of chamber music" there are worse things than willingness to sue a colleague. Embezzlement, for instance. Sexual harassment. And the manner in which Ehrlich was "dismissed" would have left people guessing about all of those.

Unless he fought back, that is.

First, the most important point in my original posting was the first one: the Audubon quartet did not have an appropriate business contract, one that would properly define acceptable behavior for all quartet members and that would provide a mechanism for member evaluation and other personnel matters, including when to mediate or arbitrate a dispute and, if necessary, an acceptable process for dismissing a member.

Second, to again repeat myself: I have seen nothing indicating that anyone in the quartet asked for mediation or arbitration, which, in my opinion, should always be used early enough in a problem to avoid resorting to the courts.

Both of these represent signifcant failings on the part of the Audubon to conduct themselves in a businesslike manner, where there's a degree of predictability about internal process and where there are clear bylaws for all to follow.

Regarding people guessing about sexual harrassment, embezzlement, and other possible problems: really? In the case of embezzlement, I'd definitely expect criminal proceedings against the perpetrator. I might expect civil proceedings in the case of sexual harrassment.

Needless to say, given the personality issues here, had proper procedures been in place, everybody could have come out of the situation looking better than they currently look. And even without, there are plenty of mechanisms whereby appropriate public statements from the Audubon would have clarified to situation sufficiently that no one would be wondering what had happened. "Fighting back" ought to have been unnecessary, and I fail to see how a lawsuit putting the other quartet members into bankruptcy was necessary or desirable. From where I sit, it looks like revenge.

Finally, I cannot for the life of me find on line a letter that ran in the NY Times Arts & Leisure section yesterday, but the writer, who is evidentally familiar with the economics of chamber music, opined that the judge who valued the Audubon at $1.6 million was setting an arbitrary value with no support in the real world. If he's correct, that would make the monetary award to Ehrlich insupportable.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Norma, San Francisco Opera

I started listening to opera seriously in 1994, and I think I picked up a recording or two of Norma early on. A friend dubbed me a copy of an Nth generation tape of the 1994 Seattle Opera broadcast with Jane Eaglen, and of course I had the requisite live Callas performance and eventually both her studio recordings. At the time, the opera seemed like an impossible rarity, one I'd never see live.

Somewhat to my surprise, here it is eleven years later and I've seen four Normas at three houses. Not one of them has been fully satisfactory, owing largely to the enormous demands of the title role and to various weaknesses in casting the piece (Richard Margison trying to stand up to the ear-splitting Eaglen and Dolora Zajick in the Act I trio: hopeless). Also to my surprise - and giving away a punchline in advance - of the three sopranos I've seen attempting the title role, Eaglen, in 1996, came closest to fulfilling its rquirements. By 2001, her voice had stiffened up from all that Wagner and she couldn't trill too well or sing the fioriture with the same facility as five years earlier. For example, on the tape from 1994, she nails the series of trills in "Adalgisa fia punita!" in Act II; I don't remember any such success in 2001.

In between the two Eaglen performances, there was a miserable Norma in San Francisco, with Carol Vaness disastrously overparted in the title role, Michael Sylvester's Pollione outsung by the Flavio of Gary Rideout (why, oh, WHY didn't they just swap roles?!), Anna Caterina Antonacci vivid but with a very short top as Adalgisa, and the forgettable Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso. The only saving grace was Patrick Summers's fabulous conducting. What a shame that Norma stands or falls on the strength of its singers; if I were judging only by the conducting, well, Summers was great, but that's just not enough.

The casting of the new SFO Norma gave me some hope, based on previous hearings of the singers: the wonderful Catherine Nagelstad gave every indication that she had the spirit and technique for the title role and Nancy Maultsby was a rich-voiced Erda in the 2001 Seattle Ring. I wondered about Zoran Todorovich's ability to sing Pollione adequately, but you must bear in mind that Giovanni Martinelli is the only Pollione, in my book. (Del Monaco? Bah!) I was aghast that Atilla Jun had been invited back to sing Oroveso after his godawful Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo; he's only in his 30s and I guess he really can't sing, since he sounds about 70.

The reviews of the production weren't encouraging; this was of particular concern to me because I had an opera-novice friend in tow. The logistics of the day had not been easy to arrange, from picking a date to getting workable seats, and, really, you always want friends you drag to the opera to have a good time. In the end, he did (and I think he'll even go back to the opera with me), but I spent an awful lot of the performance with my head in my hands.

That started as soon as the curtain went up. What on earth were the Druids doing inside a stockade, and what about the body a bunch of the Druids were running through with spears? Um, where does the libretto say that there is a body on stage in the first scene?? Isn't there supposed to be a sacred grove - of trees, not fences - there someplace? Attila Jun's first phrases were grainy in tone and undistinguished in phrasing, and he didn't get any better during the course of the opera. At a time when the Symphony is hiring excellent basses like Tigran Martirossian, why does the Opera keep this guy around?

Zoran Todorovich's entrance left a good deal to be desired as well. He was loud enough, and he's almost handsome enough to persuade the audience that not one, but two virgin priestesses would break their vows for him. Alas - he sang with little or no dynamic inflection and no understanding of the style.

There was no improvement with Catherine Nagelstad's appearance, either. As in Rodelinda, it took her half an act or so to warm up enough to move her voice well enough in the fioriture. And it was clear from her first words that she was not going to do a good job with the enraged Norma, because her voice didn't sound good at forte. Matters didn't improve much during the course of the opera, either; she sounded raw at the top of her range and tremulous under pressure. The fioriture flowed better after "Ah! bello a me ritorna," but there was little ornamentation in the duets with Adalgisa. (In 1996, Eaglen and Suzanne Mentzer added a lot of ornaments!)

Really, the best singer, by a long shot, was Irina Mishura, a late - very late - substitute for the originally-announced Nancy Maultsby. She sang with the best tone and liveliest rhythmic sense, with a good sense of dynamics and a real feel for the line of the music. Her Adalgisa also sounded younger and more innocent than Norma, a point that goes right by productions that cast a heavy mezzo or contralto as Adalgisa. Her superiority was obvious enough that my opera-novice friend easily identified her as the best.

But, not a good sign: "Sì, fino all'ore," which routinely leaves me in tears, didn't in this case. Maybe it was the limp conducting (I've already blogged about my unhappiness with Sara Jobin), maybe it was the ugly production, maybe it was lack of chemistry between Nagelstad and Mishura, but it was certainly a sign of something amiss. I was somewhat moved by the very end of the opera, but not nearly to the extent I would have been in a better performance or with a more appropriate production.

Oh, well: it's one of those operas where I may or may not ever see an ideal performance, one with the right conductor and singers and a decent production. It is a difficult opera: it needs a Norma who can rage and float with equal facility, and who can sing all of those little notes that scared Birgit Nilsson away from the role (thank goodness!); an Adalgisa who can project sweet innocence and keep up vocally with Norma; a Pollione who sings like a god and looks good enough that you can believe in his remarkable romantic success; an Oroveso who projects leaderly fury and fatherly tenderness.

It's easy enough to create a historical dream cast: Callas or Ponselle as Norma; Stignani as Adalgisa; Martinelli or Tamagno or Lauri-Volpi as Pollione; Pinza or de Angelis as Oroveso. Conducting: Toscannini? de Sabata? Panizza?

But today? Oh, sigh. I had the odd thought after the 2001 Met performance that maybe Zajick should take a shot as Norma, with Deborah Voigt swapping in for Adalgisa. I'm not sure there is a tenor I want to hear as Pollione. I'll take Stephen Milling or Rene Pape as Oroveso, and put Patrick Summers on the podium.

Breaking Up

No, not me; this blog will continue and my partner and I are fine. No, I'm thinking about the sad breakup of the Audubon Quartet. Daniel J. Wakin has had a couple of excellent articles in the NY Times this week:Personnel changes happen pretty often in chamber music groups; I'm sure they don't all happen amicably, but it's possible to avoid the kinds of issues that have plagued the Audubon. To start with, chamber groups need workable, written agreements - by-laws or contracts - agreed to by all, that govern personnel issues, from what's acceptable behavior to how to handle disagreements. Neither of Wakin's articles mentions whether or when mediators were brought in to help the Audubon with its problems; I myself have witnessed the kind of good that can be done by a skilled mediator. It seems there was no arbitration requirement in the event of an unresolvable conflict. It is clear that the Audubon did not properly keep up the legal end of their nonprofit corporation, however, which couldn't have helped.

This paragraph especially caught my eye, though; David Ehrlich is the former violinist who has sued the other three members of the quartet:
Mr. Ehrlich, who did not immediately respond to a phone message, has said that while he finds the loss of the instruments tragic, he needs the money for lawyers' fees. He said he was unfairly and summarily fired by three people who conspired against him, and that he had to sue to salvage his reputation.
I guess that had he not sued, Mr. Ehrlich would very likely have the reputation of being someone who is difficult to work with and who left the Audubon under a cloud. Having sued, he will have the reputation of being not only difficult to work with, but willing to sue former colleagues so that they lose their homes and instruments. Is that really an improvement? Has his reputation been salvaged by his actions?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

At Berkeley Rep

This past weekend I had the rare opportunity to see four operas, all new to me, on two consecutive evenings: the Stravinsky double bill at San Francisco Symphony, which I reviewed for SFCV, and the Czech double bill at Berkeley Rep, consisting of Martinu's Comedy on the Bridge and Krása's Brundibar. Both of the latter were performed with new English librettos by playwright Tony Kushner; production designs (charming!) are by Maurice Sendak with Kris Stone.

They are both excellent pieces, well performed; if you're interested in Czech opera or music related to the Holocaust - Brundibar was famously performed many times at the Terezín concentration camp - I would encourage you to go see them.

However, there is a big warning that must be attached to the production:

AMPLIFICATION IN USE. Really bad amplification.

It was so distracting that I might well have walked out, but I had taken a friend as thanks for a great favor, and of course I did want to see the pieces.

I find the use of amplification almost completely incomprehensible:
  • The Roda Theater seats all of 600.

  • The theater is new, well-designed, and has good acoustics.

  • The orchestra was amplified even though it's under the stage and consists of maybe a dozen instruments.

  • All of the singers were amplified.

To me, this means that the production team doesn't trust the music to work (that is, has no faith in the composers' skill), doesn't trust the conductor to balance the singers and orchestra, doesn't believe they hired singers who can be heard in a tiny theater over a chamber orchestra, doesn't trust the audience to listen carefully. In my experience, every time there's been music in any Berkeley Rep production, it is amplified, even if it's a guy with a guitar. This is crazy: the amplification is distracting, unnatural, and flattens the dynamic range of the singers. I find amplified music much harder to listen to than unamplified music.

I understand amplifying children, if it's done carefully. It's hard to argue, for example, with the decision of the San Francisco Opera to put a microphone on the 8-year-old who sang Amore in L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1998 - but that was in the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House, not the 600-seat Roda. But I don't want to go to the theater and hear the orchestra coming from speakers to my left and the soprano coming from a speaker over my head. I want to hear the orchestra coming from the pit and the singers' voices coming from the stage. I spoke to some friends the next day and they all felt the same. So, I'm sending a letter about this to Tony Taccone, in hopes that maybe Berkeley Rep will listen.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Where I've Been

Soli Deo Gloria's concerts in November went just fine, but I had a burn-my-candle-at-both-ends week leading up to and including that weekend. From Monday to Sunday, it went rehearsal, day at home, rehearsal, La Forza del Destino, performance, performance, performance.

On Saturday, November 19, I was sniffly; by Monday, I was home in bed and even spiked a fever for a couple of hours. We had Thanksgiving at home and on Friday of Thanksgiving week, I went to New Jersey to see my mother and attend a high school reunion. (You may guess what number.) That was a lot of fun. I'm not in regular touch with many of my classmates, but on the whole we've turned out really well, or at least the people who turned up for the reunion did. I've known some of these folks since I was 8 years old, and I suspect I would socialize with plenty of them if I still lived in New Jersey.

The highlight of the trip was certainly seeing Terry and the magnificent Teachout Museum. I'm in love with the Olitsky, as I told him at the time. And he seems to have gently lit a fire under me about getting back to work on my book, for which I am grateful. (If you read About Last Night - and you should - you know Terry's been ill. Yeah, I've been fretting myself and sending him best wishes for a swift recovery.)

I'm still not quite over this cold and for various reasons have been socializing more than usual in the last couple of weeks. I will resume blogging about music in the next day or so; I have a Norma review in the works, a couple of comments on the Stravinsky double bill at SFS, and comments - and a complaint - about the double bill at Berkeley Rep.