Tag Archives: Metropolitan Opera

Glass’s ‘Satyagraha’ on tap in Met’s 2011-12 season

Satyagraha / Catherine Ashmore

Satyagraha by composer Philip Glass is an opera in three acts for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and will be presented this fall as part of the New York Metropolitan Opera‘s 2011-12 repertory.

Commissioned by the City of Rotterdam, Satyagraha is the second in Glass’s trilogy about men who changed the world. The opera is semi-narrative in form and is a moving account of Mahatma Gandhi‘s early years in South Africa and his development of non-violent protest into a political tool, a method that Dr. King would later embrace.

“Satyagraha” is a Sanskrit word meaning “truth force,” and the subtext of this opera is, as you may have deduced, politics.

Each act is dominated by a single historic figure  in a non-singing role who is overlooking the action from above: the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore in Act I the Russian author Leo Tolstoy in Act II, the American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Act III.

. . . you should embrace action for the upholding, the welfare of your own kind. Whatever the noblest does, that too will others do: the standard that he sets all the world will follow.
–from the libretto of Satyagraha

The opera premiered on September 5, 1980, in Rotterdam by the Netherlands Opera and is set to text from the ancient Sanskrit scripture the Bhagavad Gita.

It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, under the direction of Philip McDermott and designer Julian Crouch (artistic directors of London’s Improbable theater company). The Met version was considered adventurous, employing improvisational puppetry and aerialists to illuminate this work.

The revival. a collaboration with English National Opera, will again feature Richard Croft as Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha opens November 4 and runs through December 1, 2011.

 The following YouTube clip provides a flavor of it.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, 21st Century Opera, Modern opera, Video

a tale Godunov to share–the Chevy Chase of basses?

Tonight, I went to opening night at Berks Jazz Fest. At the gala before the show, I was talking with a veteran local musician, now a senior citizen, who had seen Boris Godunov at the Met decades ago.

“It starred a Finnish bass,” he explained but not remembering the name. “This singer was unusual because during the death scene, he didn’t just slump over in his chair like most Godunov’s. I remember he actually tumbled out of it.”

The death scene is dramatic and draining and to combine the equivalent of a pratfall in the scene sounded like a killer punishment to the body–over time.

I got home and within minutes on the computer, I googled Finnish bass and Godunov and found (drumroll, please) this video of Martti Talvela just about killing himself in this scene–definitely punishing his body. When he dies, he hits the floor,straight on, like dead weight. And yet he performed the role of Boris Godunov 39 times between 1974 and 1987, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which is why I referred to him as the Chevy Chase of opera. Not because Talvela was funny, but because he inflicted so much punishment on his body while on stage. Sadly, he died young, at only age 54 in 1989.

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Filed under North American Opera, opera anecdotes, Performers

retro Met? (don’t quote me)

Plácido Domingo


The one thing I hate at the Met is the note in the program that the public is requested not to interrupt the music with applause. That should be destroyed. What we need is to be encouraged to applaud.
–Plácido Domingo 

Fast forward to 2011: Rules about applauding at classical music concerts appear to be relaxing. Even in the bastions of classical music like the Metropolitan Opera, you are likely to hear premature clapping.

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Filed under North American Opera, opera quotes

Moses und Aron — an anniversary glance

 Today marks the anniversary of the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg‘s Moses und Aron  in Hamburg, Germany, in 1954.   

John Tomlinson as Moses, Metropolitan Opera, 2003

Moses und Aron is an important operatic work if not a popular one. This, despite the fact that the libretto, also written by Schoenberg, mirrors the exile of Jews from Egypt in search of the Promised Land as told in the Book of Exodus; few tales other than mythological favorites are better known and more enduring than Biblical sagas from the Old Testament.  It’s hardly the subject matter that makes this a less-accessible opera. Even more interesting is that once Moses und Aron began to be performed, the director’s vision almost invariably required Moses to be in modern dress while incorporating other modern elements or flourishes that chafed against the expectations of audiences familiar with a tale thousands of years old.   

The first two acts of Moses und Aron were completed between 1930-32. It was never performed in its entirety in the composer’s lifetime because he hadn’t finished it before he died. However, a selection, “Dance of the Golden Calf,” was performed in public 11 days before he passed away.   

This piece interests me holistically as a commentary on the time period in which it was written, the composition of  a man of Jewish descent, who lived in Central Europe during the rise of Aryan movement and later the Third Reich. Though Schoenberg converted to the Lutheran religion in 1898, he was unable or unwilling to renounce his Jewish heritage, returning to the Jewish religion in 1933, resulting from the sanctioned anti-Semitism overtaking Europe.   

After his family’s own exile from their vacation residence in 1921–now open only to Aryans–Schoenberg grappled with what it meant to be of Jewish heritage in Europe during the 1920s:   

For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed not perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.   

Moses und Aron, Act 1, Metropolitan Opera

Musically, the work is based on a single tone row, itself constructed from cells, which lends the piece what others perceive as atonal qualities. Prior to a reader of this blog suggesting I take a closer look at Schoenberg’s seminal work, I might not have given it a glance.  I don’t profess to understand or appreciate modern opera.   

But this work has moved me to a different place in my (provincial) thinking. If one is writing about the subjugation and exile of the Jewish people in ancient times or in Europe in the early- to mid-20th century, what musical language could be more appropriate? How else would an intelligent composer living during Schoenberg’s time express the mounting horrors of his life and time?  His musical vocabulary grates against conventional expectations for what opera should sound like, and, as a result, is sheer genius and unforgettable.  

Here are two excerpts of Moses und Aron from the Vienna State Opera’s 2006 production conducted by Daniele Gatti and directed by Reto Nickler. A bit of trivia, apparently Schoenberg had severe triskaidekaphobia and took one of the A’s out of Aaron’s name as it is more commonly spelled in naming his work.  

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Filed under anniversary, Modern opera, North American Opera, Premieres

Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, roles to be heard and seen

The highly touted Met R&J with Netrebko and Alagna, 2007

At the press conference last week to announce the Metropolitan Opera’s new season, I met someone from Philadelphia who has already reviewed the Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Academy of Music that I will review after seeing today. We’re comparing notes tomorrow.  

Though I’m disinclined to read others’ reviews first, by contrast, I am very much inclined to do a little research before any opera I see. Of course I know Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet well–I was a high school English teacher for years–but I have never seen the opera and that, as they say, is another ball of wax.  

I do have one bias going into this production and that is it’s difficult for me to embrace 40-something actors or singers playing Romeo or Juliet. They are, as Shakespeare wrote them, supposed to be young teens. Why else would these two fall in love so quickly and rush headlong into life-and-death decisions without thinking them through?  

Do you remember what it was like to be fifteen and totally head over heels for someone? It’s almost painful to have your heart so full of love for someone. All your emotions are amplified as a result of this terrible new burden of love that has overwhelmed all your senses.  So, I already know I will need to see that level of passion between two actors who aren’t so far removed from teenagehood to take this production seriously even if they aren’t teenagers. I do realize that few teenagers are neither vocally equipped nor sufficiently developed for the demands of singing either of these roles but they have to project youthful energies to be believable.  

As regards Gounod‘s opera, one of the prevailing views is that Romeo and Juliet (and every other Gounod opera) are thin shadows compared to his Faust. I prefer to review the work I’m seeing rather than compare it to his masterwork. And according to Bachtrack, there are nearly as many productions of R&J (27) as Faust (29) worldwide, so perhaps it is improving in critical and popular favor–most likely because of strong, highly visible productions by major houses.  

Gounod’s R&J is a five-act grand opera which follows Shakespeare’s tragedy very closely (apart from adding a character Stephano in the fight scene) in construction as well as in dialogue.  

Since the highlights of the score are the four love duets between the star-crossed lovers–an unprecedented number of tenor-soprano duets in one opera–the burden of the show’s success rests on those singing the title roles.  

Some of the other portions of the opera I have high expectations for include Romeo’s cavatina “Ah! leve-toi, soleil,” Mercutio’s Queen Mab ballade,  the Act III confrontation between the Montagues and the Capulets, and Juliet’s famous waltz “Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve,” which was coincidentally OperaPulse’s Aria of the Week and Thursday night throwdown between Angela Gheorghiu and  Montserrat Caballe (yes, an unusual role for her).  

I really enjoy this version of “Ah! Je veux vivre dans ce rêve”  by Diana Damrau–it encapsulates Juliet’s youthful exuberance and imagination. Damrau may not be a teenager (because what teen can sing lyric coloratura?), but she certainly is fresh and dewy–believable as Juliet (and in beautiful voice). What do you think? Is Damrau a believable Juliet and a soaring Juliet–musically speaking?  

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Filed under Classic Opera, North American Opera

next Met season a tale of two Anna’s

Want to know what the Met’s 2011-12 season is about? Ask the words.

I loaded copy from all the coverage of their new season announcement available on the Internet into the Wordle word-cloud engine.  This is what it spit out:

Hmm. Looks like a tale of two Anna’s to me: Bolena and Netrebko.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera

Met’s ‘Live in HD’ — cash cow or godsend?

Anna Nebtrebko in Manon /Covent Garden Production photo by Bill Cooper

Should the Metropolitan Opera’s award-winning series The Met: Live in HD  be considered a cash cow or a godsend? 

More of a godsend, dear readers. And here’s why. The Met pays plenty to offer Live in HD to 1,500  theaters in 46 countries. In a recent statement to opera media, Met officials stated that nine live transmissions grossed $48 million while netting $24 million in the last completed season, 2009-10.  That means the participating theaters earned a healthy premium of  revenue, such a healthy portion, it might be considered fatback in the deep American South. 

But what the healthy figures (more than seven million HD tickets sold worldwide since the HD series began five seasons ago) don’t show is how The Met: Live in HD is building audience for live opera. Yes, live opera. 

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don G. / photo by Nick Heavican, Metropolitan Opera

It is a hugely impactful outcome–that Live in HD can build younger and broader audiences worldwide–precisely what opera, the art form, needs. And cinema opera brings in revenue–to the tune of $24 million, which buys a lot of period costumes (and other stuff) for shows like Don Giovanni (scheduled for HD Live, October 29, 2011.) 

Whenever the Met transmits an HD broadcast, it always encourages viewers to frequent live opera–of course, at the Met, but in their hometowns and home countries as well. 

In a recent event announcing their 2011-12 season, Managing Director Peter Gelb affirmed that Live in HD is serving current audiences as well as building future audiences for opera. 

“Our tour guides who interact with tourists to the Met report far greater numbers.  Most tourists come with a mission to see a landmark in the house that they’ve seen in HD shows.  The main purpose of The Met: Live in HD is to increase the bond between the Met and our global audience, and increase attendance.” — Peter Gelb 

 The Met has announced eleven Live in HD productions for 2011-12 and they are:  Anna Bolena on October 15; Don Giovanni on October 29; Siegfried on November 5; Satyagraha on November 19; Rodelinda on December 5; Faust on December 10; The Enchanted Island on January 21; Gotterdammerung on February 11; Ernani on  February 25; Manon on April 7; and La Traviata on April 14. 

'The Enchanted Island' / Photo by Nick Heavican

Tickets go on sale in September. Met members in the U.S. and Canada have ticket priority before general viewing public. 

Happy viewing. And if fish have lips, I’ll be stuffing my face with popcorn during Don G in fall of 2011.


Filed under 21st Century Opera, Don Giovanni, North American Opera, Opera broadcasts

king of the baritones

Titta Ruffo

Titta Ruffo was one of the greatest baritones of the 20th century.  He had a resonant voice, magnificent power in the middle and upper registers, and a palette that nearly defied description, encompassing darkness, brilliance, and strength.    

In this clip, he displays some of his extraordinary vocal agility as Rossini’s Figaro, a role in which he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1922.   

One of the YouTube commenters had this to say about Ruffo singing this recording:    

“The size of his voice moving with such ease is like an elephant doing perfect pirouettes in Swan Lake.”    

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Performers