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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Austin Lyric Opera in Crisis: No Easy Answers!

by Paul E. Robinson

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The news just keeps getting worse from opera companies across the United States. As the economy ever so slowly rights itself after a devastating recession, ticket buyers and generous donors are hard to find. Endowments have taken a tremendous hit from the stock market collapse. The New York City Opera has been struggling for years and recently announced that it would have to leave Lincoln Center in order to cut costs and remain in business. David Gockley, the San Francisco Operas highly-regarded General Director, said that his company was feeling the heat and needed to do some radical restructuring. While Texas has weathered the recession better than most states, the Austin Lyric Opera (ALO) finds itself in serious financial turmoil. General Director Kevin Patterson handed in his resignation in the face of a growing deficit.

ALO Repertoire: Popular Mix too Much for Austin?

Austin is neither New York nor San Francisco, either in size or in the importance of its opera company; it is, however, a vibrant and growing major population center (the Austin Metro area is about 1.4 million people) and problems facing its opera company are fairly representative of what’s facing cities all over the country.

The ALO’s current budget is $4.3 million and its season is comprised of three main stage productions – presented at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, with each opera given four performances. In addition, there are some smaller events and the ALO also runs the Armstrong Community Music School.

Under Kevin Patterson as General Director and Richard Buckley as Principal Conductor, the ALO has developed a reputation for excellent work and for deftly mixing standard fare with off-beat contemporary repertoire. This past season the ALO offered Jonathan Dove’s wonderful opera Flight, and the previous season it mounted a production of Chabrier’s rarely-heard opera, L’Etoile. In 1997, it presented Philip Glass’ “Waiting for the Barbarians.” One of the AOL’s most enjoyable productions in recent years was an Austin-oriented version of Die Fledermaus (The Bat). As travelers to Austin probably know, one of the city’s prime tourist attractions is the daily emergence downtown, at sundown, of something like 1.5 million bats from under the Congress Street bridge.

On the whole, the ALO has given the community a consistently high quality of sophisticated and entertaining repertoire. Although there are few recognizable names among the singers, the mostly young and mostly American singers have been well-chosen and Buckley’s presence in the pit has guaranteed well-rehearsed and well-executed performances. Such quality comes at a price, however, and it is a price that the Austin community apparently is no longer either able to, or prepared to pay.

Several years ago the ALO moved from the Bass Hall on the University of Texas campus to the new Long Center downtown and the move was expected to be a boost for the company. The Bass Hall had 2,900 seats and the Dell Hall in the Long Center only 2,400. With fewer seats to fill, the ALO still averaged only about 45% capacity.

ALO General Director Kevin Patterson Resigns!

I spoke to Kevin Patterson recently and he emphasized the work that he and the ALO had been doing to get the community more involved in opera. He believes that the organization’s main challenge is in the area of contributed income; the ALO has simply been unable to raise enough money. Patterson blames the board for this failure. Too many of its members also sit on other non-profit boards in Austin and so have divided loyalties. He also expressed disappointment that board members didn’t take their fundraising responsibilities more seriously.

Slimming Down to Stay Healthy

When Patterson resigned recently as ALO's General Director, board president Ernest Auerbach was appointed “volunteer interim director.” When I asked Mr. Auerbach for his comments on the situation, he was circumspect. He confirmed that next season will go ahead as planned except that the usual four performances of each opera will be cut back to three. He suggested that further changes could be expected after the board meets on June 14.

One of the items in the ALO budget they may want to review is the role of the Armstrong Community Music School. According to Kevin Patterson, the school contributes to the ALO’s cash flow but does nothing for its bottom line. Others maintain that instead of providing another revenue stream for the ALO, the school is actually a substantial money-loser. One might well ask why the ALO is in the business of operating a community school which has very little to do with opera. The school itself could be a plus for the community if it could support itself, but the ALO can ill afford to subsidize it.

Tough Times for Many: ALO in Good Company

Much of what ails the ALO is also affecting other performing arts organizations. David Gockley, who presides over the distinguished San Francisco Opera and a budget of $70 million, is very apprehensive about the future: “I look at this company as teetering. The annual expenses are about $7 million more than we can reliably fund, and half of our annual gifts are made by just 11 individuals who are over 65 years old.” (SF Chronicle, May 7, 2011)

Classical music audiences and donors tend to be older, to put it mildly. While "The Met Live in HD" presentations in movie theaters suggest that opera is more popular than ever, the popularity of these streamed performances may in fact be an indication that confirmed opera-lovers will flock to see a quality product and will gladly pay for it - “here’s the rub” – if the price is low enough. While the "Met Live in HD" presentations have been innovative and entertaining, however, I am not convinced that they are attracting new audiences. I have attended many of these performances in theaters with fewer than 20 people in the audience, almost all of them elderly.

How can the Austin Lyric Opera and other smaller companies across North America compete with "The Met Live in HD?" The Met offers superstars in every performance and prices far lower than those charged for live opera.

Patterson's Parting Words Worth Pondering

As Kevin Patterson reflected on his four seasons with the Austin Lyric Opera, he offered a very sound analysis of what needs to be done: “The best position for ALO at this point is to reduce expenses, reevaluate the current production model with an eye toward moving away from competition in the marketplace; reevaluate the operations of the community music school; assess current staffing needs; and build a board that is accountable to itself, responsible to the mission and vision and interested in being an equal partner with the executive and staff in cultivating patrons to move the organization forward.”

When the ALO board meets on June 14, it might do well to ask itself some basic questions. Does a smaller city like Austin even need a professional live opera company? Opera performances on a generally higher level are readily available in Houston and Dallas, each less than 200 miles away, and top quality productions by "The Met Live in HD" are now available in a number of movie theatres in Austin and its suburbs.

If the answer is “Yes, Austin needs the ALO,” using as one argument the probability that most of the population can’t afford to drive to Houston or Dallas on a regular basis, then a solution for the current financial crisis might be a new organizational model. The ALO might consider opera performances that are smaller in scale and hence available to audiences at lower prices. But some would argue that this would be redundant, since there is already an opera school at the University of Texas filling this need.

Another solution is suggested by the Fort Worth Opera under Darren Woods. Woods determined that this company could not continue to operate as just another small organization with three or four productions spread throughout the year, in the face of the Dallas Opera - a bigger and more prestigious company - 35 miles down the road. He came up with the idea of combining all Fort Worth Opera productions into one high profile event - an “opera festival” scheduled at a time of the year when the company’s house, the Bass Hall in Fort Worth, was underused and when the community needed an attraction to draw tourists to the city. The result of Woods’ creative thinking was the very successful Fort Worth Opera Festival, which this year (May 14th – June 5th) is presenting four different works, including a new one called Hydrogen Jukebox. The Austin Lyric Opera might consider something similar.

With a huge deficit, a very slow economic recovery, major challenges facing all opera companies, and more problems peculiar to the Austin community and to the company itself, the ALO board has some serious work ahead of it. No doubt there will be a great deal of finger-pointing, but that will not get the job done; nor will the problems be solved by a couple of big donations. A way must be found to combine expert analysis, experienced leadership and new ideas. Let’s hope the ALO board is up to the task.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."


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Guy Fouquet Interim Head of Conservatory of Music in Montreal

By Crystal Chan

Guy Fouquet, professor and academic adviser, has been appointed the Interim Head of the Conservatory of Music in Montreal. His appointment follows the retirement of Raffi Armenian from the post. Armenian left in order to devote himself to teaching and conducting.

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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

"Die Walküre" Battles "The Machine"!

by Paul E. Robinson

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While opera fans are notoriously old-fashioned when it comes to stage directors bringing overarching new ideas to their favourite works, it is clear that if opera is going to have any future, it must be open to creative re-thinking.

Wieland Wagner successfully updated his grandfather’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth in the 1950s, and Karajan and Schneider-Siemssen used cutting edge projection technology to add a new dimension to the Ring cycle at Salzburg in the 1960s. In 1976, Patrice Chereau gave us something to think about with his radical new Ring at Bayreuth. In 2011, we have Robert LePage plumbing the depths of his prodigious imagination to produce an early 21st century Ring at the Met.

Watching LePage’s Die Walküre, live in HD from the Met, I was often enraptured by the words and the music and moved to tears on several occasions. It was a magnificent production - no doubt about it - with some of the finest Wagnerian singing and conducting one could ever hope to hear. LePage, the stage director, deserves much credit for the power of the experience.

That said, LePage’s overall vision can only be described as “underwhelming” at best and, under the circumstances, obscenely expensive.

The Machine With a Mind of its Own!

Peter Gelb must have lost his mind the day he agreed to fund a new Ring cycle based on a 45-ton machine (photo:above) that required the Met to reinforce its own stage. “The Machine”, as it is called at the Met, is a giant seesaw with 24 aluminum planks. It can be manipulated to make all manner of architectural and/or symbolic configurations. Standing more or less vertical, it acts as a screen for projections.

In theory, this set piece was promising; in practice, it proved hard to handle. On the opening night of Das Rheingold, the ‘rainbow bridge’ conversion failed to materialize and the gods were left to make a mortal exit - stage right.

Such difficulties persisted. The “Met Live in HD” performance of Die Walküre I attended started 35 minutes late while technicians scrambled to figure out why their computers were not able to communicate with the encoding sensors in the planks.

Inhibitor Rather than Facilitator of Directorial Creativity?

Worse than these technical difficulties, in my opinion, was the realization that director Lepage's (photo: right) "Machine” gave us little of artistic merit to justify the enormous amounts of time and money spent on it, and led, it seemed, to some rather inappropriate directorial choices; for example, did we really need “The Machine” to show us Valkyries pretending to ride horses (photo:above) – some said it looked more like surfing - in Act III? Or the planks jacked up vertically to form a wall – as they were for Siegmund and Hunding’s battle – thereby reducing the vast Met stage to a long, narrow downstage playing area, giving this critical scene a cheap and claustrophobic look, when it should have been apocalyptic! Or Brünnhilde, in the final scene of the opera, lying, not on a rock but upside down at the top of a wall. What was that about?

In this scene, Wotan – with Loge’s invisible help – lit the “magic fire” that surrounds and protects Brünnhilde. Projections on “The Machine” showed what passed for “fire” in this production. But surely Wagner intended something awe-inspiring here – a fire massive and threatening enough to fend off all comers with the exception of the hero (Siegfried) who alone will be capable of braving the conflagration to wake Brünnhilde.

LePage’s fire was puny and wouldn’t have frightened a child.

During the scene in Hunding’s hut, while Siegmund is telling Sieglinde his life’s story, the audience viewed projections on “The Machine” of moving figures in black suggesting warriors and dogs in combat. It was all rather primitive and unnecessary; one easily got the sense of the story from the words and the music.

In short, “The Machine” is not nearly as versatile as its inventor imagined it would be. My overall impression is that LePage simply ran out of creative ways to use it.

Stars Upstage “The Machine” in Movie House

Fortunately, at least in the HD version, audiences could spend less time being disappointed in the set and more being fascinated by the characters in close-up. The Metropolitan Opera House is a huge barn of a place with most customers seated too far away to see facial expressions without opera glasses. The “Met Live in HD” changes this relationship and the technology pays enormous dividends.

Wagner’s Ring has its big moments, but more often it is a sort of recitative with characters telling stories in intricate verse. In this particular production, the words really meant something and were sung with deeply convincing expression. And we, the “Met Live in HD” audience, had the added benefit of ‘seeing’ the physical expression of that emotion.

180brunWoMost expressive, perhaps, was Bryn Terfel (photo:right). Even with only one eye, he communicated volumes, and made every syllable count. His vocalizing was glorious, especially in the final scene, as he sings goodbye to his beloved Brünnhilde.

Deborah Voigt (photo:right) was an ideal Brünnhilde. She looked young enough to be Wotan’s daughter – a rare occurrence in Ring cycles – had plenty of voice for this demanding role and presumably with LePage’s encouragement, brought out the strength, the vulnerability and the playfulness of this character.

180siegsieglAs Siegmund (photo:right), Jonas Kaufmann was uncommonly handsome and his singing got better as the performance unfolded. He tended to go sharp in his upper register in Act I but was pretty much dead-on in Act II. He doesn’t have the stentorian tones of a classic Heldentenor, but at his best he projects both strength and beauty of sound. As his sister Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek (photo:right) also sang with strength and beauty and produced a special richness in the lower register. When these two lovers kissed, we believed it was the real thing.

It is no longer news that Stephanie Blythe is one of the Met’s greatest assets. In the role of Fricka in this production, she matched Terfel in both inspired histrionics and subtlety of phrasing. Making her entrance on top of ‘The Machine” in what appeared to be a mechanized wheelchair – albeit without wheels – she never left it. Was this device meant to suggest she was disabled? Was it a throne? Or was it was just another way to justify “The Machine”.

Maestro James Levine on the Podium Despite Health Issues

180levine.190The extraordinary performances in this Ring could only be fully realized with the support of a fine orchestra and an authoritative conductor. We had both in this performance. The Met Orchestra, a virtuoso ensemble, played with heart-rending expressiveness from beginning to end. The intermission feature with players from the brass section introducing their instruments – especially the Wagner tubas – demonstrating their sounds, and explaining what the ‘leitmotifs’ do, was excellent.

This performance also had the air of an historic occasion, thanks to James Levine’s presence on the podium. Levine (photo:right) has suffered mightily in the past few years as his health has deteriorated. His pain and physical incapacity have gotten so bad that he has had to give up the music directorship of the Boston Symphony and to cancel dozens of performances at the Met. There was a great deal of uncertainty as to whether he would be able to conduct this performance of Die Walküre. Happily, he not only showed up, but was in total control of the performance from the opening bars. At the end of the opera, he remained seated at the podium in the pit instead of joining the cast on stage for bows; but even the healthiest of conductors have been known to exhaust themselves conducting operas as long and as complex as Die Walküre.

The music was in excellent hands but what appeared on stage was less satisfactory. For all the hype about LePage’s remarkable new equipment, invented to give us an imaginative re-telling of the Ring, we waited in vain for ‘The Machine” to burst forth with a genuine ‘coup de theâtre Even more significant, perhaps, was its failure to serve the arch of the drama.

By all means, let’s have a unit set that morphs from one scene to another, but as it morphs let it complement the storyline – let it, in the case of the Ring, enable us to visualize the worlds of both gods and men, and let it illuminate the arenas in which they intersect as each is affected by uncontrolled pride, greed and passion.

LePage’s machine may have been conceived as a ‘means to an end,’ but halfway through this Ring cycle, it has become a deeply flawed end in itself.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."


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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

12-year-old Canadian wins first prize at international piano competition


By Crystal Chan

On May 13, 12-year-old Scarborough resident Anastasia Rizikov beat out 25 other competitors—some over twice her age—to win first prize at the Rotary International Piano Competition in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. She competed in Category A, which was open to those aged 28 and under. Competitors who were required to play a total of one and a half hours of diverse repertoire over the three rounds, from memory, with no repetition. She will win approximately $3,600 Canadian and is invited to return to Spain for a solo recital tour and performance with the Baleares Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, 23 May 2011

This Week in Toronto (May 23 - 29)

Composer Tan Dun performs his Water and Paper Concertos with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Thursday May 26 and Saturday May 28.











Chinese composer Tan Dun is making a welcome return to Toronto this week, in two performances of his Water and Paper Concertos with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Also on this highly eclectic program is Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, and Manuel de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance" from his well known piece El amor brujo. Tan Dun is certainly in an elite group of contemporary composers whose works are regularly performed at the most prestigious venues. Opera lovers will be familiar with his opera The First Emperor, starring mega-tenor Placido Domingo, staged by the Met and shown in cinemas around the world - you can't get more high profile than that! I recall being mesmerized by his Tea: A Mirror of Soul at the Santa Fe Opera back in 2007. To be sure there are other Asian composers who combine musical ideas of East and West in their compositions, but none as adept and accessible as Tan Dun. Performances on Thursday May 26 at 8 pm, and Saturday May 28 at 7:30 pm, this latter one is a Casual Concert with a post performance lobby reception of live music and "mix and mingle" with the artists. http://tso.ca/Home.aspx

The Canadian Opera Company's spring season is in its home stretch this week, with a final performance of La cenerentola on Wednesday May 25 at 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. I am really not all that fond of Rossini, but even for me it was a terrific experience. Two more performances of Ariadne auf Naxos are on Friday May 27 at 7:30 pm and Sunday May 29 at 2 pm. Orfeo ed Euridice, the last of the three productions to open, concludes with performances on Tuesday May 24, Thursday May 26, and Saturday May 28 - note the last performance is at 4:30 pm. http://coc.ca/Home.aspx

The free noon hour concerts at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre continues with two vocal programs. On Tuesday May 24, former COC Ensemble Studio member Doug MacNaughton is presenting 21st Century Troubadour, an eclectic show of works, some of them composed for him by John Beckwith, William Beauvais, and Leslie Uyeda. The baritone will be accompanying himself on the guitar. Go to http://coc.ca/ecms.ashx/pdfs/concert110524.pdf for a pdf file of the program. And on Thursday May 26, mezzo Wallis Giunta and bass Michael Uloth will be leaving the Ensemble Studio, having finished their respective term. They are giving a farewell concert with Anne Larlee at the piano. Uloth will sing Brahms' Four Serious Songs, and Giunta a mixed collection of songs from Schubert to Sondheim. The two artists will join forces for two operatic duets. http://coc.ca/ecms.ashx/pdfs/concert110526.pdf

As mentioned in last week's post, Hungarian pianist Tamas Erdi returns to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto for a recital of Chopin and Liszt at Mazzoleni Hall on Tuesday May 24 at 8 pm. http://www.rcmusic.ca/ContentPage.aspx?name=home

On Sunday starting at 1 pm, the Toronto Symphony Volunteer Committee is presenting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra National Piano Competition Finals. Five finalists will performa piano concertos with second piano accompaniment. The event takes place at Mazzoleni Hall. Go to http://www.tsvc.on.ca/piano_competition for additional details of the competition.



Sunday, 22 May 2011

Eleanor Kendra James Wins The Shean Strings Competition

Eleanor Kendra James

A 23-year-old violist from Vancouver has won the $8,000 top prize at The Shean Strings Competition. Eleanor Kendra James will also get the chance to play with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra for one concert.


The complete results of the Competition were as follows:
First Place and $8,000 – Eleanor Kendra James, viola (Vancouver, BC)
Second Place and $5,000 – Bénédicte Lauzière, violin (Montréal, QC)
Third Place and $4,000 – Esther Hwang, violin (Vancouver, BC)
Fourth Place and $3,000 – Meghan Nenniger, violin (Calgary, AB)
(Tie) Fifth Place and $2,000 each – Joshua Peters, violin (Winnipeg, MB) and Christopher Whitley (Toronto, ON)

Bénédicte Lauzière also won $1,000 Paul J. Bourret Prize for Best Performance of the Test PieceValse-scherzo in C Major, Op. 34 by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky.


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