From Operavore, the WQXR Blog
Dec 19, 2020 · by Fred Plotkin
It has been quite a year, this year like no other. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that but, in looking back on 2020, one realizes just about everything has changed, much for the worse but some for the better. At this writing, 1,630,000 persons around the world have died and 74 million have been infected with the novel coronavirus that caused COVID-19.
I have known eight people who died and more than 40 who have been infected with the virus. Most of them worked in opera. Among these were Vincent Lionti, violist at the Metropolitan Opera; Iris Love, archeologist, dachshund breeder, and generous opera patron; Terrence McNally, playwright (Master Class; The Lisbon Traviata) and opera librettist (Dead Man Walking, Great Scott); Robin Tannenbaum, a Met electrician; and Luca Targetti, artist manager and former casting director of La Scala. Conductor Joel Revzen was a very close friend of mine for decades and was loved by colleagues, friends and family wherever he went.
In 2020, we also lost valuable colleagues to illnesses other than COVID. Soprano Erin Wall and bass Arthur Woodley, both much-loved artists, were claimed by cancer. And, while the passing of the incomparable Mirella Freni was not a surprise, it was deeply felt. Jan Morris, the contemporary author who inspired me most, died last month.
Needless to say, 2020 was a year defined by loss, not only because so many people died. The pandemic closed most opera houses, concert halls, and theaters all over the world. In the United States, some five million people who work in the arts found themselves out of work, losing fees they needed to live on, because this pandemic was a force majeure that allowed theaters and concert halls to renege on their commitments. This crisis also affected the finances of all arts institutions, but some, including the opera companies in Omaha, Seattle, and Minneapolis, made efforts to help their contracted artists get through financially. The Met furloughed much of its staff, and the orchestra and chorus were left in desperate financial straits. Many of them gave up their homes in New York and moved to less expensive places to ride out the pandemic, however long that will take. If these splendid ensembles cannot be reassembled after the pandemic, it will represent the vitiation of a magnificent institution.
This year, more than ever, the difference between the United States and most European nations regarding social and artistic values has been starkly evident. Most artists who live in Europe (including Americans who reside there), were able to receive medical care and food and housing security. In the U.S., the Federal government provided little ongoing support after initial stimulus funds were approved in the spring. Musicians, actors, dancers, writers, and visual artists were left to their own devices and could not find jobs in sectors — especially food service and temporary office work — that had been dependable in the times when the term “social distancing” had no meaning.
And yet, creative people persisted intrepidly and creatively. They found inspiration where they could and fostered opportunities for themselves and others when that was possible. They, and others, deserve recognition, and that is why it is time for the eighth annual Excellence in Opera (“Freddie”) awards.
As regular readers recall from my previous awards dating back to 2013, I typically attended 80 to 100 live opera performances each year in theaters across North America and Europe, as well as some 20 recitals and orchestral concerts featuring singing. In 2020, between January 15 and March 10, I attended 13 operas and 10 concerts and recitals.
I was on track to see 105 operas and attend some 40 concerts this year in at least 28 different venues. I most regret missing what would have been my 49th complete Ring cycle with a cast led by Christine Goerke at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and a deep dive into the opera Fidelio and its influences at Opera Bonn in September — five different operas in five days. I also was scheduled to teach at the centennial edition of the Salzburg Festival which, miraculously, did go on in reduced form, but I was prevented by travel restrictions from making the journey.
I have decided to confer Excellence in Opera awards for 2020 without using the traditional categories of previous years. Instead, I want to acknowledge the most creative and transformational work and events I experienced this year. The names of this year’s honorees appear in capital letters.
Addio Del Passato
By late February, COVID-19 had already rampaged through Wuhan, China, and Northern Italy, and cast a dark shadow on the United States. It was a matter of when, not if, we would be besieged, especially because President Trump privately told Bob Woodward on February 7 that the virus was much more serious than the annual flu — even though he said the opposite to the American people. While watching loved ones be infected in Italy, I understood that my attendance at live performances was soon to end. Those few that remained took on added meaning.
And so it was on February 26 when the Met presented Verdi’s La Traviata with an extraordinary LISETTE OROPESA in the title role and a fine cast including Piero Pretti, Luca Salsi, and Maria Zifchak conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Oropesa has moved to the front ranks of opera artists in recent years, and her Violetta’s downward trajectory of health and hope was a musical and dramatic depiction of what we all imagined COVID-19 would be, but perhaps could not yet imagine how widespread it would become. It was on this night, because of the remarkable alchemy of Verdi’s genius and Oropesa’s artistry, that COVID-19 became real for me a week before I learned of the death of the first individual I knew personally.
As I Live and Breathe
Most of my paying work is done in front of live audiences. We share the same space, the same air, the same moment. With the arrival of the initial lockdown in March, all of that was canceled for 2020. I chose to shelter with family and make inspiration my word of the year rather than one connected to the limitations and devastations imposed by the virus.
According to my dictionary, Inspiration comes from the Latin inspiratus (the past participle of inspirare, “to breathe into, inspire”) and, since the middle of the 16th century has meant, in English, “the drawing of air into the lungs.” Doctors still say inspiration when speaking of breathing and also use expiration (“the act or process of releasing air from the lungs”). In the early 14th century, before inspiration was used to refer to breath, it had a religious meaning in English, suggesting a divine influence upon a person, from a divine entity. The sense of inspiration often found today (“someone or something that inspires”) dates from the 19th century.
In seeking to inspire others and to be inspired, I began a series of weekly conversations with musicians, writers, and other creative people, most of whom are typically too busy to converse for an hour or two via Zoom. Their availability was an unexpected gift from the coronavirus. With my faraway guests I could share the same moment and, after a fashion, the same space, and draw breath in a way that could connect us even if we could not feel our audience. These are archived on YouTube and located by searching Fred Plotkin on Fridays.
I decided this year to only read books that might inspire me and, when possible, to have their authors join me on a Friday. There are three extraordinary new books I found life-changing that I probably would not have gotten to read in my previous life on the outside:
— Like Falling Through a Cloud: A Lyrical Memoir of Coping with Forgetfulness, Confusion, and a Dreaded Diagnosisby EUGENIA ZUKERMAN. The revered flutist, journalist, and author has created an intimate work of beauty out of the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in this volume of poems that form a narrative every bit as encompassing and enlightening as a great song cycle by Schubert. In the concluding poem in the book she says, “I do not embrace my inevitable decline but I’m determined to find a way to make the rest of my stay on this problematic planet filled with light and love and music.” And, each day, she takes out her flute and plays Syrinxby Debussy, as she did for me on Zoom.
— Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutionsby ANNIK LaFARGE. This book was an unexpected joy, even though I was aware of the author’s talents. LaFarge uses Chopin’s Op. 35 Sonata as a point of departure to explore the life of the composer and his world, as well as her own connection to this famous work. She also created a website with links to all of the music she discusses in this volume, which meant many hours of fascinating and, yes, inspirational listening.
— Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Musicby ALEX ROSS. It would be too facile to co-opt the Wagnerian term Gesamtkunstwerk(total work of art) to describe Ross’s stupendous achievement here. The organizing idea of this book is how Wagner influenced art, literature, politics, sexuality, cinema, economics, perceptions of race, and so much more. Everything, it seems, except for music, where the composer’s influence has been widely explored almost since he died in 1883. As with LaFarge’s book, but on a monumental scale, Ross impels his reader to seek out masterpieces such as the writings of Baudelaire, Cather, T.S. Elliot, Joyce, Mann, Woolf, and countless films. If I need to shelter in place for another year, Ross has given me the inspiration to see me through.
Black Artists Matter
Racism, both overt and subtle, has been a virus in the American body politic since at least 1619. While, during the presidency of Barack Obama, it was common to use the term “post-racial,” that simply was not the case. Progress has been made for Black people and other people of color, but insidious racism is still a tragic part of the American reality.
In 2020, many Black artists, including ANGEL BLUE, LAWRENCE BROWNLEE, JULIA BULLOCK, COURTNEY CAREY, DENYCE GRAVES, MORRIS ROBINSON, KAREN SLACK, and RUSSELL THOMAS, have used their voices to advocate for real representation in opera and classical music for artists and administrators of color.
This is not just a question of having one of them be a diversity officer in an arts organization, although that is important. We need to have more persons of color on opera boards, in management (in addition to the excellent Wayne S. Brown, CEO of Michigan Opera Theatre), and, especially, in positions where they can do casting and make artistic decisions. Some companies, including those of Cincinnati and Philadelphia, have been in the vanguard of having Black artists in positions where they can effect change.
In August 2020, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, together with the San Francisco Symphony, created the Emerging Black Composers Project, which will commission 10 works over 10 years. Application deadline is February 1, 2021.
WQXR’s Terrance McKnight did a lot of programming in 2020 featuring Black musicians in the classical world. He currently has an ongoing series, The Black Experience in the Concert Hall.
ANTHONY McGILL, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (and formerly a member of the Met orchestra) received the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 2020 and donated it to scholarship funds at Juilliard with the scope of including young musicians of every race, religion, and gender identity. With the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black citizens, McGill used his position and talents to play music to honor them and raise consciousness among all Americans using the hashtag #taketwoknees. Listen to his performance of two works by Damien Sneed followed by his devastating arrangement of “America the Beautiful.”
Dance, Little Sister
Salome, semi-staged at the Dallas Symphony, starring Latvian soprano AUSRINE STUNDYTE and splendidly conducted by FABIO LUISI, got a large, enthusiastic audience at the Meyerson Symphony Center even though it was performed on Super Bowl Sunday. It was a reminder that world-class opera performances can be found wherever outstanding artists are given the conditions to do their best work with the support of management, donors, and audiences who believe in them and prize their talents. Dallas is in the enviable position of having two of the finest conductors active today, with Luisi at the Symphony and Emmanuel Villaume at the Dallas Opera. (While working on this article I found out that archaeologists believe they have found the room in Machaerus, Jordan, where Salome danced for her stepfather Herod).
Islands in the Stream
Since the worldwide lockdown, very little live opera has taken place, especially in North America. In its place, streaming of pre-existing videos of operas (as well as theater, dance and concerts), has been a spiritual lifesaver for millions of arts lovers. The Metropolitan Opera has offered a different work each night since the spring (by now some are repeats, but that does not matter), and many other opera companies in North America, Europe, and Australia have also transmitted recent and some vintage opera videos. It troubles me that many of these companies don’t pay the artists appearing in these performances each time they are shown. This is an issue that needs to be addressed as management / artist relations evolve in light of what COVID has wrought.
While streaming has many virtues in these times, I have never fully embraced it, much for the same reason I don’t enjoy watching streamed films. I don’t like to sit still staring at a smallish screen with sound that is not stellar. In these streaming times, I will put a performance on and aim for the best audio quality and listen rather than view. This gave me great pleasure to hear (three times) the late Johan Botha’s extraordinary performance as Tannhäuser.
There has been an impressive amount of new programming and efforts to make works that are congenial to the Zoom format. Some of these will still be with us after we can return to theaters. I fear that some people may have lost the penchant for attending live performances, and that is a serious threat to the long-term viability of the performing arts.
One remarkable achievement was the Met’s AT-HOME GALA streamed round the world on April 25. The artists participated to help raise money for the cash-strapped opera company. It would be hard to gather that number of great singers in one opera house on the same day, and there was the added pleasure of seeing most of them in their homes in (by my count) 14 nations and eight American states. Particularly delightful were ROBERTO ALAGNA and ALEKSANDRA KURZAK in their library. ERIN MORLEY was astonishingly good singing and accompanying herself in Donizetti and was, for many viewers, the biggest hit of the gala.
A technical and musical tour-de-force was the combination of members of the METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA in their own homes and YANNICK-NÉZET-SÉGUIN conducting the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and then the orchestra joining their maestro and the METROPOLITAN OPERA CHORUS for “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco.
Namenlose Freude (Inexpressible Joy)
On March 6, I was in London just as Britain and America were facing the inevitable onslaught of the virus. I had arrived two days before with mask and hand sanitizer, items that could not be found in central London. One could feel a collective sense of dread threatening even the stiffest of British upper lips. And yet the lure of hearing the awesome (yes, that is the right word) young Norwegian soprano LISE DAVIDSEN in her Covent Garden debut as Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio made the audience echo the character’s declaration, “Ich habe Mut und Kraft!” (“I have courage and strength!”). The production by Tobias Kratzer, with sets and costumes by Rainer Sellmaier, was misguided and especially cruel to tenor Jonas Kaufmann, whose leg was chained to a rock even as he was surrounded by the chorus and seemed like a circus oddity on display. Kaufmann sang beautifully, and the supporting cast (led by Georg Zeppenfeld, Amanda Forsythe, and Robin Tritschler) were all fine under Antonio Pappano’s passionate conducting. But it was Davidsen who transcended everyone and everything around her. I was so looking forward to her assuming the role this month in the Met’s excellent production at the culmination of the worldwide celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
Ready or Not, Here Comes Mama
For sheer musical invention and delight, few operas can top Handel’s Agrippina, which entered the Met repertory in February with an irresistible JOYCE DiDONATO in the title role, the scheming mother of the dissolute Nerone (a vocally and physically dexterous KATE LINDSEY) and wife of Emperor Claudio (MATTHEW ROSE). Both father and son desire Poppea (BRENDA RAE, in a terrific Met debut). Also in the picture, and in the calculus of the four above-named characters, are Ottone (IESTYN DAVIES, singing superbly), Pallante (DUNCAN ROCK), and Narciso (NICHOLAS TAMAGNA, who combined sensitive singing and great comic chops in his Met debut). This was the best overall cast I have encountered in any opera for quite a while, all guided by the assured conducting of HARRY BICKET. Agrippina does all she can to put her son on the throne, only to get an unexpected comeuppance. The production by David McVicar was too busy, as he sought to fill long passages of music with unnecessary action and movement. But it was not enough to detract from the exhilarating fun of this performance. This opera shares characters and plot points with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and I would love to see some enterprising opera company present them in repertory.
The Road Forward
The Prototype Festival is held each January in New York and always points the way forward in new opera. This is thanks, above all, to the indefatigable BETH MORRISON, whose Beth Morrison Projects is the wellspring of operatic creativity across the nation. A fascinating new opera at the festival, Ellen West, benefited from an excellent creative team: RICKY IAN GORDON (composer), FRANK BIDART (poet), EMMA GRIFFIN (director), LIDIYA YANKOVSKAYA (conductor), JENNIFER ZETLAN (Ellen West), NATHAN GUNN (three roles). At 75 minutes and with four characters, this is a probing, psychological work that should find a place in the repertory of many small and medium-sized opera companies and in music conservatories.
There will be a 2021 Prototype Festival with five new works. Because of the constraints imposed by the pandemic, viewing will be on demand.
The Road to Hell
La Damnation de Faust in concert form at the Met, with ELĪNA GARANČA, BRYAN HYMEL and ILDAR ABDRAZAKOV, with EDWARD GARDNER turning in what probably was the finest conducting performance I heard all year. The cast and Met orchestra and chorus were outstanding. Initially, this was to have been a revival of the Robert Lepage production, but the Met changed its plans saying that it did not have the time and resources to mount it. Although that production does have a lot to recommend it, it was in no way missed during this remarkable evening of music-making that made manifest the glories of Berlioz’s score.
It is just a coincidence that three marvelous singers — SUSAN GRAHAM, ELZA VAN DEN HEEVER, and PETER MATTEI — happen to be quite tall. They are also towering artists whose searing work remains in my imagination almost a year on. Graham, with pianist MALCOLM MARTINEAU, presented one of the most original recitals I have been to in a long time. It was a sort of Frauenliebe und -leben Variations in which she began each group of songs with one of the lieder from Schumann’s cycle. She then added a couple of songs by other composers that amplified the feelings of the chosen Schumann. And so forth in eight groups. In total there were some 25 songs by the likes of Berlioz, John Dankworth, Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Granados, Grieg, Mahler, Poulenc, Rangström, Ravel, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Turina.
The effectiveness of William Kentridge’s new Met production of Berg’s Wozzeck was hit and miss, but that did not detract from the commitment and intensity that Mattei brought to the title role and Elza van den Heever gave to Marie. The South African soprano has excelled in everything I have heard her do, from Mozart to Donizetti to Wagner to Berg. Mattei, famous for his Don Giovanni and Barber of Seville, has added heavier roles in Parsifal (a sublime Amfortas), From the House of the Dead, and now as Wozzeck. On January 31, he and pianist Lars David Nilsson made Schubert’s Winterreise a haunting and chilling experience that began in customary fashion, but then became a slow accretion of horror that was like listening to a ghost story where you think you know what will happen, yet still there were shocking surprises. This may sound like a negative response, but the performance was riveting.
Ten Characters in Search of an Opera Company
At the start of the pandemic, there was a pronounced spike in readership of books that dealt with plagues. The most obvious were Camus’s The Plague and Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). It was fun to reach way back to the 14th century and Boccaccio’s Decameron, the story of 10 young people who move out of Florence to avoid a plague. As they gather, they tell gripping, often sexy, stories in their confinement. Composer PETER HILLIARD and librettist MATT BORESI, together with producer MARIA SENSI SELLNER, put together a consortium of small, resourceful opera companies — named the Decameron Opera Coalition — around the country to create four episodes divided into 11 operatic chapters called Tales from a Safe Distance. The tales were told via streaming and two of them starred the Italianissimo LUCA PISARONI. All episodes are online for viewing through December 31, 2020.
For 2021, I wish you health, renewed prosperity, and fervently hope that we can find inspiration together in a theater or concert hall where we can breathe the same air and exhale with joy as we revel in the work of our beloved performing artists.