CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Glimmerglass: Let's Put on a Show!

One of the more recent summer opera festivals in the northeast is Glimmerglass, with a rural theater outside of Cooperstown, N.Y. Styling itself the Glimmerglass Festival since last season, one of the changes instituted by current artistic and general director Francesca Zambello, who was appointed in the fall of 2010. Since the late 1980s, when it opened a new theater, Glimmerglass has presented three or four operas each summer, and a quick look through the company's production history shows an adventurous spirit. Operas from the 20th century and from the 17th and 18th centuries were represented, alongside some audience favorites, a recipe that has worked quite well for Santa Fe Opera and other companies. This season, however, Glimmerglass is presenting only two operas, Verdi's grand opera Aida (ambitious) and Lully's Armide (esoteric). The other half of its budget is being spent on musicals.

available at Amazon
Verdi, Aida, M. Caballé, P. Domingo, New Philharmonia Orchestra, R. Muti

available at Amazon
Weill, Lost in the Stars, G. Hopkins,
A. Woodley, Orchestra of St. Luke's,
J. Rudel

available at Amazon
Lully, Armide G. Laurens, H. Crook, V. Gens, Collegium Vocale, La Chapelle Royale, P. Herreweghe

available at Amazon
Noah, Noah Stewart
(not recommended)
Glimmerglass's flirtation with musicals began in 2008, with a staging of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (not counting some Gilbert and Sullivan operettas earlier in its history). That was prior to the tenure of Francesca Zambello as artistic director, but she has perpetuated the bad decision since last season with Annie, Get Your Gun, pledging to stage a musical each season and continuing this year with The Music Man. To make matters worse, the fourth production this summer is Lost in the Stars, the last musical that Kurt Weill managed to complete for Broadway in the final phase of his multifaceted career (an adaptation of Huck Finn, sadly left unfinished). If the trend continues this way, Glimmerglass is on its way to becoming a sort of glorified summer stock theater -- indeed, some people already think of it that way. (The plans for the 2013 season show again two operas, plus Nathan Gunn in Camelot and a mixed double-bill of David Lang's brilliant Little Match Girl Passion and Pergolesi's setting of the Stabat mater.) Nothing wrong with a summer stock theater producing musicals, if you like that sort of thing, but it is a step in the wrong direction for an opera festival seeking an international reputation.

Julius Rudel championed Lost in the Stars at the New York City Opera, and his recording with the Orchestra of St. Luke's is still worth hearing. Weill created the title role for Todd Duncan: the original cast recording, premiered on Broadway in 1949, is still available from Decca. Maxwell Anderson adapted the libretto from Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), set in South Africa, and the story of black life finally satisfied Weill's desire to write an opera for black characters (supposedly dating back to the period after his arrival in New York, when he saw a dress rehearsal of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess). Critic Howard Taubman panned the City Opera revival in the New York Times, not on the grounds that it was a musical, but because it was "more play than opera," adding that "Weill's score rarely probes beneath the surface." As Taubman put it, the score "rarely adds the depth and compassion that it can and should bring to a big theme."

Aida, the grandest of grand operas, can actually work in a small-scale production, as Virginia Opera showed last season. The Glimmerglass production by Francesca Zambello, which updates the story to recent events in a modern Islamic country, brings together two rising African-American singers -- soprano Michelle Johnson and tenor Noah Stewart -- with a more established one -- bass-baritone Eric Owens. Johnson won the Grand Prize at the Met Council Auditions last year. She was reportedly put on vocal rest at the start of the run, replaced by Adina Aaron for the first three performances. The trouble may have been partly due to having taken on the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut with Opera Company of Philadelphia, during time she told one interviewer she had planned "to start preparing more diligently" for Aida, but she is now back in the title role. Her Radamès is Noah Stewart, whose good looks and rags-to-riches story have made him PR gold, with news outlets of all kinds falling over themselves to interview him. He has an embarrassingly corny crossover album out from Decca this month, which has done brisk business in its U.K. release, and a contract to make more recordings.

The slot for Baroque opera at Glimmerglass has happily been maintained, with an all too rare staging of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide, without a doubt the most successful and popular French opera of the 17th century. In regular revivals in Paris, it continued to be influential and beloved in Paris through the 18th century, inspiring composers in the debate between gluckistes and piccinnistes, for example. We have had only one opportunity to review the opera live, with Opera Lafayette, a concert performance that was later released as a live recording. This co-production between Glimmerglass and Toronto's Opera Atelier brings with it some singers and musicians from Canada, which may have been partially to account for the last-minute renegotiation of the Glimmerglass Orchestra's contract. Thoughts on three of the productions, not including The Music Man, are forthcoming.


Anonymous said...

If you're going to criticize the programming ("flirtation with musicals" and "bad decision"), there ought to be more to it than just looking down your cultured nose at the lower art forms. Though the music is certainly better, Aida is dumber and more vulgar than The Music Man and it is, after all, summertime. Is this really bad for Glimmerglass qua Glimmerglass and if so, why?

Charles T. Downey said...

You have already answered your own question -- the music is better. I would not agree that "Aida" -- not one of my favorite operas, true -- is dumber and more vulgar than "The Music Man" either. To claim so, anonymously, reveals your own bias. Anyway, my point is not that musicals are inferior, only that many companies in many places mount them -- in the summertime, too. The number of companies that produce operas is small and, sadly, diminishing. To throw away half of Glimmerglass's limited budget -- let us not forget Ms. Zambello's appeal for donations before the curtain of "Aida" last night -- on something that duplicates the efforts of more specialized companies seems a waste of resources.

Anonymous said...

While I see your point, Glimmerglass is hardly the only opera company turning to classic musical theater to stay afloat. (Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Central City Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago all spring to mind.) For every one opera purist who boycotts the season's musical theater offering, there are probably ten people buying tickets to it who have never been to a live production before. Maybe some of the people who really love the musical will buy tickets to an opera next season too. For that matter, plenty of performers who ended up in the opera world got to it by way of musical theater, first seeing it and then performing it. I think one could argue that financing a musical theater production is an investment on many levels. I'd personally rather have an opera company doing a musical or two than another opera company folding.

Charles T. Downey said...

For every one opera purist who boycotts the season's musical theater offering, there are probably ten people buying tickets to it who have never been to a live production before.

Your formula seems to imply an irreversible turnover of audience, as more musicals are offered and fewer operas. Anyway, Zambello should not be surprised if she starts to lose out in fund raising. The number of opera patrons who have complained to me about musicals in their opera seasons should be a concern in that department. All I know is that "Aida" on Friday night was sold out, and "Lost in the Stars" on Saturday was far from it. I know that if I was a donor, I would not be inclined to give money for "Showboat" or "The Music Man."

Anonymous said...

I posted my comment anonymously not because I was trying to hide my identity but because I couldn't understand the several options given for signing up to an ID. I am Dennis Gallagher of Cheverly MD, a 65-year old Government lawyer with a late developing interest in opera and serious music and no pretensions to expertise in either. I am not, by the way, the second anonymous poster who commented on Mr. Downey's comment on my comment on Mr. Downey's Glimmerglass overview.

I'm not altogether sure that the musicals that opera companies produce--mostly revivals of "classics" beginning with Show Boat and ending approximately with West Side Story--will necessarily bring in a new audience, since people who remember these shows with fondness are likely to be my age or older and set in their ways, one way or another. But I do tend to see reflexive hostility on the part of an otherwise sensible critic towards the very idea of opera companies doing musicals as the kind of snobbery that gives non-operagoers the impression that opera is not for them but only for the refined few. With that kind of press, it's no wonder that opera companies have to depend on donations and grants.

Charles T. Downey said...

Ah -- thanks for the clarification. I understand that the commenting interface can be mystifying.

Ticket sales generally cover under half of an opera company's expenses, including at Glimmerglass. They have to depend on donations and grants no matter what coverage they get in the press. Some new listeners might think they will give "opera" a try and see "The Music Man," but is the goal to create an audience for opera or for musicals? More likely, the core audience, who goes to the opera to hear opera and who may be your donor base, will be annoyed.