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A distinct odor

“’I’ve almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn’t a Christian,’ muses merry murderess Abby Brewster early in the first act of Arsenic and Old Lace, and to tell the truth I’m beginning to think I’m almost as far behind the curve as she was. Recent new productions at the Met suggest strongly that Peter Gelb either doesn’t quite know what he’s doing or else, if he does know, has some wildly inappropriate ideas about what music drama is supposed to be.” Our own JJ (not pictured) muses on “Peter’s Principles” at Musical America.


  • 1
    armerjacquino says:

    “Then two supreme challenges confront him: King Lear with Derek Jacobi at the Donmar in December, and further ahead, for the New York Met, his second opera, Don Giovanni, a great but flawed work much trickier to pull off than the immaculately theatrical Billy Budd.

    “I was probably mad to say yes to that one,” Grandage laughs. “But I would have been even madder to have turned it down.” “

  • 2
    mrmyster says:

    “great but flawed work…” ??? Don Giovanni, flawed???
    Hah! That’ll be the day. “Tricky to pull off?” Not if you
    have superlative singers and a very good conductor.
    Mr. Grundage seems not to have the public relations
    touch, shall we say!
    And then one JJ says of the new productions at the
    Met, “business as usual.” So, I guess I still say, if you
    have superlative singers and a very good conductor,
    what is wrong with that? Far as I could tell, Mr G.
    though he speaks somewhat awkwardly, did no harm
    to Don Giovanni. Well, in any case, Heather Mac Donald
    of the Manhattan Institute has written the definitive
    commentary on all that in City Journal, current issue,
    available on their website -- as everyone here knows. I
    just hope everyone reads it, then reads it a second time.
    Heather’s words, I hear, are traveling around the world
    and being read with great interested. Banned in Germany
    and Switzerland, and parts of Spain, of course! :)
    One can say, of course, as far as the Wagner Machine
    is concerned “it’s tricky to pull off!” Maybe that’s what
    Mr Grundage was talking about.

    • 2.1
      armerjacquino says:

      It’s not Grandage who called it flawed or tricky, it was the journalist interviewing him. It helps to read.

      • 2.1.1
        La Cieca says:

        And of course Don Giovanni is indeed a flawed work dramatically which obviously would be Grandage’s frame of reference. The plot builds nicely to the first act finale, but then there is nothing left to happen in the second act except the invitation to the statue and the supper scene. The rest is all either story-independent comedy (the disguise to fool Donna Elvira, Masetto’s beating, the “shaving” scene in the revised version) or concert arias, including the two alternate pieces, Don Ottavio’s and Donna Elvira’s, given per bad tradition back to back.

        It is a tricky work to stage well as a theater piece, as opposed to (for example) Figaro where there is are fresh and organic comic situations (generally character-driven) right up until the end of the work. The only real difficulty in Figaro is keeping track of all the doors in Act 2, in my experience. The rest of the opera more or less plays itself.

        There is also the issue in Don Giovanni that even though the characters are all vivid, they are all static, without development, with the possible exception of Donna Elvira. She at least has some complexity. The rest of them…

        Don’t get me wrong: it’s a magnificent work. But dramatically it’s a diamond in the rough: a great stone, but it needs careful polishing.


          I think so too. For me it rarely works in the theatre. But when it does, it is magnificent. What did you think of the Kent production?

          • operaassport says:

            Agree completely. I think it’s one of the reasons it almost always works so well on record. It’s musically magnificent; dramatically it needs careful work.

          armerjacquino says:

          Cieca- Ottavio’s act 2 piece isn’t an alternate, is it? I was always under the impression that it was Dalla Sua Pace that was the interloper.

          But yes, there’s a big dramatic problem in Act 2, with the three consecutive big arias leavened only by the cemetery scene.

          ‘great but flawed’ is about the size of it, I’d say- especially in comparison to NOZZE or COSI.

          • La Cieca says:

            That is, either Ottavio or Elvira should sing a grand aria at that point, but not both. And ideally Elvira’s aria should be motivated by the recit between Zerlina and Masetto about the girl attacked by Don G just moments before — not, as it usually seems, the disguise gambit.

          kashania says:

          Opera Atelier is currently doing a staging of Don Giovanni that is presented firmly as a comedy with dramatic moments. And frankly, it works much better this way than as a psychological drama about a man with commitment issues. Also, “Il mio tesor”, “Mi tradi” and “Non mi dir” are all cut, making for a dramatically tight piece.

          I agree with La Cieca’s assessment. Mozart’s musical presentation of the dramatic situations is beyond compare but the drama itself is flawed.

      • 2.1.2
        operaassport says:

        It’s that air in Santa Fe; numbs the brain cells.

  • 3
    mrmyster says:

    “great but flawed work…” ??? Don Giovanni, flawed???
    Hah! That’ll be the day. “Tricky to pull off?” Not if you
    have superlative singers and a very good conductor.
    Mr. Grundage seems not to have the public relations
    touch, shall we say!
    And then one JJ says of the new productions at the
    Met, “business as usual.” So, I guess I still say, if you
    have superlative singers and a very good conductor,
    what is wrong with that? Far as I could tell, Mr G.
    though he speaks somewhat awkwardly, did no harm
    to Don Giovanni. Well, in any case, Heather Mac Donald
    of the Manhattan Institute has written the definitive
    commentary on all that in City Journal, current issue,
    available on their website -- as everyone here knows. I
    just hope everyone reads it, then reads it a second time.
    Heather’s words, I hear, are traveling around the world
    and being read with great interest. Banned in Germany
    and Switzerland, and parts of Spain, of course! :)
    One can say, of course, as far as the Wagner Machine
    is concerned “it’s tricky to pull off!” Maybe that’s what
    Mr Grundage was talking about.

  • 4
    havfruen says:

    Well, let’s see. Opera these days is at the mercy of not music directors,but stage directors,apparently. I simply cannot wait for the outcry when Hollywood decides that the music department is going to make directorial decisions, you know, to attract new audiences!

  • 5
    grimoaldo says:

    Rather than getting sidetracked into whether or not Don Giovanni is “flawed” (answer: yes, mostly because it is almost always performed in a inauthentic conflation of two versions resulting in more arias being sung than Mozart ever meant to include in one performance) wouldn’t it be more interesting to discuss the main point of the article, that is, does Gelb know what he is doing, does he have wildly inappropriate ideas about what music drama is supposed to be?
    “what, exactly, is the Met’s mission in staging opera?”

    Playing devil’s advocate: the Met had a well-known identity prior to Gelb’s regime, lavish traditional staging with stars left largely to their own devices, plus an orchestra under Levine usually rated as the best opera house orchestra in the world.
    That is changing, but what is it changing to?
    The one production praised in the article is the Traviata, brought in from Salzburg.
    Article concludes:
    “The productions are a hodgepodge that, on the relatively rare occasions when they turn out well, succeed almost by accident. ”
    Pretty devastating really.
    What should they do?
    Appoint John Copley as head of productions?
    (That’s a joke, sort of. At least he has done a lot of opera productions that work quite well on their own terms.)
    Any ideas?

    • 5.1
      ianw2 says:

      I’d be interested to see the exact analysis of what productions under Gelb (of whom, like JJ, I am a fan) have been seen as a critical success. Off the top of my head, it seems those that have- Trav, The Nose, House of the Dead- have been either imports or co-productions with ENO. Co-productions are the way of the future, so nothing against them, but are they also having the effect of providing a steadying hand at the tiller?

      (coincidentally, “what is company X’s mission” is a debate sparking amongst the opera set here in the Antipodes this week, thanks to a bit of a hand grenade of a speech by the senior-most figure in the country’s opera scene)

      • 5.1.1
        Harry says:

        ianwz: Yes I read that speech from the head of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini ‘about traditional opera goers have to give up their sense of entitlememt’. Well He can ‘stick’ his own sense of administrative entitlement have such an aliening attitude. I smile at your comment that he is “the senior most figure in the country’a opera scene”.LOL! Whenever WAS Terracini a true leading light as a performer? Unless existing die-hard patrons feel a welcomed connection supporting something, they will certainly not be encouraging others to attend. Terracini is yet but another smart arse administator that thinks he can dumb down what is produced. Shopping plaza-standard Opera, anyone?

          Regina delle fate says:

          Harry -- what’s going on down there in Sydney & Melbourne? I read somewhere that Terracini has come under attack, like OA’s late music director, Richard Hickox, by members of the company and influential members of the public. What has he done that was so bad? I’ve not been keeping track of the reviews from Down Under -- due to being busy -- and would love to know what the crux of all of this is. I’m hoping to make it to Melbourne for the OA Ring….

          • ianw2 says:

            Unfortunately, I am for reasons of necessity going to keep my cards close to my chest on this one, but part of the irritation has been that the person making the claims of fusty patrician elitism is in the rare and privileged position of actually doing something about it, and has been in that position for a while now. Bit like Romney et al claiming ‘outsider’ status.

            I think too that when Terracini was appointed there was a bit of excitement that he would bring his innovative festival-programming stamp to Bennelong, but the 2012 season is a lot of Mozart, with the most adventurous outing being Die tote Stadt. He also, in his speech, shat all over pretty much every Australian composer, which was Not Received Well, with the idea that Australian composers are trying to be the next Berg, which demonstrated only his lack of awareness on what Australian composers are actually doing (the Second Viennese School has not had much luck in Australia since, oh, the 1970s- pretty much all the Australian serialists abandoned it for a more tonal idiom in the late 80s). Adding insult to injury was that this was coming from someone who built his career on performing in avant-garde opera.

            I’m still a fan of Terracini, and am optimistic on what he’ll do with OA, but it was an ill-advised speech that seemed to be deliberately out to rustle feathers without much to gain.

    • 5.2

      The current trend seems to be towards making everything bland, of homogenizing the personality out of every opera and singer. It has the advantage of uniformity but the disadvantages of being utterly devoid of meaning, thrill, and entertainment value.

      I think it would help to get some directors with proven track records in producing exciting and creative opera (not theater) productions that have a particular point of view, and encourage them to take risks (rather than just not to offend anyone). Some would flop, but some would work, and at least the flops might be interesting. I’ve heard that several prominent European directors have been invited but declined because they fear a lack of artistic freedom, but Gelb should try to combat that, perhaps?

      • 5.2.1
        Bart says:

        I agree. It is a bland approach to productions. I sense the new productions attempt to play it safe and straddle both sides of the fence. They have a sort of “modern” look to them, but they don’t really offend anyone who absolutely hates Regietheater. So in the end they don’t really please anyone. They aren’t traditional enough for people who love traditional, and they aren’t really avant garde enough to please people who want a more interpretive approach to productions. Boris Godunov last season (which I actually enjoyed very much) is a case in point. The production told the story without offending traditionalists and had a quasi-modern/quasi-European look to it but stopped short of being anything wild. Same with Anna Bolena (the red tall bed was sort of symbolic and even reminded me of a guillotine even though that probably wasn’t the point since that was invented later)…..traditional enough but a few Euro-details. The Ring is sort of a similar style…..traditional costumes but sleek, new set that really just attempts to create scenes that “sort of” work. To me this is the new style at the Met: try to straddle both sides (traditionalists and Euro-crowd) so you don’t lose anyone in the audience. They aren’t productions you can get mad about but also not ones you can get excited about. They are extremely safe. Not innovative at all.

      • 5.2.2
        armerjacquino says:

        ‘some directors with proven track records in producing exciting and creative opera (not theater)’

        That, of course, is a description of McVicar- and yet the consensus is that BOLENA is a dud. It’s not always as simple as ‘this director is good, therefore his/her productions will be good’.

        Hindsight’s 20-20, of course. I’d say McVicar and Grandage were both good hires- in a sense, the fact that neither came up with the goods can’t really be placed at Gelb’s door.


          Of course it’s not that simple. Honestly I didn’t think the Anna Bolena was as much a dud as everyone else did. It was drab, but the direction was pretty good (perhaps because I saw the really bad Vienna production in the spring and found McVicar refreshingly logical and musical). But the design is truly a puzzle. Who actually thought such a dull look was a god idea? Didn’t the Met see the designs before everything was constructed?

          But before Don Giovanni Grandage has directed what, one opera?

      • 5.2.3
        Regina delle fate says:

        Grossmächtige Zerbinetta -- I think a lot of European directors fear the sheer size of the Met, especially those used to directing Sprechtheater. McVicar is a good example of a director who has tailored his productions to what he thinks the Met public wants, so one can understand JJ’s frustration. In any case he is a very variable director and did most of his best work for small companies more than a decade ago on very low budgets. Now he’s mainstream he does a sort of updated frou-frou in the tradition of old British pros such as Johns Copley and Cox -- depending on the opera, of course. Today, even when he’s given an inadequate budget -- as in the RO Aida -- he can’t be relied upon to have many interesting ideas. I think the Met has a real problem in that a lot of Regie productions only really work in an ensemble situation where the artists return regularly to the productions they were directed in by the original director, and many of the artists the Met employs are often hostile to more radical concepts. Gelb is caught in a bind between pleasing his artists, the wider public on the one hand, and JJ and his fellow Regieophiles on the other. And you can bet that the success of the Live in HD cinecasts impacts to some extent on pleasing a lowest common denominator of international audiences. I’ve met plenty of people in Europe who love the Met’s bland productions because they are the opposite of what they see -- and hear -- locally. In opera today, you really can’t please everyone. Chris Alden’s radical and brilliant Midsummer Night’s Dream for ENO got rave reviews on the whole, but about half of the audience hated it and the reviews did very little to fill the house. It was deeply disturbing and delved into areas of Britten’s psyche where no-one else has dared to go -- in the UK anyway. It would be a pity if this show was never revived, but that’s a distinct possibility. Luckily, the UK companies show no disinclination to use Alden -- either of them -- for new work. David’s Billy Budd at ENO and Christopher’s Norma (!!!!) for Opera North are eagerly awaited next year. As I’ve said before, it’s a pity they weren’t invited to run New York City Opera.

          manou says:

          I agree that McVicar is a very variable director -- but on the whole he has had I think more hits than misses. For instance, he directed a very well received Ring cycle for the Opera du Rhin -- I only saw the Siegfried, which was very good indeed (with Lance Ryan and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet). He is notoriously quite opinionated and mercurial, so I am not sure he ever works on the principle of giving people what he thinks they want.

    • 5.3
      steveac10 says:

      I think the one problem with a “Director of Production” is that that person’s aesthetic is imposed on all new productions, whether created by them or not -- plus that one director would get all of the plum assignments. I think the result would be akin to the Dexter era. Dexter’s point of view worked brilliantly on the masterpieces of the 20th century, but that era’s takes on the standard repertory were either mind numbingly dull (Rigoletto, Aida, Prophete and Don Carlo) or vulgar reactions to Dexter’s pared down point of view (Don Pasquale, Traviata). There may have been individual singers who enlivened various nights, but the standard rep productions were provincial at best. Worst of all (after various power struggles) it lead to a reactionary land of glitter, gauze and wretched excess as Crawford and Volpe turned the house over Zeff and Schenk and other assorted decorators. Soon, the scenery got as much applause as the singers. The Levine nights were cast by the A&R staff of Polygram Classics (except of course for the late 80’s Verdi productions where Sony Classical took responsibility)- the rest of the season by the admins at CAMI and the secretary in the Lindeman Young Artist’s office. Some of my favorites of the era include the fun house pillars Trovatore, the melting wax turntable Faust and the tenement air tunnel Salome. Good times.

      • 5.3.1
        Often admonished says:

        This post’s bluntness does not diminish its accuracy. Good summary.

        What Gelb has done very smartly is point to life after Levine. Appearances by Barenboim, Maazel, Esa Pekka and Yannik have shown the way…

    • 5.4
      Indiana Loiterer III says:

      Well, in partial defense of Gelb’s policy on stage directors, an opera company as large as the Met performs (or should perform) a wide variety of works, and no one production approach will be adequate to all of them. I’m not sure a company with a repertory as wide-ranging as the Met’s needs a perfectly consistent theatrical aesthetic; what will do for Turandot will not necessarily do for Rodelinda or Satyagraha. So the results are going to look like a bit of a hodgepodge even at best.

  • 6
    ilpenedelmiocor says:

    Has everyone/anyone seen the cringe-worthy (even the indomitable Netrebko seems at times uncomfortable) Charlie Rose interview with Netrebko, Costello, and Gelb? Aside from the fact that he eats up at least half the air time (so it’s tempting to fast foward through much it just to get to hear the singers speak), Gelb does indeed give the impression that he thinks he’s being terribly innovative by…hiring theatre directors, and he almost goes so far as to say he is thereby guaranteeing that anyone who happens to wander in off of Lincoln Plaza is in for a good time. This leads to the equally strong impression that his is — or at least was, since the current season was set so long ago — a scattershot approach (throw some stuff at the wall and see what sticks) and that he may not in fact really know what he’s doing, fucking genius or no.

    Never trust anyone who talks out of the side of his mouth??

    Check out 10:45 to 13:15 of the following in particular:


    In case the embedding doesn’t work, here’s the direct link:

    If it’s true, as ianw2 asserts in 5.1, that the new productions of La Traviata, The Nose, and The House of the Dead have been his greatest hits so far, shouldn’t that tell him something about the direction he needs to go in?

    • 6.1
      mrmyster says:

      Ilpene: Remember when R. Bing first came to the Met around 1950, he made a great thing of hiring “theatre directors” vs. opera directors? Margaret Webster comes to mind — and Zinka told famous and wonderful anecdotes about Miss Webster attempting to rehearse her and del Monoco in Aida. So this happens, time to time, and the ultimate outcome really depends on the taste of the general director; Bing had what it took. I am not sure Gelb has such in the field of opera, and Volpe just turned the matter over to others.
      It’s unusual to find all the requisite qualities in a general director — but now and then one does; these days, it seems necessary to go outside NYC to find such. Not naming names.

      • 6.1.1
        steveac10 says:

        Bing certainly had some taste when it came to directors and designers, but then it was unexpected and he didn’t have blogs and message boards etc to deal with. God only knows how opera list would have dealt with the Bing years. Callas wars, cavalier engagement of day to day conductors and the lack of a music director. Then there was the surfeit of Eastern European non-entities that’s not unlike the current administration’s propensity to default to Latvia, Russia and Georgia when casting (at the expense of admirable singers with more pronounceable names), plus wildly inappropriate casting of “house” singers. Stratas as Lisa and Elias as Amneris & Azucena come to mind. Even in a pinch that’s just silly. It never ceases to amaze me how opera lovers only remember the good that has passed by.

    • 6.2
      ianw2 says:

      he almost goes so far as to say he is thereby guaranteeing that anyone who happens to wander in off of Lincoln Plaza is in for a good time

      What else is the head of a Lincoln Plaza organisation meant to say?

      “Eh, pop in if you feel like it and have nothing else to do. Its a bit of a crapshoot really. Could be great, but it might suck. I dunno. Is it worth $80? Eh….. column A, column B. But 30 Rock starts again tonight… so…”

      Bit unfair to highlight the head of an organisation spruiking that organisation as evidence of sloppy management.

      I don’t really see a definite artistic point of view (“theatrically fresh” or otherwise) from Gelb, but at the same time I’m not sure how one would considering the size of the Met operations (as per Indiana above, you can’t do Turandot like you do Rodelinda)- the 100% Met generated productions have been mostly safe, at best (I suppose props to Sher’s Barbiere, and I didn’t hate Zimmerman’s first two outings, but I know I’m in the minority there).

      Thinking about houses of a similar size- and there are, what, four or five- none of them really seem to me have a clear ‘stamp’ of their head honcho, except perhaps Paris where Joel definitely took things in a more traditional, Mortier reactionary direction.

      Of course, it would also be interesting to see if not having to tiptoe around the feelings of a largely absent music director would have any impact on Gelb’s sense of planning and theatrical narrative for the Met. I think some of his ideas have been fascinating, but perhaps not convincingly executed (I know I bang on about it, but when will some of these Lincoln co-commissions see the light of day?).

      • 6.2.1
        oedipe says:

        Paris where Joel definitely took things in a more traditional, Mortier reactionary direction.

        Well, yes and no. Indeed, Nicolas Joël has given a more “traditional” direction to the Paris Opera. But, notwithstanding the fact that he is the whipping boy of the opera blogosphere, there is no comparison between the Paris Opera and the Met in terms of the number of “daring” productions. Just this current season, one can see in Paris 3 Willy Decker productions, 1 Robert Carsen, 1 Michael Haneke, 1 Robert Wilson, 1 Georges Lavaudant, 1 Lev Dodin (hideous, but definitely regie); as for the Martinoty Faust, the only “traditional” thing about it was that it didn’t have a clearly modern setting, and the ubiquitous coach was replaced by a bed.
        Yes, there are more “traditional” productions than during Mortier’s reign, but there are many kinds of audiences in Paris and Joël is trying to put (all kinds of butts) in the 6000 seats of Bastille + Garnier. Mortier was a very divisive general manager who alienated some of these publics.
        At any rate, the Met is way more conservative, a different type of beast.

          Often admonished says:

          Joel is a cultured and experienced guy. A decent muscian and fine linguist, he knows the backstage theatre world inside out. He assisted Chereau at Bayreuth and worked at Salzburg before climbing the ladder of provincial French and German companies. His directorial work in Toulouse was careful but sometimes “modern” -- the Boris for Van Dam was truly minimalist and cinematic -- his last Ring cycle took genuine risks with the piece. Musically, his support for young singers like Dessay and Alagna is well documented.

          IMO re-balancing the Paris Opera after the Mortier years is a worthy project. Will he succeed?

          • Regina delle fate says:

            OA -- the problem is that Joel is upstaged by houses such as La Monnaie and Netherlands Opera, that only do 10 shows a year and are much easy to fill -- audiences who want to go to the opera in Brussels and Amsterdam expect Regietheater, but they don’t always like it. As Oedipe says he has lots of seats to fill -- just under 5000 rather than 6000, I think -- but names like Martinoty look retrograde to the German press who really call the tune in Europe. Houses like Brussels and Amsterdam get lauded to the sky despite sometimes less than world-class musical standards for productions which please the critical panel of Opernwelt -- in other words about 25 people are ordaining what counts as quality opera in Europe. I go to Brussels regularly and they do some terrific shows and employ all the fashionable names, but they do dire stuff as well -- like Covent Garden or the Met.

          • oedipe says:


            You are touching on a few important issues here.

            Firstly, small(ish) opera houses in small(ish) capital cities in Continental Europe have to make choices concerning their identity. They can choose, for instance, to be miniature copies of the Paris Opera or Covent Garden. With few exceptions, these opera houses will have a hard time hiring top talent; they will thus project a provincial image and will be unlikely to attract an audience other than the local one. Alternatively, these opera houses can decide to carve for themselves some sort of innovative, “niche” or “avant-garde” identity. In doing so, these houses may lose some of their local audience but, due to the relative proximity of many European capitals, these houses may attract a whole new public. That is the kind of choice that La Monnaie has made, quite wisely IMO: an amateur of regie can hop on a train in Paris and be in the center of Brussels in a couple of hours.
            Mind you, other options exist: an opera house can carve for itself a strong “niche” identity and be successful and exciting even WITHOUT regie. Take, for instance, the Opéra Comique in Paris: its stagings of rare operas, with high quality ensembles and conductors such as Gardiner or Christie, are often “the talk of the town” (and sell out). Atys was one such staging. (Incidentally, this is an illustration of the fact that a simplistic, manichean distinction between innovative “regie” and dusty “tradition” is rather bogus.)

            Secondly, notwithstanding Opernwelt’s arrogance, the observation that outside of Germany creativity may take forms that differ from the German/Nordic “regie mold” is more a sign of the limitations of the German dogma than a proof of the backwardness of others. Important opera houses with large and varied audiences thrive with, and are best served by, exposure to a variety of directorial styles: not just the likes of Herheim, Neuenfels, Decker, Castorf, etc., but also Bieito or Warlikovski, but also Carsen, Olivier Py (very talented, very French), Sivadier, Martinoty, etc.

            Among European audiences there exists what I would call a “conservative avant-garde”, people who adopt certain trends because in their minds these trends become identified with progress. But once these trends are adopted, such people can become very dogmatic and intolerant with alternative viewpoints, rejecting anything that doesn’t fit the mold, irrespective of quality. This audience, very vocal, is just ONE of the audiences the general manager of a large opera house has to take into account.

          • ianw2 says:

            They can choose, for instance, to be miniature copies of the Paris Opera or Covent Garden. With few exceptions, these opera houses will have a hard time hiring top talent; they will thus project a provincial image and will be unlikely to attract an audience other than the local one. Alternatively, these opera houses can decide to carve for themselves some sort of innovative, “niche” or “avant-garde” identity

            So, basically, what NYCO should be, and used to be, doing.

    • 6.3
      IngeK says:

      Interesting comment about the interview.
      I didn’t watch from the start so I don’t know WHY they were being interviewed. My reaction was just as much to the appearance as the content.

      Costello it seemed to me came across as sympathetic ,but I thought he was nervously looking out the corner of his eye to check Gelb’s reaction as if to see if he was saying the right things.

      Anna, bless her heart saved the interview from not being “all about Gelb”- slightly bemused,down-to-earth, but classy.

      I found Gelb’s his participation in the HD interview during AB insufferable. I sense he is getting to big for his pants. There is something pathetic about having a sales pitch for HD while WATCHING the HD -- sort of having to see ads for Verizon on TV when they are the ones that supply the TV service. YUCK. He’s gotten to be an un-charming Dr. Dulcamara.

    • 6.4
      louannd says:

      Netrebko loos gorgeous here, I have to say. Those grape cluster earrings and the dark fuchsia color blouse and her hair up, lovely! I love the way Peter is describing LePage as a competent director because he has “studied the score intensely.”

    • 6.5
      Clita del Toro says:

      I started watching the Charlie Rose interview, but Gelb made me nauseous, so I turned it off, even before Nebs appeared.

  • 7
    Hans Lick says:

    myster — Yes, Bing brought in Margaret Webster, Alfred Lunt and Tyrone Guthrie, all of them directors who had experience of opera. The Met’s productions (the Zimm 3 and Peter Grimes come to mind) are the work of tyros who haven’t a clue and we can’t be rid of them too soon. (I believe it was Margaret who told tales of Zinka, not the other way around. At least, those were the tales I read.)

    I am not convinced that Mr. Gelb can tell the difference between a wild theatrical idea and a wild theatrical idea incorporating music-drama and displaying its values. Tales of the squawking production guys when the Machine misbehaves in Siegfried show no sign that anyone in that section of the company has a clue.

    As always, JJ is to the point, and as always most of his points are not merely excellent — they merit answers, and pondering, by the Powers That Be.

  • 8
    louannd says:

    An eloquent, rational and calm answer to “the distinctive odor.” That that other piece was actually in print is amazing to me, not because of its subject matter, but because it was so badly written, I could have written it. Bravo JJ!

  • 9
    kashania says:

    In the 50’s, Bing hired theatre directors who brought a fresh perspective to opera and a much-needed theatricality to an art form that was all about music-making.

    That’s not the case today. Opera doesn’t need a “fresh” theatrical perspective. There are plenty of innovative, fresh ideas out there in the world of opera direction.

    What opera needs is a director who understand the complexities of making opera work as theatre. Not another Broadway director with little operatic experience who’s going to bring “fresh” pair of eyes to opera. That approach is not only condescending but impractical. Opera is a strange and difficult animal to comprehend and a knowledge of its inner workings is key.

    • 9.1
      iltenoredigrazia says:

      kashania makes a very interesting point. It’s not as if opera has been stagnant for decades now. There have been directors just about everywhere who have presented original, innovative, provocative productions all along. Some had also theatre experience.

      This is like the often heard comments about how “now” singers have to act and look good, etc. We’ve always had good looking and acting singers. Styles may have changed but they were hot for their times. Think Geraldine Farrar, Grace Moore, Ezio Pinza.

      The same with directors. Even the young Zeffirelli was admired for the effectiveness of some of his productions early on. And he also came from the theatre world. And as some others have already said, film, projections, unit sets, psychological interpretrations, monochromatic productions, you name it, they have all been used in opera before.

      Not all theatre directors can also succeed in the movies or TV. Same goes for opera.

      • 9.1.1
        louannd says:

        And as some others have already said, film, projections, unit sets, psychological interpretations, monochromatic productions, you name it, they have all been used in opera before.

        I just finished watching Herheim’s Abduction from Salzburg done earlier this decade, and, I believe he used every one of your named devices in the production. I thought it was evocative and brilliant. Mozart’s music came ALIVE! That was, in part, also due to wonderful singing, by performers who are clearly motivated by new and intelligent ideas.

  • 10
    Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    I have a question relative to some of this thread, to JJ’s recent excellent writings on the Musical America website, and to other ongoing pages and matters on Parterre.

    What is a dramaturg in European Opera companies?
    What is a dramaturges in American Opera companies?
    What are the actual responsibilities of dramaturgs employed by those theaters?
    Why do some productions have dramaturgs brought in from other places?
    Do damaturgs for opera have to know how to read music?
    Is there an international association of dramaturgs?
    At what point does a dramaturg become a dramaturd?

    • 10.1
      Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      What does the dramaturg of the Metropolitan Opera do in contrast with what one of the dramaturgs employed by the major European opera companies?

    • 10.2
      Buster says:

      The Netherlands Opera has a dramaturg since they moved to their new building in 1986.

      From an interview with Klaus Bertisch:

      He provides dramatic support to directors and singers.

      The dramaturg functions as a sounding board for the artistic director during the planning of the season. This is a very important task; the main theme always being “new reperoire.” What can opera contribute as an expression of the period we live in now? Which operas are interesting? Do we want a large opera, or a small one? How does it fit into the repertoire? A musicologist is present as well during these discussions, mainly to advises on the scores. Lots of composers and publishers come with new operas to the Netherlands Opera – and decisions what to show, and what not are made by Audi and the dramaturg. They also decide who will perform the work, which conductor fits best, which singers, and which director.

      After the operas are selected, the dramaturg starts to collect data on the opera, the composer, the author, the period – he filters out themes that can be used in the concept of the director. Some directors appreciate this input, others prefer to work alone. Directors are not obligated to work with the dramaturg, but most directors like to work to him.

      The dramaturg is also present during the rehearsals – checking on things that have a negative effect on the concept of the production, and suggesting solutions to the director.

      So he functions as a discussion partner for the director, and iis thinking along with him how a production develops.

      He furnishes data that can help with the interpretation of an opera.

      He talks to singers about the contents of their roles

      He writes a text for the program book, in which he provides a context of the opera.

    • 10.3
      Regina delle fate says:

      Dramaturg(e) is essentially an intellectual consultant who may or may not give the regisseur some of his ideas for a production concept, and helps to develop them in rehearsals and discussions with the artists. In the English-speaking world, it has come to mean publications or programme editor -- in which the ideas of the director/dramaturg (if there is one) are outlined in articles commissioned to reflect their concept. Very few UK opera directors use dramaturgs in the echt-Deutsch sense, and the post is all but unknown in the spoken theatre, except when European-oriented directors are invited. The problem with dramaturgs in Germany is that they are sometimes a fig-leaf for the director’s own intellectual nakedness -- Katherina Wagner is a prime example of an opera director who couldn’t cope without one.

      • 10.3.1
        armerjacquino says:

        Regina- it’s not quite true to say that the post of dramaturg is all but unknown in spoken theatre. It just means something different, that’s all- it’s more of a script editor role, especially at theatres who specialise in new writing. In my experience, dramaturgs are people who suggest rewrites because they wouldn’t have a job otherwise.

          Regina delle fate says:

          Sorry Armerj -- that’s more or less what I meant to say but didn’t: that Dramaturg in the strict German sense of the word hardly exists in the (UK) spoken theatre. Of course, in German Schauspielhäuser they are just as important -- and have the same function -- as in the Opernhäuser.

          • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

            Therein lies the problem! So many of the dramaturgs working in opera are not musicians.

      • 10.3.2
        Quanto Painy Fakor says:

        BRAVA REGINA!!! What’s more there are some really vile dramturgs working in Europe -- with egos and defects larger than the Ring of the Niebelung.
        Richard Jones, David McVickar, and even Robert Carsen are other examples of very creative directors who rely heavily (more than you would think) on Dramaturds.

  • 11
    Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    This is a great start thank you so much. And the Netherlands Opera has benefitted for that job description. Now what about the reality of the dramaturgs in Germany? Are they in France? In Italy?

  • 12
    phoenix says:

    Interesting article.
    — If the director knows what he is doing, I don’t see the need to hire a ‘dramaturg’ = more expenses to bring on another phony… hasn’t the Met got enough of them already? That glorified accountant masquerading as General Manager, the arrogant old New Zealand witch in the Casting Department… go right on down the line, you’ll find them all dancing the same menuet.
    — What the above article doesn’t address (and what hasn’t been objectively dealt with comprehensively enough in any article I’ve come across) is why the Met in recent years have made it a tradition to hire and promote singers way past their prime vocal estate. Do N. Dessay, F. Furlanetto, V. Urmana, K. Mattila, D. Zajic, D. Voigt, W. Meier, M. Guleghina, etc. give ‘deep’ discounts in return for riding the great Met Media-Hype-Merry-go-Round as contenders for cult figure status? I don’t include Domingo or Fleming in this group, since they have already achieved bonafide cult figure status, thus they can look forward to their 90th birthday galas at some well-known venue. I wonder how disappointed audiences at the Met & Chicago Lyric are because they are not currently experiencing the artisty of Edita Gruberova? Obviously most of the patrons are more concerned with media reputation and don’t really care whether these once competent singers have ‘stayed too long at the fair’ or not (particularly since nowadays most patrons themselves are at the age of teetering on the edge of senility… myself included, of course). After all, who wants to admit to buying into the bad taste of singers giving authoritative ‘personality’ performances whilst indulging in simulated vocal technique to masquerade dried-up tonal resources.

    • 12.1
      ianw2 says:

      Singers like Dessay, Furlanetto, Mattila, Meier and Zajic all may not still have the bloom of youth in their voice, but they’re certainly still strong performers and can certainly move tickets.

      How dare Gelb and Billinghurst cast such has-been singers like Kweicien, Mattei, Costello, Netrebko etc. Ragged voices and box-office poison, all of ’em. Such a disastrous “tradition”.

      If you can somehow cast a season exclusively of singers who will be exactly at the apex of their vocal prowess in five years time with not a single scheduling, health, pregnancy, repertoire or box office concern, please do write to Opera America. You could do a keynote.

    • 12.2
      Arianna a Nasso says:

      “If the director knows what he is doing, I don’t see the need to hire a dramaturg”

      You don’t need to put dramaturg in quotes. It has been a real job in theater for quite a while. Think of it as outsourcing. Research is very time consuming, and if one utilizes a dramaturg on each show, the time savings will allow a director to do another production each season. As long as the director makes use of the research in preparing a production, why should it matter who actually did the research?

      • 12.2.1
        phoenix says:

        — And which wet suit did you snorkel in on from Nasso this morning, dear Arianna?
        — Did Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Donizetti, etc. have dramaturgs? For exactly how long has a dramaturg been an essential requirement for an operahouse? It must have originated in postwar Europe when they had a great of subsidy funding for the arts from their governments AND they had to come up with a POSITION for somebody’s current trick.
        — It doesn’t really matter what a dramaturg says or doesn’t say or does or doesn’t do. Audiences come to live performances of opera for the visual aspects, i.e. what they see and perceive. Listening to broadcasts from the Met & Bayreuth over the last few years it has become evident to me that most patrons consider vocal resources & singing technique secondary to their visual perceptions of the production.
        — The author of the ariticle above has hitched his wagon to the only star remaining in the operatic performing firmament… almost all of what he has written since he started there has been concerned with regie and production values.

  • 13
    phoenix says:

    And which broomstick did you fly in on, ianw2??? or did you borrow Billinghurst’s original kauri?

  • 14
    tancredipasero says:

    JJ puts his finger on it without realizing:

    “People whinge all the time about directors “distorting” opera, as if there were some ideal set of meanings just sitting there on the surface of any given work, all of them ready to be grasped by the casual passer-by. But if this were true, a routine musical performance could reveal all the profundities of a Mahler symphony: so sorry, Otto Klemperer and Leonard Bernstein, your services are no longer needed.”

    Nobody who argues against directors “distorting” opera really does so “as if there were some ideal set of meanings just sitting there on the surface” -- that’s a caricature whose only utility (such as it is) is to suggest that those who don’t agree with the author are unqualified to participate in a discussion.

    But just after that comes the real reason Regietheater is so problematic: the core content of opera is located in the same place it is in a Mahler symphony, the score. Stage production goes wrong when it starts to displace, or circumscribe, the moment-to-moment exploration by the performers of the emotional and dramatic content embodied in the score. That doesn’t mean it’s OK for the visual side to be boring, or inert, or unattended to -- and it doesn’t mean everything has to be set in the period of the libretto etc etc. It just means the visual side shouldn’t take the lead, shouldn’t close off paths that interpreters of the score might want to follow, shouldn’t disinvite musicality and musico-dramatic responsiveness from being the main energy-source of the rehearsal process. Shouldn’t create a situation in which “a routine musical performance,” as JJ puts it, might seem adequate, or might happen through inattention because people are mostly focusing elsewhere.

    The best production is the one that gives good shape and focus to the visual drama while energizing and freeing the actors to access their fullest resources of musical and vocal inspiration -- because that’s where, in this art form, they are in closest touch with the core content and, if they succeed, are likeliest to convey it in the most meaningful way.

    That’s not to say this CAN’T happen in a highly interventionist “Regie” production, or that it never has happened there, but just that there are reasons why it might happen more rarely there. It’s all a matter of balance -- if you feel we’re getting plenty of the kind of musical inspiration that makes opera great, but the visual side is failing to live up to that, then yeah, full speed ahead with focusing on productions as the defining element of a season and the most important forum for discussing how opera works. Some people are not convinced that’s the best path -- why condescend to them?

    • 14.1
      iltenoredigrazia says:

      PERFECT. Absolutely perfect exposition of the issue. Anything I could add, tancredi has said it better.

  • 15
    opera-cake says:

    La Cieca — EXCELLENT article!

    I just finished watching Don Giovanni. It is scenically beyond bad on any and every account. Even the dancing numbers become annoying, pointless, and add to the overwhelming dumbness of the show. I believe the infamous London production by F.Zembello (available on DVD) is better than this one.

    I also saw new Anna Bolena a few days ago, and sorry but it is no good either. There, at least, one can blame it on the weak libretto. But to screw up Don Giovanni this badly is hardly excusable.

    As for The Ring, I did/do not want to comment much… except that every time I listen to the presenters boasting about the millions of dollars The Met invested to stage new Ring I feel uncomfortable: isn’t that precisely a reason to be ashamed of?! Invested millions to say nothing! I could even argue that the mammoth machinery works to the detriment of the storyline.

    Decker’s installation would have been much much cheaper, and while not disturbing to traditionalists, it would’ve most certainly added a few fine ideas to the already passionate libretto.


  • 16
    David says:

    Oh well, it’s probably just me, but I liked the Don Giovanni. I don’t think it was just the fact that it wasn’t the train wreck that the critics had made it out to be. I thought it told the story relatively simply and clearly and allowed for some great performances -- singing and acting. And surely the skill of a good director is to elicit great performances from his or her cast?

    • 16.1
      CruzSF says:

      It’s not just you, David. But those of us who liked it were out-commented by those who disliked it. Good thing most people here didn’t see the new Don Giovanni at SF Opera…

    • 16.2
      Bluessweet says:

      Fortunately, I grew up with St, John Terrell’s Music Circus. Theater in the round gives one the sense that the scenery is not necessary, since it all must be see through, and the audience’s imagination is. The set was wicked bad but the story is the story. Some fine singing and extra fine acting; along with some just of the make do nature. I’d put DG down as an ok performance with a wacky set design four hundred shutter doors?? Dim to the point of miner’s lamps needed??? (Perhaps to hide the shabby set. The same concept, equally bad, was employed in Damnation but at least we got rappelling down the front of the set.

    • 16.3
      Regina delle fate says:

      Exactly the same could be said of the Marthe Keller production which I caught in New York and thought handsome if not especially challenging. The big question is why the need to change it so soon, for another, apparently equally bland.