Sunday, July 18, 2010


Boston's Women of Opera and Arts, Part One

Recent news that the heads of several companies are stepping down to take on new or, at least, different challenges caused me to realize that opera in Boston has been presented and managed almost exclusively by women since World War II, the city's major concert, music and dance series for a transforming decade and a half.

Boston had an active operatic life way back into the mid 19th century at least. In 1909, the Boston Opera House was built just two blocks from Symphony Hall with a stage exactly the dimensions of the then twenty-five old Metropolitan Opera in New York City, so that MET productions could be shipped by rail to Boston for performances there (for a century, the maximum width of a scenic flat was 5'-9" because that was the largest that would fit through a boxcar door). Performances ceased some time in the 1940s. Northeastern University got the opera house declared structurally unsound (it wasn't -- it is widely believed that some shady deals were done between the University and the City of Boston) during the post-war urban renewal mania in 1958 to build a parking lot, now a dormitory. There had been little major opera except the Metropolitan's one week stand during its post-season national tour, until this lady appeared on the scene.

Sarah Caldwell came to Boston in 1952 after growing up a musical prodigy, with early experience directing operas. She progressed from heading Boston University's Opera Workshop, to audaciously producing Wagner's huge Die Meistersinger in a town not noted as a Wagner audience, to founding Boston Opera Group in 1958 with an outdoor production of an Offenbach operetta so successful it was invited to play on the White House grounds for President Eisenhower and his guests. She was on the map.

It would take a series of blog posts adequately to profile Caldwell, a genuine visionary who produced brand new operas, a huge number of U.S, premieres of important 20th century works ignored by the Metropolitan and other American companies, and many operas in their original versions, works that had been changed or obscured for decades by the tinkering of other hands. In the process she attracted some of the world's greatest singers who were anxious to find new dimensions in the roles they sang under her direction. All this in a decaying 3500 seat former Lowe's movie palace with an inadequate stage, orchestra pit and backstage facilities. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Caldwell was so obsessed by opera and her work that she ran the company, researched scores, and directed and conducted virtually every production. Normal everyday concerns such as personal grooming and hygiene, adequate sleep and diet, competent financial management of the company, and delegation of responsibility to qualified assistants weren't on the lady's radar. Legends abound to this day, most perfectly true. By the 1990 season (when Leonard Bernstein knelt before her on stage, kissing her hand following a tremendous production of his Mass) the company was bankrupt, the Feds were moving in to examine the books, and she defaulted on any further productions -- AFTER having collected subscribers' money for the next year's season, and angering the Boston banking brain trust known as "The Vault", which in turn muddied the waters for other music and theater companies seeking loans to sustain their work.

Many years later after a time spent in Siberia -- literally -- Sarah returned to Boston to pitch a revived company in a renovated theater if the city would just please fork over large amounts of cash. Boston refused; it was over. But for the better part of three decades, Boston Opera was one of the great opera companies of the world.

Martha H. Jones, Marty affectionately, will have run the Boston Celebrity Series for 15 years when she retires to take up free-lance arts consultation -- a career for which she is superbly equipped -- at the end of this coming season. A willowy, energetic, casually elegant figure as she comes before the curtain to welcome an audience warmly and tell them in no uncertain terms to turn off their electronics, Jones has kept the Series going through a couple of changes of corporate sponsorship as well as the economic crisis, and expanded its mission to include emerging artists who are presented at smaller venues at very attractive prices. She has also added audience development programs in which particular works are analyzed, and educational programs.

The annual offerings are the usual eclectic mix of big orchestras from around the world, chamber ensembles, world music, dance (always anchored by a one week stand from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater), classical and popular vocal and instrumental recitals, performance groups from Stomp to the Kodo Drummers of Japan and Vienna Choir Boys, and "conversations evenings" featuring icons such as Stephen Sondheim interviewed by Frank Rich.

Marty has always been accessible to the Series' audiences, greeting people before or saying good-bye after performances in the lobby. And she's open to suggestion about artists to bring in future seasons; one friend of mine who recommends opera and concert singers who would be both artistically rewarding and good box office, has seen several of his suggestions presented by the Series. Marty always promotes class acts, but the classiest act may well be Martha Jones herself.
Phyllis Curtin remains one of America's most prominent singers long after her active career on the stage has ended. Known for the silvery beauty of her voice, her impeccable musicianship, and statuesque elegance on stage, she created several characters in world premieres, most notably the title role in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. After her retirement from the stage she joined the music faculty at Boston University (under whose auspices she had made her operatic debut in 1946) and became Dean for the Arts in 1983.

In 1987 Curtin founded the B.U. Opera Institute, a performance-based program to provide postgraduate-level students with two years of intensive training in voice, repertoire coaching, Italian conversation, acting, and movement (stage combat, ballet, period styles, commedia, Alexander Technique), business strategies, social protocols for the artist, audition techniques, and networking. It's the agenda of a hard-working, highly accomplished artist and it pays off. Only 12 students annually are admitted and the results I have seen are impressive. Voices emerge from the Institute clear, unforced, well balanced (Curtain's own vocal technique was rock solid, leading to a 36 year career ending at age 61).

The young singers get lots of stage time in main stage productions of standard repertory and in Fringe Festival performances of more arcane fare "in the round" or in other "environmental" stagings at B.U.'s black box studio theater. Several singers I saw in lead roles within the last decade are now with major companies including the Metropolitan, Chicago and San Francisco Operas, the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, and other companies internationally.

To be continued . . . .

So fascinating... looking forward to the rest.
I love stories like this;
Anna Russell said the drama doesn't always happen on this side of the foot lights.
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