Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Forward? Naw. Let's Look Back - We Can Do Forward Tomorrow (Or the Next Day - Or the Next)

The clock is ticking, and in New York we have about an hour-and-a-half to go.

I don't think I'll rush over to Times Square to watch the ball drop. I've never done it, despite having lived in New York for longer than I'm willing to admit, and I don't see any reason to begin tonight.

So how to observe this important annual transition? Marking the turn of the year is such an important ritual in our society, do I dare ignore New Year's Eve?

I'm having fun reading what other people have to say. So far today we've had a splendid column by Frank Bruni advising us to read more and tweet less. A hilarious bit by Peter Funt (The Year That Will Be), with my favorite of his predictions: "Delta Air Lines clarifies that standing room at airport boarding areas 'will remain free for the foreseeable future,' but that seats for passengers waiting to board will now cost $25." OK. I get it.

And getting closer to home, to people in my line of work: An important reminder from McKinsey (Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity).

Don't say you haven't been warned, knowledge strategists.

But those "get-prepared" pieces are a little too serious to suit me. Let's get down to what interests me, and instead of writing about how things might be in 2014, let me share a few thoughts about what I experienced in 2013.

"And what is it that interests you, Guy?" you ask (as well you might).

Most of my best friends - the folks who know me well - can tell you that I spend a lot of time thinking about:
  1. opera
  2. art nouveau as my personal concept of beauty (one definition: "an international philosophy and style of art, architecture and applied art—especially the decorative arts")
  3. elephants in Africa.
Can't tackle all three tonight, so let's think about opera in 2013 (if I can stay with this theme, I'll try to do some opera-specific looking forward another time).

In many respects it was a remarkable year but I'm not necessarily using the term "remarkable" to refer to excellence. Of course there were high - even great - moments. And certainly well-performed, splendid evenings at the opera house. There were also, I have to admit, several difficult situations and I guess that's coloring my thoughts as I try to look back on opera in 2013.

As I say, we had splendid performances. We subscribe to the Met, and  - musically speaking - that great house (pictured here) is truly a "home away from home" for us. I look back over my calendar for the past year, and I'm truly impressed by some of the wonderful experiences we had.

Glaringly, the greatest amount of thought (and conversation) for many of us opera lovers was given over to non-Met issues. Following years - one commentator says "decades" - of financial mismanagement, New York City Opera went out of business. Bankruptcy was declared in the fall, after some 70 years of performance. Established as "the people's opera" back in 1943 and so described by almost every New Yorker, the company had its highs and its lows but overall it was incredibly important in our city's (and the region's) cultural life.

I'm missing NYCO already. The memories I have of some of its performers (Domingo, Sills, Ramey, Malfitano, Troyonos, Milnes - oh the list is too long!) won't go away. And some of the productions stand out, such as Tito Copobianco's magnificent and unforgettable "Mefistofele" and Sarah Caldwell's pink-tinged "Der Rosenkavalier" (it might not have been Sarah Caldwell's but I remember how pink it was). There were so many more, far too many to remember, and I also long for some of the more experimental attempts that were made, often very successfully. For example, a splendid and almost avant-garde production of Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" was mesmerizing - and this was back in 1975 (see production photos here - I never again saw anything like this, except perhaps - in an entirely different vein - the Met's recent production of Shostakovich's "The Nose"). We had a lot to be grateful for, when we had NYCO around.

Now that NYCO is gone, one trend we're seeing in New York (apparently having begun over the last few years, but all of us didn't notice) has been the growth of tiny, more experimental opera companies, some with no more ambition than to enable New Yorkers to hear works that might not show up at such an opera house as the Met. That seems to be the goal, for example, of the Gotham Chamber Opera, which from 2001 until last fall was the Henry Street Chamber Opera. And there are others like it.

At the same time, because we have such high-quality music schools, we get good opera there as well. We were fortunate last spring to be invited to Manhattan School of Music for their production of "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" and it was spell-binding. I haven't checked out Julliard and Mannes yet, but I expect the quality to be as high.

So there's good opera to watch for, if we just take to time to see what's available.

And the Met? Well, I'm a subscriber and I can't complain. I get to hear at least eight performances a year and the standards are high, perhaps the highest in the world. Certainly there's no opera orchestra or opera chorus that even begins to compare with what we have at the Met, and the international roster of performers is certainly in a class of its own. You don't hear bad singing at the Met.

While I sometimes disagree with some of the decisions about production design, I hardly ever disagree with the musical values at the Met. And in a funny sort of way, I relish the move - with some operas - from the more standard designs to new concepts - I was delighted to discover that the so-called "rat pack" version of "Rigoletto" (set in Las Vegas in the 1960s) worked, and worked very well. So did the new "Falstaff" (and that one was particularly difficult for me, as the earlier, long-time Franco Zeffirelli version had become almost iconic for me, and for many other "Falstaff" lovers as well).

And then there are the standards that I don't want to ever go away, but they do. The Met's old "Parsifal" is the production I cut my teeth on for that opera, and I heard (and saw) it so many times I felt personally slighted when it was replaced. Fortunately, that replacement didn't last long, and now we have a daring new production. Not as up-lifting, perhaps, as what I grew up on, but good nonetheless, with fine musical values and artistically, some very reasonable - and believable concepts have been brought out. 

And now we're losing the iconic (there's that word again) production of "Der Rosenkavalier" - we were fortunate to be present at the very last of its nearly 200 performances (it premiered on January 23, 1969) and we'll live without it. We won't forget what we had for these many years - it was, there's no question about it, a gorgeous production - but I for one will be anxious to see what comes next. I guess more than anything, with this particular opera so highly regarded for its subtlety, I don't want it to be trivialized or that beautiful music distracted from.

As for losing the absolutely sublime and - at the same time - rousing production of "Die Meistersinger" for a production created for Salzburg and coming in a couple of years, well, I'm trying to withhold judgement. That production - like the old "Parsifal" - meant so much to me, and I'll try to be open-minded when we get the new one, but it will be hard.

And in any case, for many of these that we're losing, we have them available through the Met on Demand program, which for a very small fee allows people like me to live and relive favorite operas and favorite productions. 

2013 brought us a great level of satisfaction with the return of Strauss operas to the Met. We had not had them for a while - after all, there was the new "Ring" and the Wagner and Verdi bicentennials so something had to be set aside. Now we have them back. Not my luscious favorite ("Capriccio") but we'll have that back soon enough (I'm hoping). We do have "Arabella" coming in April, and just three weeks ago we had a splendid revival of another Strauss favorite, "Die Frau ohne Schatten," wonderfully performed and in the glittering (literally - many mirrored walls) production that is a true stunner. 

Let me sign off with a few words of praise, both to the Met as an opera company and to young composer Nico Muhly for bringing "Two Boys" to the house. Modern, a little scary for some folks (vaguely reminiscent of Britten's "Turn of the Screw"), and full of teen-age nastiness, the opera was beautifully performed, splendidly staged, and very, very satisfying. Muhly is a talented composer and his combination of many different styles and types of music (meaning: his originality), especially his skill with choral music, makes listening to his work a remarkable experience. In the big scheme of things operatic, if "Two Boys" is any sign of things to come, the Met is on the right track, and I think we folks in New York are pretty lucky indeed.

Finally, I will share one other operatic experience, this one not from New York at all, but giving me the opportunity to share a comparison that I don't often experience. In late November, we were in Paris and attended a performance at the Opéra de Paris Garnier. A beautiful experience, and as always when attending opera in another country, it's great fun to observe not only the performance and design styles, but the audience reactions. I loved it all. The opera was La Clémence de Titus in a stunning and thought-provoking production, and it was evident that great talent had been brought together to put together this evening at one of Europe's great opera houses (I've pictured the roof-top Apollo here). A great opportunity to see how well opera is performed outside of New York. 

Now if I could just find the time to travel all over America to see how opera is performed in other places in my own country.

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