Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part One

Note from William: This happens to be the 500th post since this website was created in November, 2005, all of which are still accessible. Although that total includes contributions from my colleagues Thomas Rubbert and Arthur Bloomfield, with two or three other posts contributed by others, that figure includes 278 of my performance reviews – not including 29 historical remembrances in my “50 year anniversaries” series, which some might characterize as (belated) performance reviews also.

The posts also include 57 posts of interviews (some in two parts) of 41 different individuals associated with opera; 38 of the “Quests and Anticipations” features, which highlight upcoming productions of more than routine interest; and 28 of my commentaries, including these year-end “Thoughts and Assessments”.


[Below: a vision of Leila (Nicole Cabell, center) in her temple is seen; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera: Eric Cutler, Nicole Cabell Radiant in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” – July 31, 2012.]


This year, I want to devote a portion of my year-end commentary to reviewing some of my past observations (and opinions). One of these observations is how the public gets information on opera performances.

I suspect that 15 years ago, the job of an opera company’s press officer was comparatively simple. He or she composed some brilliant copy (as they still do today) to be shared (at that time) with a relatively small group of individuals that would include the classical music editors of the major dailies, and hopefully the staff reporters or free-lance contributors to a couple of opera-oriented periodicals.


[Below: Doge Francesco Foscari (Placido Domingo, left) is unable to grant the wish of his daughter-in-law, Lucrezia (Marina Poplavskaya, right); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: Domingo, Meli, Poplavskaya Shine in Strassberger’s Rousing Revival of Verdi’s “Two Foscari” – Los Angeles, September 15, 2012.]


In the first of the series in 2009 [see Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part One], I spoke of the consequences of the observable decline of the printed press in relation to the electronic press (i.e., the Internet) in most (although not yet all) parts of the country in the following paragraphs:

“As papers lose advertising and are required to downsize, “the arts” will expand to include all of “entertainment” except for sports, which I believe, at least until the end of 2010, has enough readership to remain its own department in most daily newspapers. The trend towards newspaper “art and entertainment” departments may seem innocuous now, but editors will may well have to decide whether to pay for a reporter to cover the first performance of an opera revival (as opposed to a “new production”) or the opening of a rodeo. And, without the reporter’s depth of knowledge of the event being covered, the assigning of reporters to ‘events” becomes more a question of how to allocate the “free publicity” that comes with an article on the newspaper’s page, as opposed to a critical evaluation of a performance.”


[Below: Don Giovanni (Ildar Abdrazakov, left) gives Donna Elvira (Barbara Frittoli, right) reason to hope he will return to her; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: Ildar Abdrazakov is Don Giovanni in the Pascoe Production’s Revival – Washington National Opera, October 7, 2012.]


Among the interviews that I conducted was one with an opera company press officer, that of the Santa Fe Opera. [See The Festivities of the Santa Fe Opera Festival: An Interview with Joyce Idema.] She, of course, was full of illuminating information about the Santa Fe Opera Festivals, but I especially found her comments on the electronic press, and particularly on the social media, to be most relevant. I will have more to say about that as my end of 2009 comments continue.

In the second part of that my fin de 2009 essay [Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part Two], I spoke of another concern – opera productions as “throw-away art”.

“For most opera companies, there is an ongoing expense to store old productions. There are  examples of newly installed opera company intendants arriving and destroying many (in one famous case, it is reported almost all) of the existing productions, giving them free rein to work with their favorite concept directors to create new productions.

However, once one has made all the qualifying statements, too much of the operatic heritage has been deliberately destroyed – for some discarded productions, I suspect there is not even a photographic record of what has been lost.

Opera sets are utilitarian things. If a great artist has created them, that does not seem to matter much. It’s like the monastery in Milan where Leonardo da Vinci painted the “Last Supper”. The monks need a wider door to the kitchen? Just cut a wider opening in the current door below Leonardo’s mural, even if you have to cut off the feet of Leonardo’s image of Jesus Christ. (At least they saved most of the monastery wall that Leonardo used for his painting, which is more than can be said for the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle productions of Wagner’s “Fliegende Hollaender” or Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.)”


[Below: Norina (Danielle De Niese, left) is determined that she and Ernesto (Charles Castronovo, right) will 0vercome all resistance to their marrying; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: De Niese, Castronovo, Del Carlo Delight in a Delirously Daffy “Don Pasquale” – San Diego Opera, March 10, 2012edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


When I spoke of the lack of a photographic record of opera productions, it was after I had had extensive conversations with the person in charge of one of the opera-company departments responsible for set construction and design for both his company and other companies, who has had working relationships with a large number of the production and set designers operating in the United States.

However, it’s not simply the photographs of the sets that have been hard to find, assuming they exist somewhere (and that photographs were ever taken.) But finding appropriate photographs of artists in costume, reflecting the stage action, for my observances of the 50 year anniversaries of live opera performances I attended, is a much more difficult process. This is particularly the case as one moves away from new productions with famous international opera stars whose record company publicity departments encouraged photographs of their artists in live performance.

Now many Internet-savvy opera companies (which do not yet include the entire universe of opera companies) are providing websites like this one access to many color photographs of the principal artists onstage in costume. Most of my American opera reviews and some of the European ones are accompanied with photographs (many by photographers who themselves should be recognized as gifted artists) that give one a reasonably good sense of the appearance of the artists in their costumes, and of the staging and the sets.

I continue this discussion at Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part Two.

For those who wish to comment, e-mail me at [email protected].