In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

A Personal Note from BLO's General & Artistic Director

Sep 6, 2013 9:40:00 AM
By BLO Staff

Reflections from Esther Nelson

General & Artistic Director,
Esther Nelson

Lloyd Schwartz’s recent Opera News editorial entitled
“The Boston Conundrum" (see below for complete text of said article) compels me to tell readers that opera is, in fact,
alive and well in Boston.
Despite the lack of a purposed performance space for
opera, Bostonians have supported the art form for decades, and I am proud of
our loyal patrons who have enabled BLO’s growth into New England’s largest
opera company over 37 seasons. I’m also proud of Boston's enthusiasm for opera,
evidenced in the community’s support for opera in all forms—amateur groups,
smaller ensembles, and fully professional companies—which is why Boston
continues to be the place where fledgling opera companies like Odyssey Opera choose
to be born. This vibrant, collaborative community is not polarized as Mr.
Schwartz suggests.
Most critics do not share Mr. Schwartz’s opinions of
BLO’s work. The Boston Globe described BLO’s Opera Annex productions  as
“part of the national dialogue” because of their role as entry points for new
opera audiences, drawing crowds that comprise musical insiders, young hipsters
and out-of-town press, clad in everything from Sunday best to jeans and a
t-shirt. The New York Times observed that BLO “presents only a handful of
productions a year but clearly intends them to catch the interest of operagoers
around the country.”
Our local music critics understand that the challenge of
running an opera company demands both artistic and business sense, with Boston
Globe music critic Jeremy Eichler calling BLO’s efforts “a significant step
toward modernization as a company without creating the perception of drastic
change that might frighten traditional subscribers away.” The city’s
collaborative spirit is made manifest in partnership programs with the Museum
of Fine Arts, Handel and Haydn Society, Boston Public Library, Boston
Children’s Museum and Zoo New England, all who join BLO’s efforts to take opera
deeper into the community fabric for all to experience.
Boston is home to internationally renowned conservatory,
college and university opera programs and I am proud of the immense talent that
both trains and lives in and around Boston. The city is a hotbed of emerging
artists, and the opera community provides a platform from which these future
stars can, and do, launch international careers. The artists of the community,
professional or emerging, are afforded opportunities among all opera companies
in town. Each of us, regardless of our size or history, are here to support the
art and the artists.
I agree with Mr. Schwartz that opera companies should
have artistic leadership at the executive table, and BLO is fortunate to have
Music Director David Angus and Artistic Advisor John Conklin, both
internationally respected artists. However, most successful artists like David
and John actively pursue their artistic careers rather than manage the business
complexities of larger institutions.
The city’s richness in opera is rooted in its
people—their support and their optimism—for this vital living art form. It
turns out that what Mr. Schwartz calls a “conundrum” is actually an
embarrassment of riches that has kept Boston’s love affair with opera vibrant
and strong; a romance that endures.


"The Boston Conundrum" (As seen in the September issue of Opera News Magazine)
Critic LLOYD SCHWARTZ looks at the
state of opera in the Massachusetts capital.
Though Boston has from time to time been a
major international opera center, those periods never lasted. The celebrated
Boston Opera Company, which had many of the world's greatest singers on its
roster and a major conductor (Felix Weingartner), lasted only six years
(1909–15). Its jewel of an opera house went unused for decades and was torn
down in 1958. Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston had a better run,
thirty-two years, before its last gasp in 1990 (with a world premiere — the
late Robert DiDomenica's Balcony). Peter Sellars staged some of his most
exciting and innovative productions in and around Boston, but when he tried to
form an opera company, Boston Opera Theater, it collapsed after one production,
despite spectacular reviews and sold-out houses for his celebrated Nozze di
Figaro set in Trump Tower. Currently, Boston is still reeling from the sudden
demise in 2011, in mid-season, of Opera Boston, which for eight years attracted
the most serious and curious opera-lovers; the company was just about to
produce the first Boston staging of Michael Tippett's dreamy allegory The
Midsummer Marriage.
It's a mystery why such visionary companies have failed,
while Boston Lyric Opera, which has a checkered history of misguided
productions, slouches toward its thirty-eighth year. There are lots of
theories. Boston, people say, with its world-class and well-endowed symphony
orchestra and art museum, is simply not an opera town; except for supporting
the Metropolitan Opera tours, its "Society" movers and shakers have
had little interest in opera. Is opera too sexy for Puritanical Boston? Or too
expensive for Brahmin penny-pinchers? Or too risky for corporate support? Opera
is the most collaborative art form — some element or other is more likely to go
wrong in an opera than in a symphony. Boston is musically conservative; the
vast majority of BSO audiences prefer Brahms to Bartók. In 1986, Caldwell gave
Boston its first Janácˇek opera, The Makropulos Case, starring Anja Silja, with
glamorous black-and-white costumes designed by couturier Alfred Fiandaca. It
was a dazzling production of a gripping work. It got rave reviews and a lot of
publicity. But it didn't fill the house.
Some people blame Boston's lack of a proper venue for
opera. Caldwell bought and renovated an old vaudeville house and called it the
Opera House, but it was more adequate for the audience than for the
participants. BLO uses the cramped, acoustically challenged Shubert Theatre,
designed for plays and out-of-town musical-comedy tryouts. Audiences are
uncomfortable, but they still come to undistinguished productions of La Bohème
and Tosca. Perhaps artistic temperament doesn't jibe with the need to run a
tight ship. What made Caldwell's and Sellars's productions memorable, even
great, was their intense focus on the stage. Caldwell was notorious for her
last-minute revising. In the deepest way, these two artists weren't interested
in money. A student of Boris Goldovsky and a disciple of Walter Felsenstein,
Caldwell believed in opera as drama. Though she often ran over budget, her
budgets were remarkably low. Unfortunately, she also wanted to conduct, and
that was often a distraction from her theatrical imagination. Yet her innate
musicality meant that she was almost invariably serving the music.
For several decades, Caldwell built an audience that
would follow her to gymnasiums and flower markets and movie theaters, to see
not only Bohème and Traviata but the first American performance of Schoenberg's
Moses und Aron. Her unforgettable opening tableau, with Donald Gramm and
Richard Lewis as the two brothers standing back-to-back in a pool of light, was
an indelible image that illuminated the central theme of this recalcitrant
opera better than anything else I've ever seen or read. She directed American
premieres of Prokofiev's War and Peace, Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, Rameau's
Hippolyte et Aricie, Boris Godunov with Mussorgsky's original orchestration,
Verdi's original French version of Don Carlos, and such challenging
contemporary works as Luigi Nono's Intolleranza, Peter Maxwell Davies's
Taverner and Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Soldaten.
There were, inevitably, missteps in her handling of
budgets, which alienated donors. Ditto her handling of artists. Joan Sutherland
sang several of her most important roles in Boston, but when the prima donna
discovered that Caldwell had sold tickets for the dress rehearsal of Traviata
without telling her, that became Sutherland's last Caldwell production. Was
Caldwell just not paying attention when she had the townswomen in Fidelio greet
their long-imprisoned husbands with babies in their arms? Productions became
less and less inspired, and her financial woes increased.
One possible path to salvation for Caldwell was her brief
association with Sellars, the last stage director to make a significant mark in
Boston. Sellars started doing opera while he was still a Harvard undergraduate.
His four-hour-long Ring cycle, at the Loeb Drama Center (soon home to the
American Repertory Theater) had more memorable images per minute than most
complete Rings. Between 1980, when he directed his first Don Giovanni, in New
Hampshire, with witty Edwardian sets and costumes by Edward Gorey, and 1987,
when Caldwell included Sellars's masterpiece, Handel's Giulio Cesare, in the
Opera Company's subscription season, Sellars had been collaborating with
Emmanuel Music director Craig Smith on their now famous Handel and Mozart
productions, which dug deeper into the works than most productions do, and
always with a profound musicality. Their Mozart wasn't prissy; their Handel
wasn't stodgy. Orlando — set at Cape Canaveral and on Mars — was part of Robert
Brustein's American Repertory Theater season and had more performances than
Handel's original.
Sellars and Smith were also gathering a stock company of
inspired singing actors — including Susan Larson, Lorraine Hunt (not yet
Lieberson), Jeffrey Gall, James Maddalena and Sanford Sylvan — who
"got" and embodied what their directors were up to. Not every critic
approved, but these were productions everyone had to see. Wanted to see.
But Caldwell and Sellars were not an ideal match. There
were charges and countercharges of condescension and insubordination. Neither
had ever had a rival. A plan to have Sellars codirect the Opera Company came to
nothing. In 1990, Sellars and Smith inaugurated a new company, Boston Opera
Theater, with Le Nozze di Figaro set in Trump Tower. Had so many ticket-buyers
ever lined up for any opera in Boston? But because it was staged at Boston's
legendary Colonial Theatre, a union house (in which the stage crew got paid
even when there was no performance), BOT lost a fortune and went bust.
One response to Caldwell's hegemony was the sprouting up
of small splinter groups. Boston's current leading company, Boston Lyric Opera,
began in 1977 as the consolidation of some of these, several of which, such as
Associate Artists Opera and the New England Chamber Opera Group, were quite ambitious.
But BLO remains a promising enterprise that rarely fulfills its promise. For
one thing, it's been mainly managers, not practicing artists, who have been in
charge. Janice Mancini Del Sesto, BLO's general director between 1992 and 2007,
was originally a singer, but her greater talent seemed to be as an arts
"organizer." Her predecessors included John Balme, a conductor with
little evident instinct for how opera works onstage, Anne Ewers and Justin
Moss. In its three decades, despite the presence of talented individuals such
as its music director of sixteen years, Stephen Lord, BLO has demonstrated no
consistent ambition apart from "let's put on an opera" and is admired
less for its productions than for its fundraising.
The company's occasional good ideas rarely led to any
follow-through. In 1990, around the time that Caldwell's OCB folded, Moss began
a program to revive an American opera every season. There were solid,
unimaginative productions of Blitzstein's Regina and Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars,
then two operas for which "revival" was merely a euphemism — Carlisle
Floyd's Wuthering Heights and Stephen Paulus's Postman Always Rings Twice. In
1992, at the close of Moss's tenure, BLO cosponsored a workshop of an opera in
progress by Robert Aldridge with a libretto by Herschel Garfein based on
Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry. There was a public performance of excerpts, with
Lorraine Hunt hair-raising as the evangelist Sharon Falconer, and two years
later another workshop performance. BLO promised a full production but dropped
both this project (Del Sesto said the decision was "financial rather than
artistic") and its American opera commitment, though occasional American
operas have turned up in later seasons. At least Hunt returned in several major
roles — Berlioz's Béatrice, Handel's Xerxes and her only complete Carmen.
Perhaps Del Sesto's best idea was "Carmen on the
Common" — two free public stagings of Bizet's popular masterpiece on
Boston Common in 2002, with an appealing young cast. More than 100,000 people
attended. Aida was to have been next. But Del Sesto, for once, couldn't raise
the necessary funding, and the whole idea was abandoned.
What BLO has consistently lacked is the creativity to
make something special out of limited resources. Some productions were
borrowed; some used scenery from one company and costumes from another; many
were significantly cut (Carmen withouta "Chansonbohème"!).
Productions veered between the conventional and the cockamamie.
Esther Nelson, who succeeded Del Sesto in 2008 and serves
as the company's general and artistic director, initiated a program known as
"Opera Annex," which presents one non-standard work per season in an
unusual venue. BLO's finest moment was last year's production of Peter Maxwell
Davies's chilling ghost-story The Lighthouse, at the JFK Library on Boston
Harbor. Director Tim Albery turned the awkward auditorium into an abandoned
island surrounded by buoys, with aisles covered in guano-painted tarps. At the
climax, the glaring light of a real lighthouse just outside the library was
spine-chilling. After three decades, finally — a real gesamtkunstwerk.
Other efforts have not been so successful. A 2010
"Opera Annex" revival of The Turn of the Screw at an armory had a
huge closed-circuit TV screen showing what was "happening" offstage —
draining its mystery. This season, the cast of Così Fan Tutte had to learn an
unsingable 1890 English translation ("Cease not, remorseless love!"),
compounding rather than eliminating the need for supertitles; and The Flying
Dutchman, copying a concept from Bayreuth, had two younger, silent Sentas
wandering about, confusing the action and ignoring the music. During the
sea-swept overture, in which Wagner depicts the Dutchman's ship crashing
through the waves, the director gave us a young Senta wiping the blood around
her mother's corpse.
Years earlier, some key members of the BLO board, fed up
with the repertoire and low standards, jumped ship to support the Boston
Academy of Music, founded by tenor Richard Conrad in 1980. Conrad had both a
clear vision and a vivid theatrical imagination. On limited budgets, BAM
produced both grand and light opera — from Donizetti's rare Linda di Chamounix,
with soprano Elizabeth Parcells, to an even rarer staging of the Kurt Weill–Ira
Gershwin Lady in the Dark, with Delores Ziegler doing a star turn. But in 2002,
after twenty-two years, Conrad was ousted by his own board, which was evidently
tired and fearful of supporting an essentially one-man operation. BAM morphed
into Opera Boston.
Still performing at the tiny Majestic, an elegantly
restored 1903 opera and vaudeville house, Opera Boston, under the direction of
Carole Charnow, became the go-to company for opera-lovers tired of Tosca. Opera
Boston's repertory was an impressive mix of obscurer classics (Donizetti's
Lucrezia Borgia, Gluck's Alceste, Rossini's Tancredi, Verdi's Luisa Miller) and
daring modern works, including an inspired production of Shostakovich's
savagely satiric The Nose, before the Met got to it. The company's Opera
Unlimited series of even newer operas was mainly the inspiration of Opera
Boston's music director, Gil Rose, an opera conductor who actually embraces new
music. (He also leads "BMOP" — the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.)
Rose included such exciting pieces as Thomas Adès's dark sexual melodrama
Powder Her Face and John Harbison's haunting setting of Yeats's one-act ritual
play Full Moon in March.
Opera Boston's biggest coup was the Boston premiere in
2004 of John Adams's Nixon in China, which it got to do, according to Richard
Dyer — the distinguished former classical-music critic of the Boston Globe (who
was briefly employed by Opera Boston after his retirement) — "because Jan
Del Sesto refused to accept Stephen Lord's plan to do it at the Lyric."
This created the Opera Boston image and the widespread opinion that Opera
Boston was the artistically adventurous company, though Dyer points out that
this is an oversimplification in both directions: "The unforeseen benefit
of having two companies was that each of them became better because of the
presence of the other." In 2010, Opera Boston gave the world premiere of
Zhou Long's Madame White Snake. Neither Cerise Lim Jacobs's libretto (part
Chinese folk-speak, part contemporary psychobabble) nor Zhou Long's colorfully
orchestrated mixture of ancient Chinese and modern orchestral sounds escaped
banality, but it won a Pulitzer Prize.
Then came the unthinkable. In 2011, shortly before Opera
Boston's scheduled Midsummer Marriage and less than a year into the tenure of
its new general director, Lesley Koenig, the trustees shut it down. The company
had no endowment (not for want of trying on Charnow's part) and was losing
money. Randolph Fuller, president emeritus, had been supporting Opera Boston
since its inception, providing as much as twenty percent of its annual
operating budget in some seasons. The accumulated deficit, according to the
final auditor's total, was more than $1 million. The board was in shock. So was
the community. (Boston mayor Thomas Menino wanted to know why the company
didn't appeal to him for help.) Fuller then put up the money for a memorable
concert version of the Tippett, with Rose conducting BMOP, which Opera Boston
subscribers could attend free of charge. But as Dyer asks, "Why could one
imagine that Boston could support two opera companies when in fact it has never
adequately supported one?"
Recently, there was potentially good news: Gil Rose has
announced the  formation of a new company — Odyssey Opera of Boston. The
idea is not to compete with BLO (which, he says, may have been one source of
Opera Boston's downfall). Every fall, Odyssey means to do a concert version of
a grand opera too big to stage in Boston. Its first, this month, will be no
less than Wagner's early epic Rienzi, with the powerhouse Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt in his American debut.
Then, in late spring, there would be three or four fully staged chamber-scale operas. (Under consideration are works by Haydn, Bizet,
Adolphe Adam, Martinů and Philip Glass.) Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony
Orchestra, the Boston Early Music Festival and ART will have their occasional
high-end offerings, and a handful of small chamber groups (Intermezzo, Guerilla
Opera, Opera Hub, Boston Opera Collaborative, Commonwealth Lyric Theatre) will
continue to put on some of the liveliest, most innovative productions in town.
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